Nature play is a popular idea today. It refers to allowing children to interact with either the natural world or a play space that mimics nature so they can connect with nature in some capacity while they fuel their imaginations. There are many benefits to nature-inspired play:
- Discover nature: Children get to learn about the outdoors and the world around them, gaining an appreciation and respect for the environment and engaging the senses. After playing, kids can later explore the natural world in school or through reading.
- Physical activity: Outdoor play can improve relationships, reduce obesity risk, increase physical activity and reduce stress. Kids may also use a broader range of muscles when playing since nature play has fewer limits.
- Cognitive functioning: Longer periods outside can improve problem-solving, academic and creative skills. Spending time outdoors is linked to lower levels of inflammation and better memory. Studies also show children with ADHD focus better when they engage in this type of play.
- Health benefits: Studies show outdoor play and exercise can reduce the risk of nearsightedness in children and can improve Vitamin D levels
- Decreased stress: Time spent outside can mean lower cortisol levels, which is a hormone associated with stress. Time outside can also reduce fatigue, depression and anxiety.
With all these benefits, isn’t it time you introduced nature-based playground design or nature play in your community?
Read the full article or jump to a specific section:
- Two Types of Play
- Benefits of Nature-Inspired Play
- What to Consider When Encouraging Nature-Inspired Play
- Playworld and Your Natural World
Two Types of Play
While individuals sometimes use nature play and nature-inspired play interchangeably, it’s essential to understand the difference if you want to introduce the benefits of this play to children. Natural play refers to situations where children use nature as a play area. They may play with plants and sand, climb trees or explore fields. Nature-inspired play, however, means using natural play equipment that offers some of the benefits of natural play, even in urban areas and environments where plants and trees may not be available.
Benefits of Nature-Inspired Play
While both nature and nature-inspired play can be beneficial, many communities turn to nature-inspired playground equipment to reap the many benefits of playing in the outdoors. Whether you choose to integrate real natural elements, such as trees or opt to rely entirely on manufactured playground equipment, nature-inspired play can help your children explore the world around them in a way that is even safer than playing in nature.
Many of these benefits can even last well into adulthood. Creativity, for example, can help children in school, play and work for the rest of their lives. Following are seven significant benefits of natural playgrounds.
1. Provides Educational and Developmental Benefits
Many of the activities children engage in do not fully engage all senses. For example, video games might only engage visual and audio senses, while quiet study in a classroom might only engage visual faculties. Children also spend up to 25 hours a week watching television and additional time in front of screens. It can be a challenge to get kids away from screens because devices are designed to be so engaging. This can be a problem since sensory play is essential to childhood development.
Nature-inspired playgrounds offer different playground equipment than traditional play spaces, encouraging children to head outdoors and play instead of staying inside and moving little. While long hours of screen time have been associated with poor health outcomes and development, nature-based play builds fine motor skills, encourages children to explore the world, helps children integrate sensory information and can even help calm them.
Outdoor play is essential to childhood development, benefiting children in the following ways:
- Boosted cognitive function
- Improved academic performance
- Increased exercise due to more space
- Social and emotional development, as children playing on playgrounds must work together to engage in mutual play.
Nature-inspired playgrounds can be a perfect place to support child development, especially if kids are in more urban areas and do not have access to other natural areas. These play areas stimulate the senses, letting children explore the sense of touch through textured surfaces, sound through activity panels and visual senses through bright colors and shapes. Even the smell of the outdoors can be great for children.
Playgrounds also offer a greater possibility for structured, educational play. When kids play in nature, parents and educators may turn play into a teaching moment after the fact. However, there is nothing strategically educational about sand or a tree. However, quality nature-inspired playgrounds are designed to encourage education and exploration to more naturally dovetail with learning goals.
2. Improves Creativity
With traditional playground equipment, such as slides, there is a prescribed way children approach these activities. Nature-inspired playground equipment asks children to think outside the box and step beyond some of these ideas. A child playing with a Challengers® Playmakers® Oak Trunk or a Challengers® Playmakers® Climbers Stone Pillar has to come up with their own approach. This builds creativity and pushes children towards more open-ended play.
You can also choose brighter colors and unique design features with nature-inspired play areas. While nature has a broad range of variations, you are mostly limited to local plants and the immediate landscape. With a playground, there are no limits, and you can create play areas to fuel young imaginations.
3. Increases Physical Activity
Nature-based play offers more options for active play and exercise. Trees, sand, grass and other natural elements allow for some play activities, but playgrounds provide more opportunities. Swings, slides, climbers and other playground equipment can be used in various ways to develop balance, strength and creativity, so children get more out of their play space.
Fun, nature-inspired playgrounds can inspire kids to keep playing, which is essential to ensure adequate physical exercise. While the CDC recommends 60 minutes of daily play for children, only 24% of children get enough physical activity every day. Inadequate physical activity could result in obesity and other medical problems. Any initiative which gets kids playing and active can help. Outdoor nature-inspired play can be engaging enough to encourage children to move, enabling them to develop an active lifestyle.
4. Allows for Nature-Based Play in Urban Areas
Playgrounds with nature-inspired elements can be incorporated in any area where trees, sand and grass are harder to come by. Children of all backgrounds get to enjoy the benefits of nature-inspired play with this approach. Large green spaces may be a luxury in urban and high-density areas. However, nature-inspired play lets kids in these areas reap the benefits of outdoor recreation and some of the benefits of nature play without traveling far. Just like nature play, nature-inspired play can create an appreciation for nature.
Playgrounds also allow you to design the play space however you want. When you have a park area or a green space, you may be able to remove trees or trim back shrubs, but, ultimately, the way nature designs the space is how it will look. With a playground, you can add as many pieces of playground equipment as the space and your budget allow. You can even build vertically to make the most out of small spaces, creating more areas for climbing or more slides.
Further, natural areas require ongoing maintenance. You need to trim trees and shrubs, pull weeds, ensure pests do not move in and take other actions to keep the space ready and safe for play. While playground equipment also needs checks and maintenance, the care it requires is less rigorous because playground equipment is durable and safe. Since there are no plants to trim and other similar tasks to take care of, the play area can be open to kids for longer.
5. Protects the Natural Landscape
Playgrounds and play equipment designed with nature as inspiration can help protect natural spaces. Children in a natural area or protected habitat can cause damage to trees, grass and animal habitats. Kids may simply not yet know how to be careful in nature. Playground equipment is designed to be sturdy and to handle years of use, so children can play as much as they like while natural areas around them are protected for the years ahead.
Further, this type of equipment integrates well with the natural environment. Because of the materials used and the overall theme of this type of play equipment, it tends to fit well in natural settings such as parks or other landscaped grounds. Children in these areas can then enjoy nature-inspired play without disturbing landscaped areas.
6. Helps Ensure Increased Safety
In the natural world, there are many dangers. Children can fall from trees they are climbing, get splinters from trees and encounter poison oak and other hazards. In some cases, these dangers can be life-threatening. For example, if a child goes exploring and disturbs a nest of hornets, the stings can be extremely dangerous and can put the child’s life at risk.
In contrast, outdoor natural play equipment is designed with safety in mind. Safety surfacing can be placed under all heights. Rounded edges and sturdy construction can also mean children are less at risk of injuries.
There may not be places for parents to sit in a natural play space. Boulders, shrubs or trees can also affect visibility for parents. However, an inclusive playground with a nature-inspired design can be created with a sitting area or benches for caregivers to supervise closely, allowing children to stay safer. Playgrounds are easily contained and designed for supervision, so there is less chance that a child will become lost in a natural environment or happen upon something dangerous.
7. Promotes Inclusive Play
Can promote inclusive play. A playground can be made to be inclusive in a way the natural world simply cannot. A child may not be able to roll easily on a soft sanded beach in a wheelchair or climb a tree with a broken foot. However, a playground can be designed so all children can play. You can create wide ramps that allow children to climb in different ways, and you can also make cozy spaces for children who may need quiet time.
What to Consider When Encouraging Nature-Inspired Play
If you’re ready to start creating a play area inspired by the world of nature, there are a few things you will want to keep in mind:
1. Selecting Equipment
Nature-inspired playground equipment is designed to mirror nature’s organic look and feel while avoiding the hazards of nature play. Choosing realistic nature-based equipment can spark kids’ curiosity about the natural world, encouraging creativity. Playground equipment is also designed to target key developmental areas, including strength, balance and coordination, allowing for more structure and supervision than nature play.
Playworld offers many nature-inspired playground equipment options to help kids reap the benefits of this kind of play:
- Branch Out®: Our Branch Out® collection invokes the look and feel of the forest, allowing kids to partake in activities similar to tree play. The Trunk with Fabric Shade gives children the opportunity to pretend they’re climbing a tree. The product can also come with a perforated steel shade for a more modern, urban look. Anchor is designed to mimic a thicket of branches, connecting to Branch Out with a rope bridge. Pedestal connects to Branch out via a net and mirrors a tree stump.
- Wood: Features designed to mirror natural wood provide a rich sensory experience. The Oak Trunk and Stump Climber are climbable structures that can independently stand next to any other piece of equipment while still blending in with the landscape. On the other hand, the Log Crawl provides a hiding spot for children of all ages with a keyhole to still allow for adult supervision. These products have a realistic texture, encouraging imaginative play and stimulating the senses.
- Boulders: Kids can imagine they’re rock climbers when playing on our slip-resistant PolyFiberCrete® boulders. Smaller options like the Bench Boulder or Picnic Boulder provide a natural-looking seating alternative and climbing challenge for younger children, while the Tower Boulder is larger for older children. For a more challenging route with attractive crevices for younger children, try the Castle Boulder. Children of all ages will increase their climbing skills and confidence while conquering new heights.
- Dinosaurs: Inspire children to discover prehistoric worlds with Origins™ PolyFiberCrete® dinosaur-themed playground equipment. Make your own dinosaur for children to scale with five pieces of equipment mimicking T-Rex bones, like the climbable, life-like Ribs and Head. Or, transform kids into archeologists by unearthing the Origins™ Diggables Fossil Jam, Raptor Rock Tail and Raptor Rock Head. Regardless of the pieces you choose, this set is bound to spark the imagination and engage the senses.
- Rock walls: RockBlocks® Climbers give kids a sense of adventure and challenge while helping them develop their strength and climbing abilities. The Corner Rock fits well with other equipment and provides a more straightforward climbing experience, while the Hairpin Turn rock wall has a unique shape for a challenging twist. Or, offer a comprehensive play experience with the Adventure Canyon, complete with a slide and climber.
One of the benefits of natural playgrounds is that you can control some of the possible hazards of the natural world. Therefore, you will want to consider safety when creating your play area.
In addition to choosing playground equipment with a track record of security, you will want to check to ensure the natural area surrounding your play area is safe. Remove poison oak and any dead or dying trees. Check for uneven ground that can pose a safety hazard. Install playground safety surfacing to absorb impact, especially under climbers, slides and swings. If there are water sources nearby, be careful that children cannot wander into these areas easily.
Laws require that all public and commercial playgrounds are ADA compliant, but inclusive playgrounds go beyond accessibility. While children with mobility challenges and other conditions can access accessible playgrounds, inclusive playgrounds are designed to allow all children to use most of the equipment. Inclusive playgrounds ensure there are no “cool” pieces of equipment that are not accessible to most children.
There are a few ways to ensure your nature-inspired playground is inclusive:
- Ensure easy access to playground equipment: Make sure the paths around playground equipment are large enough to accommodate wheelchairs, adult caregivers and children moving between pieces of equipment. Ensure there is adequate space around each piece of equipment for both children and possibly caregivers. Allow different points of access to each piece of equipment, so everyone gets to play.
- Group activities by type: For example, if you have playground equipment that allows swinging or motion, group these activities together so kids with different abilities can participate together. Create a quieter area of the playground where children can retreat if they get easily overwhelmed and occasionally need quiet time to recharge.
- Introduce multiple levels of play: Introducing multiple play levels allows kids on foot, children with wheelchairs and using crutches to play together on different levels. It also ensures kids who have a more challenging time climbing still get to take part in the fun.
- Work with a professional: Companies like Playworld that are known for creating inclusive playground equipment have additional resources to help you make your space inclusive.
Nature-inspired play can be more inclusive than nature play because you can control the environment more easily. Taking extra care to consider inclusion in design can further ensure all children can enjoy the playground.
4. The Natural Environment
Nature play does not have to be left entirely behind when you create a play space inspired by nature. If your playground is in a park or a green space, you can incorporate the natural world. For example, if the play area is near a wooded area, you can set up playground equipment within sight of trees. By including some natural elements, you let children appreciate nature and see some of the natural world as they play.
Being outdoors can give children a chance to enjoy the fresh air and sunshine, but it’s important to provide some shade to ensure kids and caregivers aren’t at a greater risk of sunburns and heat-related illness. Good shade lets kids stay cooler and safer from the sun, even with long hours of play. Shades can also protect playground equipment from getting too hot and damaged by the sun’s rays. Hypar shades, hat shades and other options work with a range of playground spaces and keep your play area safer and more enjoyable for everyone.
When creating your playground, you will want to give thought to the activities in which children can participate. Look for activities that can help children’s development while also being fun. For example, a Nature Sounds Panel enables children to explore the sounds of nature and can help them with auditory sensory development.
The Nature Hunt Panel lets kids of all ages and abilities explore colors and the shapes of animals. This panel also allows children to engage in conversations about the animal shapes they see. It can be an excellent way to start conversations about where animals live, what they eat and their habits.
In addition to activity panels, some activities allow for nature-inspired play and more exercise. The Wildwood Climber, for example, engages many senses. Children may love the natural brown and green colors and can use their sense of touch to explore the bark-inspired texture. Kids can develop balance and strength by climbing the structure or by hanging from the bar on top. The space under the structure can be a cozy space for kids or allow for social development by letting kids play together.
7. The Age Ranges of Children Using the Play Space
Playground equipment needs to be age-appropriate to allow for the best development benefits. If you want your playground to be available to children of different ages, look for pieces that can be used by children of different ages and group age-specific items together so older kids and younger kids have their own areas of play.
8. Parents and Caregivers
While kids are the focus of playgrounds, keep in mind many children head to the playground with caregivers or parents. Children who have limited mobility or other challenges especially may have someone with them who will be helping them with some or all of the playground activities. This means you need to make your playground accessible for adults, too.
Create a shaded area for sitting where adults can supervise, and create wide paths or walking areas around the playground so parents can push strollers or wheelchairs around the play area when kids are taking a break. Making your play space more attractive for adults, too, allows for good supervision and can mean both adults and kids enjoy heading to your playground.
9. The Environmental Impact of the Play Area
One of the benefits of playing outside is that kids get exposure to the importance of the environment. You want to make sure your play area does not negatively impact the environment.
Our equipment is designed to last for many years, reducing the number of times you need to replace it and the amount that needs to be manufactured. This can both save you money on replacement costs and is better for the environment. Learn more about Playworld’s certifications and discover how we take our impact on nature seriously.
When creating a nature-inspired play area, consider the design of your playground. Do you want a forest, a beach or another nature-inspired theme? Each has developmental and sensory benefits. You may want to choose a theme that fits in with your particular area. For example, in an urban environment, the Window Planter Panel gives kids a chance to plant flowers or pretend to plant flowers in a window box, which they can experience in real life.
On the other hand, you can use design to let kids explore a type of nature to which they might not have access. For example, Challengers® Island Getaway has a tropical feel, with palm trees and other details reminiscent of a day at the beach. For children far from palm trees and the ocean, this can be an excellent way to introduce the idea of geographic differences and to explore the concept of different destinations.
Dinosaur-inspired play, like the Origins™ T-Rex Hatching Egg, gives children the chance to play among “dinosaur bones” and experience the fun of being at an archaeological dig.
11. Maintenance and Long-Term Playground Care
Consider how you will care for your play space to keep it looking its best and keep it safe. While Playworld creates playgrounds designed to be durable and lasting, bear in mind that some maintenance is needed for all playgrounds.
One of the benefits of natural playgrounds is that they can be safer and more accessible when compared to playing in nature. One reason behind this is that you can introduce proper safety surfacing to your play area to prevent impact injuries and make it easier for all kids to get around on the playground.
The good news is that a playground can be affordable. Playworld has several options to help with financing. We can also help you find solutions such as phase-building to allow you to build a sensory-rich playground on your budget and add to it over time.
14. Site Furnishings
Comfort areas such as picnic tables or areas for sitting can help encourage children and their families to stay awhile, increasing a playground’s appeal and accessibility. Good lighting and fencing can contribute to making your play area safer.
15. Kid Perspectives
When designing a nature-inspired playground, you need to think like a child. What features and playground equipment will most encourage children to play? Playworld works with the real experts: kids. We make sure to test our playground equipment with safety experts and engineers, but we also kid-test them to ensure children love the designs. Nature-inspired pieces such as RockBlocks® Climbers Adventure Canyon and Origins™ T-Rex Head look different than what kids usually encounter on a playground and offer different ways to play.
We have a track record of creating great playgrounds with nature elements. These playgrounds get kids excited about outdoor play. For example, our Harbour Landing playground in Saskatchewan, Canada features a sandy area with climbing rocks and fake dinosaur bones. Kids get to climb and pretend to be archeologists on a dig.
The Children’s Ministry playground in Twin Falls, Idaho features climbing rocks, the Vine Climber and a ship structure so kids can pretend to be sailing towards land. This structure is excellent for encouraging social play. Some children can pretend to be the crew on the ship while others can be on the land, allowing for many different imaginary scenarios.
Playworld and Your Natural World
Playworld has been helping communities, schools, daycares, parks and other organizations create beautiful playgrounds and nature-inspired play areas for decades. If you’re thinking of creating a space where children can learn about nature, there are many benefits to working with us:
- High material quality: Quality is a top priority at Playworld, and it shows in every piece of equipment. Each item from Playworld is manufactured with care from the best materials we can source, from reinforcements to sturdy steel designed not to rust or corrode.
- Experience: Playworld has helped generations of children play, and our team has many years of experience creating these kinds of play spaces so that we can help you.
- Custom solutions: Nature-inspired play sometimes requires custom solutions. Whether you want equipment that blends into a natural landscape or you want to work around a natural feature, we can help. Our central Pennsylvania manufacturing facility and team of experts mean we can help you build the play space you’ve always wanted.
- Customer service and full support: Is this your first time designing a nature-inspired playground or any playground? No problem. Playworld has guides to lead you systematically through the process. We’re also U.S.-based and easy to reach with any questions. You can always reach out to a Playworld representative if you want help or have questions.
- Design: A team of engineers and experts designs every Playworld piece for durability, safety, innovation, inclusiveness and quality. Each product is carefully tested, so you get the best possible playground equipment for your community.
- Environmental considerations: Playworld playground equipment is kind to the environment because it can be integrated into the surrounding area and is made to last, meaning it will not have to be replaced as often.
- Integration into different natural environments or urban areas: Whether you have a big green space or a small urban area, we have play equipment that can bring the joy of nature-focused play to kids in your community.
- Durability: Our commercial playground equipment is designed to last, even with heavy use. It is intended to stand up to heavy play and the elements.
Nature-inspired play can be one way to ensure kids get 60 minutes of outside play a day, no matter where they live. If you’re ready to start building a playground inspired by nature, request a quote or find a Playworld representative to get started.