When I was growing up in the small town of Hoosick Falls, NY, we were fortunate to live in a very unique location. Right next to door to our property was a large parcel of undeveloped, wooded land that was home to a stream and a pond. And right across the street from our house was an area affectionately referred to by town residents as the ‘athletic fields’. A long narrow track of land virtually devoid of trees and other vegetation, it held the town’s basketball, baseball and softball fields as well as the community playground, swimming pool, skating rink and public golf course.
Where could my friends and I typically be found? Hanging out in the cool, shady, peaceful woods. We climbed trees, dug for treasure, caught frogs and tadpoles and just did kid things. Sure, we spent our fair share of time at the athletic fields but those woods were our sanctuary.
Today, many children are completely disconnected from nature. Even if they live in a home that is beautifully landscaped, their opportunities to really interact with nature are limited. When they go outside to play, they are often confronted with a sterile, nature-free ‘play environment’ full of manufactured play equipment and not much else. While this may bring to mind images of old school or community playgrounds, the fact is many residential play spaces are fairly similar. Nature has been stripped away to make room for the fun. If there are trees or shrubs around the play area, they are often considered off-limits.
Fortunately, current design trends in community playgrounds, which are slowly filtering down to the residential level, are moving away from metal swing sets and wooden jungle gyms and towards less structured, more naturalized spaces where the existing topography, trees and shrubs of the site are integral to the play experience. Respecting the native habitat and connecting children and adults to that native habitat is a primary goal. The seasonal nuances of nature and all its inhabitants are embraced. Instead of being taboo, the natural environment is an integral part of the fun.
Here in southwestern Connecticut, an incredible example of a natural playspace can be found on the grounds of the Aspetuck Land Trust. According to ALT’s website, the Children’s Natural Playground is ‘dedicated to nurturing a love of nature and open space among children ages, 3 to 7. The playground, which comprises approximately 10,000 square feet in a meadow in the Leonard Schine nature preserve in Westport offers its youthful visitors places for fort-building, digging, tower-climbing, trail-walking, stick-stacking and arts and crafts, to name a few.’ A windy dirt path cutting through a meadow and groves of red cedar and white pines leads visitors to the playground. Ah, to be a kid again!
What’s so exciting about natural playspaces, like the Children’s Natural Playground, is that they are unstructured, interactive spaces where kids can let their imaginations run wild. Because nature is an essential part of the experience, kids begin to develop a long-term respect and appreciation for their native landscapes. Just like using native plants starts a beneficial chain reaction in a garden that is quickly amplified, creating a natural play space for kids that embraces the native habitat will do the same.
A quick peek at the Children’s Natural Playground shows how easy it is to incorporate the same design and construction principles into your own backyard, regardless of where you live.
Additional resources for more information about creating a natural playspace for your children…
Bringing Nature Into Playgrounds by Alice Webb
Last Child in the Woods by Richard Louv
© 2011 – 2013, Debbie Roberts. All rights reserved. This article is the property of Native Plants and Wildlife Gardens. If you are reading this at another site, please report that to us