Wednesday, May 12, 2010

Nature Playscapes: Magic Included at No Extra Cost

How did you like to play when you were a kid - did you climb, jump, dig holes, play hide-and-seek, dream of adventures, solve clues and puzzles, play make-believe, make a fort, tell stories, dam up water, dig in sand, jump in leaves, create art, catch bugs? Was nature the setting for any of these activities? Chances are it was!

If I asked you right now, many of you could give a detailed description of the magical moments you had as a child creating your own world in a special spot in your backyard, or playing with friends to build and defend a fort. The memories of those times often bring back the innate excitement of childhood.

Today, children have fewer opportunities than we may have had to experience play of this sort. The Champaign County Forest Preserve recognizes this and is eager to develop a Nature Playscape. Still in the planning stage, this project will provide a unique place where children can experience the wonder of nature play.

What is a Nature Playscape?

In a word, it is a landscape designed for play. Nature Playscapes use natural materials like sand, water, plants, boulders, earth mounds and more to create a dynamic, interactive play experience. They might avoid plastics, metals, concrete and other artificial materials.

Nature Playscapes are a cutting edge concept in the spirit of Leave No Child Inside initiatives and the book “Last Child in the Woods" by Richard Louv. They are play places that provide kids, families and adults the opportunity to reconnect with the natural world.

Some examples of nature playscapes include the Fontelle Nature Association in Nebraska and the Jester Park Natural Playscape in Iowa.

What are the Benefits of Playing Out in Nature?

The benefits of nature play are many and varied, building healthy individuals in mind, body and spirit. These benefits have been demonstrated through research:

· A foundation for environmental stewardship
· More creative play
· Improved motor coordination
· Enhanced emotional coping and reduced stress
· Increased concentration and impulse control
· Reduced symptoms of ADD and ADHD

For more details about these benefits, along with the research cited, please see research here.

Perhaps the most significant outcome is stewardship. As Ken Finch, President of Green Hearts Institute for Nature in Childhood says, “Among conservationists, the experience of childhood nature play is nearly ubiquitous.” Research has shown that “… participation with “wild” nature before age 11 is a particularly potent pathway toward shaping both environmental attitudes and behaviors in adulthood . . . the experience is likely to stay with them in a powerful way—shaping their subsequent environmental path.”*

What Will Homer Lake's Nature Playscape Look Like?

The Nature Playscape, to be sited at Homer Lake Forest Preserve, will provide a safe place for children of all ages and abilities to experience nature play.  Children will also encounter the flora and fauna that are representative of the Grand Prairie region in a learning atmosphere that engages the whole person.

Public input has been sought on this project, and response has been very enthusiastic. On March 30, 15 people met at Homer Lake to tour potential sites and to brainstorm ideas for the playscape. We are also planning to solicit input from children and from local experts and advocates of those with disabilities to make the playscape as accessible as possible. Input from these various groups will inform the development of a conceptual plan, slated for this summer.

 The Champaign County Forest Preserve District values natural experiences for children and the lifelong benefits those confer.  The Nature Playscape will be an important avenue to facilitate those experiences.

Pam Leiter, Coordinator of Environmental Education and Interpretation at the Champaign County Forest Preserve, is the author of this post and may be reached at or (217) 896-2455.

*Source: Nature and the Life Course: Pathways from Childhood Nature Experiences, Nancy M. Wells and Kristi S. Lekies, Cornell University, in Children, Youth and Environments, 2006

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