Design Tips for Creating a Natural Play Space
Do you remember playing in the forest as a kid? Do you remember balancing on fallen logs, climbing the tallest tree, or building makeshift forts? Though you might not realize it, these childhood experiences had a great impact on your development. Whether it be forging lifelong friendships, or gaining an appreciation for nature, the outdoors played a vital role.
When most people think of playgrounds, they think of a swing set or a merry-go-round. But, what if we could incorporate those outdoor childhood experiences into the playground itself? Natural play spaces take the most fun parts of our environment, and applies them to a controlled setting. This includes things like rocks, logs, treehouses, and more!
However, natural play spaces have come a long way from DIY treehouses and cheap wooden playsets. There’s been decades of development since those days – especially when it comes to quality. Nowadays, there’s plenty of equipment that promotes risky play, but at the same time, adheres to modern safety standards. But first, let’s go over the benefits of nature play.
The Benefits of Nature Play
In a playground with unstructured play, kids are free to create their own scenarios and rules. This is great for children’s cognitive development, as it builds their critical thinking and decision-making skills. Natural play spaces encourage unstructured play by simulating real-world environments. This gives children the freedom to learn and explore, without predetermined rules or guidelines.
Unstructured play has many physical benefits, such as motor skill development. But, it also has a host of mental and emotional benefits. Studies show that unstructured play:
- Reduces sedentary behaviour and promotes healthy choices
- Encourages kids to be creative and use their imagination
- Teaches kids social skills through teamwork and turn-taking
- Improves kids’ emotional intelligence, empathy, and self-awareness
For previous generations, playing outdoors was an everyday occurrence. However, over the last few decades, there has been many changes to the way kids play. With the advent of technology, kids are spending more and more time in front of a screen. That’s why it’s important to create dedicated outdoor spaces where kids can interact with nature.
We know that play in general is important to child development. But what are the benefits of nature play? Natural play spaces address multiple areas of development, including:
- Physical (builds motor skills, dexterity, and hand-eye coordination)
- Social (teaches cooperation, kindness, and verbalization)
- Cognitive (improves spatial awareness and risk management)
- Mental (reduces stress, anxiety, and depression)
Perceived risk refers to the feeling of uncertainty that kids feel when they’re trying something new. This is beneficial to their development because it builds their resilience and self-confidence. However, the child isn’t actually in danger, as there’s various safeguards in place to protect them. On the playground, these safeguards include equipment standards, safety inspections, and adult supervision.
Compared to traditional parks, natural playgrounds encourage perceived risk by raising the bar for exploration. On a natural playground, children feel perceived risk when they’re:
- Crossing a swaying suspension bridge
- Tip-toeing across a log climber
- Scaling a rock-climbing wall
- Climbing a tall playground tower
How to Incorporate Nature Play
Logs and Stumps
No natural playground would be complete without logs and stumps! By far, logs and stumps are THE quintessential piece of natural play equipment. Whether you’re talking about stump steppers, tree climbers, or plank bridges, all are sure to be a hit among kids. With just a few tasteful additions, you can add a rustic feel to any playground.
And if you’re worried about quality, don’t be. Our logs and stumps are made from a proprietary material called Naturtek. Compared to wooden playground components, Naturtek products last longer, resist fading, and reduce maintenance. This is all done without sacrificing the real-life look that kids love. Overall, this leads to a safer and more fulfilling play experience!
Rocks and Boulders
Undoubtedly, rocks and boulders give a rugged edge to any playground they’re a part of. Their realistic texture is not only great for climbing, but also tactile play. Plus, some of our smaller rock climbers can be used for outdoor seating. This is especially good for toddlers, who can observe the play at a distance before joining in.
Rocks and boulders can also be used as an interesting transition between events. For example, our Hop Rocks link play structures together with a fun obstacle course. On the other hand, larger boulders provide a challenging climbing path off of the playground deck. Some of our biggest rock climbers (like our Mt. Kilimanjaro) clock in at 8 ft. tall!
Challenging, risky, and fun! What’s not to love about cargo nets? Ideal for the 5-12 age group, cargo nets are great at building balance and coordination. On a play structure with multiple decks, cargo nets provide a challenging climbing path for older children. But, you should still make sure that there’s options available for younger kids, too!
Cargo nets come in many different materials and configurations. Most commonly, cargo nets are made from rope. But, they can also be made from metal chains. In terms of configuration, cargo nets can be freestanding or attached to a playground deck. Freestanding cargo nets are better for obstacle courses, while deck-to-ground cargo nets are the more traditional option.
Without a doubt, treehouses are one of the best ways to inspire imagination on your playground. Not only are they great for group play, but they can also be used as a quiet place to curl up with a book. Not to mention, treehouses also add plenty of architectural appeal to your park and provide an enticing focal point.
Those wishing to go big and bold can theme an entire playground tower around a treehouse. However, this may not always be the most accessible for everyone. In this case, play houses can be installed at the ground level to provide an inclusive experience. Alternatively, tipis may be used to pay homage to First Nations culture and history.
If you’re looking for a challenging activity for older kids, consider adding a climbing wall to your playground. Climbing walls not only help with strength and flexibility, but they also develop fine motor skills like grip. Plus, they also have great mental and emotional benefits. After all, there’s no better feeling than reaching the very top!
Traditional climbing walls, like our Fossil Bluff Climber, resemble those that you might find in a gym. On the other hand, our Nu-Edge Rock Wall incorporates a realistic look and feel that resembles an actual mountain. Both options are an excellent way to work some fitness into your playground. So, unleash your inner mountaineer and climb away!
So far, we’ve talked about how natural playgrounds support unstructured, imaginative play. And what better way is there to do this than with lifelike animal sculptures? Made from GFRP (Glass Fiber Reinforced Plastic), our sculptures are friendlier to touch than wood or concrete options. This is great for encouraging safe hands-on learning, without the risk of scrapes or splinters.
From black bears and pufferfish, to ladybugs and frogs, we have a variety of sculptures to capture any theme. Kids will learn a great deal about nature as they interact with the animals and let their imagination run wild. Whether they’re pretending to be a zookeeper, or going on a safari adventure, there’s no telling what they’ll dream up!
What About Quality?
While wooden playground equipment has several aesthetic benefits, it also has many long-term consequences. For one, it’s easier to vandalize than metal playground equipment. On top of that, it also requires yearly sanding, staining, and sealing to maintain its look. Those looking for a long-lasting solution should consider a faux-wood alternative, such as our patented Naturtek material.
Because the colour is infused all the way through, our Naturtek products don’t require any touch-ups if they get chipped. This results in less maintenance over time, which can’t be said for wooden components. In addition, our Naturtek products are also more resistant to rotting and fading. This ensures that they’ll look their very best for years to come.
For our rocks and boulders, we use an exclusive material called PolyFiberCrete. This lightweight material retains the same strength as concrete, while offering an exceptional climbing grip texture. The main advantage of PolyFiberCrete products is that they’re made using a single mold. This means that there’s very few seams throughout, and therefore, less maintenance problems to worry about.