What Is a Nature-Inspired Playground, and How Can It Promote New Forms of Play?

There’s no substitute for time spent playing, learning, and discovering in nature. And yet, many children today are more disconnected from the outside world than ever. On average, American kids get around five to seven hours of screen time a day. Activities like watching TV, playing video games, and using a computer or smartphone keep kids sedentary. While technology can be beneficial, kids still need to play and engage with the outside world.

Playgrounds are an excellent tool for getting kids outside, keeping them active and healthy, and helping them develop cognitively and emotionally. Specifically, natural playgrounds are an innovative design choice that blends natural elements and modern playgrounds so kids can explore the world around them while playing and engaging in new experiences. Learn more about nature-based playgrounds and how they can foster discovery and new forms of play with the complete guide below.

What Is a Nature-Inspired Playground?

A nature-inspired playground is a play area featuring natural looking elements that feel integrated with the outdoor landscape. For example, nature-inspired playground elements may include:

  • Rope bridges
  • Treehouses
  • Streams
  • Boulders
  • Plants
  • Hollow logs
  • Tree stumps
  • Small hills or mounds
  • Shelters

While even a brief stint spent outside can have mental health benefits, nature-inspired playgrounds maximize time spent outside, connecting with greenery, fresh air, and unspoiled beauty. Typically, you’ll find these features scattered throughout a significant amount of open space. Equipment in these playgrounds also tends to have more open-ended uses. With a hollowed-out log, a child could crawl inside, balance on top, or hop over it.

An excellent approach to creating nature-inspired playgrounds includes using a healthy mix of synthetic and organic items. Sometimes, a pure, all-natural park isn’t as exciting as it could be, but contemporary parks tend to feel sterile and lack the benefits of nature. By meeting in the middle, you get both.

Nature-inspired playgrounds are especially beneficial for urban areas that lack green space. This deliberate injection of nature is an ideal way to expose children to the natural world, which might be scarce in their regular lives. While a whole park or large nature preserve may not be feasible for your city, a nature-inspired playground can allow kids to engage with nature, regardless of its size.

Benefits of Nature-Inspired Playgrounds


As outdoor play offers some valuable benefits to children, it’s crucial to find innovative and engaging ways to get kids back outside. The physical exercise, social interactions, and learning opportunities enjoyed on the playground can all contribute to a healthy and happy child. According to the National Recreation and Park Association, modern American children only spend about four to seven minutes daily on unstructured outdoor play — that’s less than any previous generation.

As a whole, nature-inspired playgrounds offer various advantages over traditional structures. Some of the specific benefits of a nature-inspired playground design include increased physical and cognitive development, improved emotional well-being, boosted environmental awareness, and greater aesthetic appeal.

Increased Physical Development and Health

Studies have shown that kids become more active when playing in nature play areas. Increased physical activity helps kids develop motor skills and strengthen their bodies, while reducing their risk of obesity and heart disease.

Additionally, as kids get out of the house and into nature, they can strengthen their immune systems to fight common illnesses. Being outside in the sun instead of inside with a screen also exposes kids to more vitamin D, which is essential for several bodily functions — specifically, bone and immune system development, brain functioning, and mood regulation.

Enhanced Cognitive Development and Creativity

Nature-inspired playgrounds impact more than kids’ physical health. They also improve cognitive functioning. Spending time in nature helps kids build on their problem-solving abilities, creativity, attention span, and more. Through outdoor play, kids safely explore the world around them.

Nature-inspired playground fixtures are less structured, which forces children to get creative. They might problem-solve or use their imaginations to turn found objects into toys. Without playthings that strictly tell them what to do, they are free to let their creativity run wild. Plus, they can socialize with other kids as they do so, which helps develop their communication skills and introduces them to social interactions with non-family members.

Improved Emotional Well-Being

Spending time immersed in nature can benefit children and adults alike. Interacting with nature can reduce anxiety, stress, and even depression symptoms. Even viewing images of nature while indoors can provide physiological relaxation. Children who struggle with anxiety or depression are likely to experience a boost in their mood and a reduction in negative feelings when they spend time in nature. Specifically, kids can experience increased calmness, happiness, and overall improved emotional well-being when they regularly spend time outdoors.

Nature-inspired playgrounds allow kids to maximize their time outside — physically and mentally. With an emphasis on nature in the playground design, kids will reap the benefits of being outdoors while they enjoy physical play.

Boosted Environmental Awareness

Kids who spend time in nature are more likely to develop a connection and appreciation for the world around them. Being in the presence of nature can put them in touch with their surroundings and can even help them develop a passion for environmental conservation. As kids continue to grow up around nature, they may be more likely to favor sustainable and eco-friendly habits.

Greater Aesthetic Appeal and Community Impact

Nature-inspired playgrounds can present a combination of wide-ranging skill sets and positive attributes for child development. While they can blend motor skills with creativity and socialization, they’re also highly enjoyable and aesthetically pleasing. After all, many people find beauty in nature, so why not include it in your structure?

Beautifully designed nature-inspired playgrounds can draw in local families and increase the foot traffic in the playground area. Busy and well-loved playgrounds can positively impact the community. By providing a gathering space, nature-inspired playgrounds can produce safer, more engaged communities. That’s right — playgrounds are not only beneficial for kids. Adults can also enjoy a well-designed playground.

Homes near naturalistic and open spaces can increase in value, higher foot traffic can lead to successful businesses, and busy playgrounds can facilitate relationships and spur increased interest in the area, to name a few benefits. An accessible, inviting playground can become a hub for local families and add visual appeal to any neighborhood.

How Do Nature-Inspired Playgrounds Promote New Forms of Play?

Nature-inspired playgrounds can be especially effective at encouraging children to exercise their bodies and imaginations in new ways. When the playground is a bit less structured, children may be more likely to engage in self-directed free play, which depends on children’s imaginations rather than predetermined steps or rules.

A stream running through a nature-inspired playground doesn’t come with instructions, but many children will quickly intuit that it might be fun to splash around, skip stones, or make an ordinary leaf into a boat and watch it sail away. With a nature-inspired climbing structure, children may imagine they’re scaling a mountain or create a game out of seeing how fast they can reach the top. Meanwhile, open space can turn into a battleground where kids slay a dragon or perform a dance routine for a sold-out show — when it comes to free play, the options are virtually endless.

Additionally, unstructured play helps kids learn independence, strengthen their creativity, and assert themselves. There are no right or wrong ways to play on a nature-inspired playground, so kids are free to follow their instincts. Without feeling bound to rules or specific types of play, kids can explore the world around them and discover new interests.

Some kids may find traditional play structures uninspiring after only a few visits. Luckily, with nature-inspired playgrounds, kids will learn there is no limit to creativity and fun. Whether they choose to climb, swing, or run in the grass, nature-inspired playgrounds support and encourage all types of play — especially free play.

Why Is Free Play Important?

Nature-inspired playgrounds encourage free play, where children learn valuable life skills such as communication, creativity, problem-solving, and independence. Children are constantly following directions from parents, teachers, and other adults, so playgrounds let them explore making choices in a controlled environment. In other words, free play allows kids to be themselves through playing, socializing, and having fun.

Kids can play alone or join a group and make friends. Independent free play can help kids learn how to entertain themselves and find wonder in their environment. For young children, playgrounds are a good way to start socializing. Social free play can help kids learn crucial social skills like communicating, leading, following, and making compromises.

Additionally, kids of all ages and abilities can enjoy unstructured playtime. A space such as a nature-inspired playground that encourages spontaneous play is ideal for children and families. Kids of all ages can find something of interest to entertain them, and as kids age and mature, they will use the playground in new ways. Nature-inspired playgrounds are versatile enough to accommodate kids’ changing interests.

How to Design a Nature-Inspired Playground

While nature playgrounds may feel like rustic landscapes, in reality, they require careful planning, design, and construction. So, how can you design a nature-inspired playground? Consider the following design decisions.

Choose Between Organic and Synthetic Equipment

Natural-feeling structures are central to a natural playground, but it does not mean your playground needs to consist completely of natural elements. When selecting play equipment for a nature playground, you can choose between natural materials and synthetic materials that mimic the colors and textures of nature. Earth tones and textures help make the synthetic fixtures feel natural and blend in nicely with the environment.

Synthetic materials can be safer, more durable, and easier to maintain. For example, consider a faux wood log tunnel. It won’t cause splinters, plus it’s much more viable for long-term use than natural products that could rot over time. You can find playground equipment that looks just like the real thing with the added benefits that come from using synthetic play materials.

Highlight Nature Through the Landscaping

While synthetic materials may be better for the playground equipment, you can also bring natural elements into the playground’s landscaping. Incorporating a sandpit, a water feature, and some plants can go a long way toward making your playground feel like a beautiful oasis. Additionally, you may want to opt for natural materials, like stones, to edge pathways or to serve as a border for the playground area.

Include Plenty of Open Space

Nature-inspired play areas should promote free play, and to do that well, they should include wide-open spaces where children can get creative and enjoy some physical activity. They may want to play a game of tag, imagine they’re on a safari, or simply explore. Including open spaces in addition to traditional playground equipment can allow children to roam within the play area but still feel free.

Keep Sensory Elements in Mind

Nature themed playgrounds are a great place to use sensory activities. Equipment or elements like plants that kids can touch, water they can feel, and lightweight items they can pick up and play with are all excellent additions to nature-inspired playgrounds. Sensory elements let kids learn about nature in a hands-on way. Plus, sensory play is great for cognitive development.

Kids learn about the world and themselves through their senses. With interactive nature features available, kids will explore, engage, problem-solve, and even develop their gross motor skills.

Choose a Theme

A nature-inspired playground can still have a motif or storytelling aspect — if you choose a nature-based theme. Consider creating a fairy garden, jungle, or dinosaur-themed playground to bring the natural elements to life. A theme can keep your playground design cohesive and fun while bringing nature to the forefront. Fun or whimsical themes can also spark kids’ creativity and get them excited to play.

Use Nature-Inspired Playground Equipment

Nature-inspired playgrounds will still need a helping hand from commercial outdoor play equipment to ensure kids maximize their playground experience. Play structures and natural elements present kids with various play options.

To kick-start your natural looking playground ideas, here are some of the nature-inspired products we offer at Little Tikes Commercial.

  • Plank Climb: Kids can use rustic faux wooden planks attached to an angular ramp to climb up to different parts of a structure.
  • NU-Edge X Lumberjack Climber: In this fixture, small “logs” protrude from a wall, and kids can use them to climb up and onto a structure. The Lumberjack Climber offers the look of real wood while also being functional as play equipment.
  • NU-Edge Clubhouse: For a treehouse-like feeling, kids can climb up a ladder into this “wood”-enclosed space, where they can access other parts of the playground or hang out in the shade.
  • NU-Edge Crawl Log: Children can crawl through and on top of this simple, tunnel-like structure that is designed to look and feel just like a log.
  • Stacked timber wall: The Stacked Timber Wall is a bit like a rock wall, but more natural looking. Boards of “wood” stick out at different heights for kids to use as hand- and footholds to climb their way to the top.
  • NU-Edge Plank Bridge Climber: For a fun balance challenge, the NU-Edge Plank Bridge Climber has kids walk across a bridge of faux wooden planks and rope connections.

Combining these elements with things like small water fountains and plant life can take your nature-inspired play area to the next level. Kids can touch the water and watch the plants grow and change over time. Adding natural sensory elements can help children learn more about how these features work and make them more experiential. We also offer custom-themed play areas, such as dinosaur-themed playgrounds, to spark children’s creativity and imagination.

Design Your Nature-Inspired Playground With Equipment From Little Tikes Commercial

Whether you’re working on a city playground, rural playground, childcare facility, or a faith organization, you can use your playground-building opportunity to help include nature in kids’ lives. And our team at Little Tikes Commercial can help.

With our NU-Edge and Naturtek systems and a wide variety of nature-based activities, Little Tikes Commercial has the tools to create compelling, nature-inspired playgrounds that help kids learn, grow, and play. A nature-based play area can improve kids’ health, boost their imaginations, keep them playing for longer, and educate them on the wonderful world around them.

To learn more about working with Little Tikes Commercial and how our products can help you make the best playground possible, contact a representative today.