Little girl at top of slide before going down

What Is a Natural Playground and How Can It Promote New Forms of Play?

There’s no real substitute for time spent playing, learning, and discovering in nature. And yet, many children today are more disconnected from nature than ever. Natural playgrounds are an innovative design choice that can offer new opportunities for children to use their imaginations and have fun. Learn more about these playgrounds and how they can foster discovery and new forms of play.

What Is a Natural Playground?

A natural playground, or nature playground, is a play area featuring natural elements that feel integrated with the outdoor landscape. For example, a natural playground might include elements like a:

  • Rope bridge
  • Treehouse
  • Stream
  • Boulders
  • Plants
  • Hollow logs

Natural playgrounds are essentially designed to make time outside really feel like time spent in nature. Equipment in these playgrounds also tends to be more open-ended in how it should be used. With a hollowed-out log, a child could choose to crawl inside, balance on top, or hop over it.

The benefits of natural playgrounds are tied to the benefits of playgrounds more broadly and to the advantages of time spent in nature.

According to the National Recreation and Park Association (NRPA), modern American children spend an average of just 4-7 minutes per day on unstructured outdoor play — that’s less than any previous generation. Outdoor play offers some valuable benefits to children. The physical exercise, social interactions, and learning opportunities enjoyed on the playground can all contribute to a healthy and happy child.

Spending time immersed in nature can also be beneficial to children and adults alike. Even just 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. Plus, for all children, being in the presence of nature can help them feel more connected to the world around them and can even help them develop a passion for environmental conservation.

How to Design a Nature Playground

While nature playgrounds may feel like rustic landscapes, in reality, they are carefully designed and constructed. So, how can you design a natural playground? Consider the following design decisions:

  • Choose between organic and synthetic equipment: 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. Synthetic materials can be safer and more durable, and they don’t have to look artificial. You can find playground equipment that looks just like the real thing — like a faux wood log tunnel, for example.
  • Highlight nature through the landscaping: You can also bring in natural elements in 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 natural oasis. 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: Natural 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 playground equipment can allow children to roam within the play area but still feel free.

How Do Nature Inspired Playgrounds Promote New Forms of Play?

Natural playgrounds can be especially effective at encouraging children to exercise both 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. Free play is unstructured play that depends on children’s imaginations rather than predetermined steps or rules.

A stream running through a natural playground doesn’t tell the children what to do to interact with this feature. But many children will figure out on their own that it might be fun to splash around, skip stones, or make an ordinary leaf into a boat and watch it sail away. Whatever they choose to do, it’s their free choice. With a natural climbing structure, children may imagine they’re scaling a mountain or create a game out of seeing how fast they can reach the top.

Why Is Free Play Important?

All types of play have value. Compared to structured forms of play, free play offers some unique benefits. Free play gives children space to use their imaginations and express themselves on the playground. They can make up new activities or simply roam free. Childhoods today have become increasingly structured. With busy schedules and long hours spent in classrooms or at computers, children need time to simply be children and enjoy the great outdoors.

Children can engage in free play alone or with others. Independent free play can help kids learn how to entertain themselves and find wonder in their environment. Social free play can help kids learn crucial social skills like communicating, leading, following, and making compromises. Overall, free play can help kids exercise their creativity and further their physical, cognitive, emotional, and social development.

Risks of Natural Playgrounds

There are both positive and negative aspects to risks on a nature playground. Playing on a playground of any kind can introduce some level of risk for a scraped knee, sore bottom or — in some cases — something more serious. Risk taking, within certain parameters, is a healthy part of childhood and can help build a child’s self-confidence. Natural playgrounds can encourage healthy risk-taking by giving children opportunities to crawl, swing, and climb their way to fun.

Playground designers should look for ways to remove unnecessary safety risks, however. Playground surfacing should help diffuse a fall rather than contribute to injury. Some natural playgrounds offer little by way of safety features. A child who falls from a tree may hit hard ground, for example. Wooden materials can also include sharp spots and can cause splinters. Because of the greater risk and potential liability issues involved in natural playgrounds, they are less common in the U.S. than in other countries.

An excellent solution to these issues is to use commercial playground equipment that is designed with safety in mind but mirrors the look and feel of natural materials. This way, you can capitalize on the benefits of both rustic and modern playgrounds.

Capture the Feeling of Nature With a Custom Themed Playground

Nature-inspired playgrounds can bring the wonders of nature back into childhood. For nature-inspired playgrounds made of safe, durable materials, consider the NU-Edge and Naturtek systems from Little Tikes Commercial. We make it easy for you to create a custom playground that fits your desired theme. To get started creating your commercial playground inspired by nature, request a quote from our team.