Last year I attended a conference on connecting children with nature. One of the topics that was presented was on nature-based play spaces. Since that time, two communities in Northwest Minnesota have stepped up and pursued the construction of nature-based play spaces in their city parks. And, others have shown interest in the concept, too.
Nature-based play spaces differ from traditional play areas in that they don’t include typical playground equipment like swings or jungle gyms. Instead they incorporate elements of nature like leaves, sticks, trees, mud or dirt, plants, grass, sand and water features, rocks, logs, gardens, and tree stumps or trunks. There are usually natural borders to the space that might be paths or shrubs.
Nature-based play spaces encourage more creative play and foster a greater connection with nature, which is especially important because children today spend so much less time outdoors in a natural environment. Imagination plays a greater role during playtime in these spaces, too. These play spaces provide children with all the benefits that spending time in nature gives them, like higher social and emotional intelligence, improved physical and mental health, a lower likelihood of obesity, less stress, higher self-esteem, and greater imaginative problem solving abilities.
On the other hand, traditional play equipment doesn’t allow for as much creativity – the focus is on climbing, hanging, and sliding and is designed for single use and limited to a narrow age range. These spaces also require less concentration or thinking, in part, because of the uniformity (for example, evenly spaced ladder rungs or steps). In contrast, nature-based spaces aren’t uniform. And, so, kids have to be more aware of their surroundings and think more to navigate.
Just to be clear, traditional play equipment is not bad or even something that should be eliminated. However, given the limited funds and space available today, it’s hard to argue in favor of traditional play equipment instead of natural play areas. Why not focus our energies and dollars on the option with the greatest gain?
At first, it can be challenging for those of us who grew up with traditional playgrounds to warm to the idea of moving away from the normal slides and jungle gyms that until now have seemed essential. But many of us were able to run free throughout our neighborhoods and create all kinds of fun from our imaginations when we were young. We spent much more time outdoors with more unstructured play. These opportunities aren’t available to most children today. And so, it makes sense to provide them with spaces that are closer to the natural world that, regrettably, is quickly fading from our daily lives.
Kristin Eggerling is a board member for Conservation Minnesota Voter Center, the mother of two, and a freelance writer in northwestern Minnesota.