August 2014 cover

Nature Notebook

Creating Nature Play Spaces in Your Own Backyard

Little girl balancing on a log in a nature play space

National Wildlife Federation wants to bring nature back to America's playgrounds.

We're creating guidelines and working to develop sample "nature play spaces" to help transform playgrounds, schoolyards, childcare centers, museums and zoos into spaces where kids can connect, play and learn in nature.

What is a Nature Play Space?

The idea behind a nature play space is that instead of the standard, cookie cutter metal and plastic structures that make up the bulk of today's playgrounds--people can incorporate the surrounding landscape and vegetation to bring nature to children's daily outdoor play and learning environments.

Examples of Nature Play Space "Equipment"

  • Boulders to climb
  • Streams to dam
  • Ponds to catch critters in
  • Logs to practice a balancing act
  • A multi-sensory garden to explore

Why are Nature Play Spaces Important?

Research indicates that when children play and learn in nature, they do so with more vigor, engagement, imagination and cooperation than in wholly artificial environments and that symptoms of attention deficit and depression are reduced.

Experts agree that children need access to nature the same way they need good nutrition and adequate sleep. Our project will help restore children’s relationship with nature by bringing it back to the play and learning places of everyday life.

Guidelines for Creating Nature Play Spaces for Your Community

In an effort funded by the U.S. Forest Service, NWF is working with the Natural Learning Initiative (NLI) to develop design guidelines that can be used by a wide range of institutions (parks, museums, nature centers, child care centers). The guidelines will show managers of schools, parks, childcare centers, and public lands how to make nature a part of children's outdoor play and learning areas. They will also identify the core elements of a nature play space and demonstrate how to address management, liability and accessibility issues.

The draft guidelines will be released for public comment in the summer of 2012 and issued in final form in the fall of 2012.

>> Read more about NWF and NLI's guidelines for play and learning in nature (pdf)

Where Can I Visit a Nature Play Space?

NWF and the NLI are documenting existing Nature Play Spaces and are working to pilot the Guidelines at demonstration sites, in various types of contexts and institutions across the country in the following cities:

  • Austin, TX
  • Charlotte, NC (Fort Wild, Charlotte Nature Museum)
  • Cincinnati, OH
  • Dayton, OH (Five Rivers Metro Parks)
  • Holland, MI
  • Houston, TX
  • Jackson, MS
  • Kalamazoo, MI
  • Los Angeles, CA

Introducing Nature Play Spaces on Federal Lands

In June 2011, NWF and NLI partnered with the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service to pilot Learning in Nature Corps in a North Carolina National Wildlife Refuge. Young adult interns were trained in the play and learning methods of “playwork,” developed by NLI with colleagues from the UK (where playwork is an established profession) and NC Zoo playworkers. For three weeks interns learned to prepare children's play and learning habitats and to design and lead programming narratives. At the end of each week, they led local children and families in creative, dramatic play themes linked to refuge wildlife and wildlife habitats.  Pending additional funding, the pilot will be expanded to other refuges in 2013 as a strategy to create new types of Federal “green professionals” who can engage the public in educational uses of Federal Lands.

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