Natural elements inspire open-ended play and resilience in children.

What is a natural playground?

Picture a sterile, rubberized parking lot filled with metal seesaws and plastic slides. A chain link fence keeps it all contained. Now picture a wild forest with trees and boulders to climb, hills to slide down and mud to dig and explore. This second option is a feast for the senses.

A natural playground falls close to the second option, combining the built environment of traditional playgrounds with the textures, open-ended play and sensory experiences of a natural forest.

Why natural play?

Natural playgrounds mimic the experiences kids would normally have in nature, providing the type of open-ended play that structured activities and screen time don’t offer. Today’s children spend more than twice as much time indoors as their parents did when they were kids. Natural playscapes help reconnect children with the great outdoors–and along the way, themselves.

They also have other benefits.

According to the Children & Nature Network, spending time playing outdoors while engaging in the open-ended activities:

  • Helps children focus (reducing ADHD symptoms)
  • Inspires creativity and cooperative play
  • Improves intelligence, happiness and health

Like conventional playgrounds, natural play spaces inspire and support unstructured play. Unlike conventional set-ups, they also help imaginations run wild and fully engage the senses.

Related: Why Nature Play is More Important Than Ever

boys leaning against tree in backyard playground

What elements do you find in a natural playscape?

While many communities are replacing concrete-and-metal with natural structures built to last, you don’t need a huge budget to bring nature play home. If your backyard is a wasteland of sod and gravel, consider simple, natural materials combined with the following nature inspired elements:

  • Rocks and boulders
  • Tree stumps
  • Loose materials
  • Digging spaces
  • Water features
  • Simple shelters
  • Small hills, mounds or berms
  • Sensory or cottage gardens

What about risk? Are natural playgrounds safe?

Some parents worry that introducing natural playground equipment and other materials into the backyard will bring more risk to children. After all, traditional equipment comes with safeguards and regulated materials.

It’s true that manufactured play structures are safety tested and age-rated, making accidents less likely, but all risk isn’t necessarily bad. Scientists who study play have determined that children who engage in ‘risky play’ develop strong risk management skills. They may also become more self-confident and resilient than children who play without the opportunity to test themselves with things like heights, speed and natural elements.

Related: Can School Gardens Make Our Kids Smarter?

While supervision is important no matter where children play, some public and private play spaces have become so safe, there’s little to inspire the imagination. Outdoor natural play spaces offer a healthy and safe alternative.

girl picking wildflowers

Are conventional playgrounds toxic?

Over the past four decades, playground materials and coatings have evolved as new information about chemical toxicity has emerged. While many of the chemicals listed below are not permitted in new construction, older structures could contain harmful substances.

  • Chromium copper arsenate: Once used to treat public and private play structures made from wood, chromium copper arsenate (CCA) was phased out starting in 2003.
  • Lead paint: Lead-containing paint was banned in the US back in 1978 for consumer use, but commercial lead paint is still available and finding its way into public spaces.
  • Crumb rubber: Crumb rubber is a material used in conjunction with artificial turf. Made from recycled tires, it can contain toxic chemicals and metals that children breathe in and ingest, including carcinogens.
  • Ethylbenzene and toluene: Commonly found in children’s toys and playground equipment, ethylbenzene is a known endocrine disruptor, along with toluene, which is found in paints and solvents. Both have been linked to a broad variety of health concerns.

DIY natural playground ideas

The following ideas for nature play are easy to create, plus they expose children to a variety of rich experiences that contribute to their healthy development.

  1. Backyard river system
  2. Expose children to safe water play with a dash of mud thrown in for good measure. Using a piece of wood, some water and earth, transform a small area into a laboratory for exploring erosion, gravity, sedimentation and more. Learn more and build your own backyard river system.

    Backyard River System diagram

    A backyard river system is a thrilling and simple way to engage children in outdoor play.

  3. Sensory garden
  4. Gardening with children opens up many opportunities for play–especially when the growing is just as important as the harvest. Sensory gardens are meant to be explored through touch, taste, smell and sight. Use a small space–such as a garden root-view playhouse–or expand into multiple beds using our sensory garden design. Whatever the size, fill these gardens with herbs, fruit, flowers and succulents for a sensory feast.

    sensory garden design

    A sample sensory garden design featuring plants with distinctive textures, smells, colors and tastes.

  5. DIY natural construction sets
  6. There’s a reason why building blocks have never gone out of style. Children are innately drawn to materials that are open-ended, things that encourage them to use their imaginations to create something completely new. Natural construction sets can be as simple as a bin of branches or slender logs with rocks or stones for balancing and building. Add a few pieces of rope and a sheet of burlap, and the possibilities really are endless.

    Providing open-ended and loose, natural materials lead to hours of imaginative play.

    Related: Does Your Child Need More Free Time?

  7. Forts and shelters
  8. Children love creating their own worlds and will redefine whatever space you give them to suit the day’s play. Adding a shelter, whether it’s a bean teepee, a farmer’s market stand or a wooden playhouse will add depth and possibility. If you have the space, a year-round shelter can help extend the season, making rain and snow less of an obstacle to outdoor play.

    natural cedar playhouse

    A natural cedar playhouse is one type of all-weather shelter that can extend outdoor play.

  9. Log and stump obstacle course
  10. Learning to balance, jump and walk a jagged, bumpy path is good for a child’s body and brain. If you can get your hands on a stump or a handful of slender logs, create a course of varying heights for kids to explore. Lighter pieces can be rearranged as needed and may end up encouraging children to design new games and scenarios.

    boy balancing on log stumps

    Climbing on levels of different heights develops balance, confidence and coordination.

  11. Fairy houses
  12. A nook in the yard can easily become a miniature fairy house when there’s bark, leaves, seedpods, sticks and other natural materials on hand. Finding these materials and gathering them together is part of the fun. Or you can purchase a fairy house-building kit. Making your own fairies to live in the spaces is another creative way to explore.

    DIY fairy house

    A small ‘fairy house’ can be made from natural materials picked up from the yard or from a fairy-house building kit.

  13. Compass treasure hunt
  14. In addition to building resilience and good health, nature play gives kids something else they need: the opportunity to get lost (with supervision, of course). Setting up a compass treasure hunt in your yard or neighborhood teaches the skills children need to navigate the world–and come back home again. Compass treasure hunts are suitable for individuals and groups of children. They also work perfectly as part of some school outings. Kids of any age can participate. Learning the points of direction (north, south east west) is integral to the play.

Natural play for health and fun

Whichever natural play elements you choose, your backyard can be a haven for rich and memorable childhood experiences. Stepping back from worry and welcoming a variety of natural, open-ended materials is all you need to create simple, inexpensive play.

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