Explore the Great Outdoors of Play: Nature Inspired Playgrounds

explore the great outdoors of play


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:

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benefits of time outside

With all these benefits, isn’t it time you introduced nature-based playground design or nature play in your community?

Two Types of Play

While individuals sometimes use nature play and nature-inspired play interchangeably, if you want to introduce the benefits of this play to children, it’s important to understand the difference. 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 which 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 play and nature-inspired play can be beneficial, many communities turn to nature-inspired playground equipment to reap the many benefits of nature-inspired play. This is because this kind of play:

  • Can be more educational because it’s designed to be that way. When kids play in nature, parents and educators may be able to turn play into a teaching moment after the fact, but there is nothing strategically educational about sand or a tree. Quality nature-inspired playgrounds, however, are designed to encourage education and exploration, so they can more naturally dovetail with learning goals.

encourage education and exploration

    • Asks children to think outside of the box. With traditional playground equipment, such as slides, there is a prescribed way children approach these activities. Nature-inspired playground equipment asks children to 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.

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  • Can offer a high degree of safety. In the natural world, there are many dangers. Children can fall from trees they are climbing, can get splinters from trees and can 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, and rounded edges, as well as sturdy construction, can mean children are less at risk of injuries. Since playgrounds are easily contained and designed for supervision, there is less of a chance that a child will become lost in a natural environment or happen upon something dangerous.
  • Can be included in any environment, including 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. In urban areas and high-density areas, large green spaces may be a luxury and nature-inspired play lets kids in these areas reap the benefits of outdoor play and some of the benefits of nature play without having to travel far.

nature-inspired play

  • Can offer the benefits of nature play. Just like nature play, nature-inspired play can create an appreciation for nature and can provide the other benefits of nature play because it mimics nature.
  • Can integrate 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 settings. Children in these areas can then enjoy nature-inspired play without disturbing landscaped areas.
  • Can be kind to the environment. Playgrounds and play equipment designed with nature as inspiration can help to 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.
  • 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 which allow children to climb in different ways and you can create cozy spaces for children who may need quiet time.
  • Allows for creativity. With nature-inspired play areas, you can choose brighter colors and unique design features. 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.

play areas to fuel young imaginations

  • Allows parents and caregivers to supervise more closely. In a natural play space, there may not be places for parents to sit and boulders, shrubs or trees can affect visibility for parents. An inclusive playground with nature-inspired design, however, can be created with a sitting area or benches for caregivers to supervise closely, allowing children to stay safer.

playground equipment

  • Offers more options for active play and exercise. Trees, sand, grass and other natural elements allow for some play activities, but playgrounds can offer more options. 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.
  • Gives you more control in play area design. When you have a park area or a green space, you may be able to remove trees or trim back shrubs, but the way nature designs the space is ultimately how the space will look. With a playground, however, you are in control. You can add as many pieces of playground equipment as the space and your budget allow, for maximum play area. In fact, you can even build vertically to make the most out of small spaces. You can choose to create more areas for climbing or more slides, if you wish. With a playground, it is up to you.
  • Allows children to engage many senses. Nature-inspired play areas let children explore the sense of touch through textured surfaces and let them explore sound through activity panels. Kids can explore visual senses through bright colors and shapes. Even the smell of the outdoors can be great for children. 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. This can be a problem, since sensory play is essential to childhood development. It builds fine motor skills, encourages children to explore the world, helps children integrate sensory information and can even help calm them.
  • Encourages children to engage in more physical play. Outdoor playgrounds are fun for kids and nature-inspired playgrounds can inspire kids to keep playing, which is important to ensure adequate physical exercise. Only 40 percent of kids now get at least 25 minutes of active physical activity three or more times a week, according to the journal Health Affairs. This could result in obesity and medical problems which cost $1.1 trillion in medical expenses over the lifetimes of these children. Any initiative which gets kids playing and active can help, and outdoor nature-inspired play can be engaging enough to encourage children to move and helps them to develop an active lifestyle.
  • Encourages good cognitive, physical, social and emotional development. Outdoor play is essential to childhood development, according to research published in the Porto Biomedical Journal. Outdoor play can increase cognitive function and academic performance and can encourage children to exercise because there is more room to do so. It is also important for social and emotional development because children playing on playgrounds interact with new children and must work together to engage in mutual play. Nature-inspired playgrounds can be a perfect place for all of this to happen, especially if kids are in more urban areas and do not have access to other natural areas.
  • Less maintenance is needed. In natural areas, ongoing maintenance is necessary. You need to trim trees and shrubs, pull weeds, ensure pests do not move in and take other actions to keep the area ready and safe for play. While playground equipment also needs checks and maintenance, the care it requires is less rigorous because playground equipment is designed to be durable and safe without extra work. 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!

children spend 25 hours watching television

    • Nature-inspired play gets kids away from digital distractions. Children spend almost 25 hours watching television and additional time in front of video games and screens. It can be a challenge to get kids away from screens because devices are designed to be so engaging. Nature-inspired playgrounds offer different playground equipment than traditional play spaces, which could encourage children to head outdoors and play instead of staying inside and moving little. Since long hours of screen time have been associated with poor health outcomes and development, anything that encourages children to stay active and go outdoors can be a benefit.

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These are just some of the benefits of creating a play space inspired by nature but with playground design elements. 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 which 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.

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) Safety.

install playground safety surfacing

One of the benefits of creating a play space inspired by nature is that you can control some of the possible hazards of the natural world. When creating your play area, therefore, you will want to take safety into consideration. In addition to choosing playground equipment with a track record of security, you will want to check to make sure the natural area surrounding your play area is safe. Remove poison oak and any dead or dying trees. Check for uneven ground which can pose a safety hazard. Install playground safety surfacing to absorb impact, especially under climbers, slides, and swings. Be especially careful if there are water sources nearby. You do not want children to be able to wander into areas with water and away from supervised areas easily.

2) Inclusion.

Laws require all public and commercial playgrounds to be ADA compliant, but inclusive playgrounds go beyond accessibility. While accessible playgrounds can be accessed by children with mobility challenges and other conditions, inclusive playgrounds are designed to allow all children to use most of the equipment. Inclusive playgrounds ensure there are no “cool” pieces of equipment which are not accessible to the majority of children.

inclusive playgrounds

There are a few ways to ensure your nature-inspired playground is inclusive:

  • Make sure the paths around playground equipment is large enough to accommodate wheelchairs, adult caregivers and children moving between pieces of equipment.
  • Ensure easy access to playground equipment. Make sure 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 which allows swinging or motion, group these activities together so kids with different abilities can take part 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. This allows kids who are on foot, children in wheelchairs and kids 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 company known for creating inclusive playground equipment. A company like Playworld has 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.

3) 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.

4) Shade.

remember to provide shade

Being outdoors can give children a chance to enjoy fresh air and the 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 longer hours of play. Shade can also protect playground equipment from getting too hot and from getting too 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.

5) Activities.

sounds of nature

When creating your playground, you will want to give thought to the activities in which children can take part. Look for activities which can help with 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 engage in conversations about the animal shapes they see. It can be an excellent way to start conversations about where animal live, what they eat, and their habits.

In addition to activity panels, there are also activities which 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 can allow for social development by letting kids play together.

6) The Age Ranges of Children Using the Play Space.

Playground equipment needs to be age-appropriate to allow for the best development benefits. Early childhood playgrounds often focus on gross motor development while school-aged playgrounds are often about social play, developing strength and exercise. If you want your playground to be available to children of different ages, look for pieces which 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.

7) 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.

8) The Environmental Impact of the Play Area.

One of the benefits of playing outside is that kids get to be exposed to the importance of the environment. You want to make sure your play area does not have a negative environmental impact. Work with a company that can help you respect nature. For example, Playworld is the first and only commercial playground manufacturer to have a facility certified by the U.S. Green Building Council for Existing Buildings, so our playgrounds have a smaller carbon footprint. In addition, we are determined about eliminating PVC from playgrounds and most of our products are Cradle to Cradle Certified™ Bronze, meaning they are recognized for low toxicity and low environmental impact.

Our equipment is designed to last for many years, reducing the number of times you need to replace equipment and the amount of equipment which needs to be manufactured. This can not only save you money on replacement costs, but it is better for the environment. Learn more about Playworld’s certifications and find out how we take our impact on nature seriously.

9) Design.

When creating a nature-inspired play area, consider the design of your playground. Do you want a forest theme, a beach theme or another nature-inspired theme? Each has developmental and sensory benefits. You may want to choose a theme which fits in with your particular area. For example, in an urban environment, the Window Planter Panel gives kids a chance to plant flowers or to pretend to plant flowers in a window box, which is something they can experience in real life.

window planter

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 and the Challengers® Caribbean Vibe have a tropic 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 idea of different destinations. Dinosaur inspired play, like the Origins™ T-Rex Hatching Egg, give children the chance to play among “dinosaur bones” and experience the fun of being at an archaeological dig.

10) Maintenance and Long-term Playground Care.

Consider how you will care for your play space to keep it looking its best and to keep it safe. While Playworld creates playgrounds designed to be durable and lasting, bear in mind that some maintenance is needed for all playgrounds.

11) Surfacing.

One of the benefits of nature-inspired play is that it can be safer and more accessible when compared to play in nature. One reason behind this is that you can introduce proper safety surfacing to your play area to prevent injuries from impact and to make it easier for all kids to get around on the playground.

12) Budgeting.

The good news is that a playground can be affordable. Playworld has a number of options to help with financing and we can 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.

13) Site furnishings.

Comfort areas such as picnic tables or areas for sitting can help encourage children and their families to stay a while because they offer greater comfort. Good lighting and fencing can contribute to making your play area safer.

14) 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.

Children’s Ministry playground in Twin Falls

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 “dinosaur” bones. Kids get to climb and pretend to be archeologists on a dig. The Children’s Ministry playground in Twin Falls, ID features climbing rocks, the Vine Climber, and a ship structure so kids can pretend to be sailing towards land. This structure is great for encouraging social play, since some children can be the “crew” on the ship while others can be on the “land,” allowing for many different imaginary scenarios.

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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 years. 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. From reinforcements to sturdy steel designed not to rust or corrode, each item from Playworld is manufactured with care from the best materials we can source.
  • Experience and many years of creating these kinds of play spaces. Playworld has helped generations of children play and our team has many years of experience, so we can help you.
  • Custom solutions. Nature-inspired play sometimes needs 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 PA manufacturing facility and our team of experts mean we can help you build the play space you’ve always wanted.
  • Customer service and full support. Never designed a nature-inspired playground or any playground? No problem. Playworld has guides to lead you systematically through the process. We’re also US-based and easy to reach with any questions. You can always reach out to a Playworld rep if you want help or have questions.
  • Design. A team of engineers and other experts designs every Playworld piece for durability, safety, innovation, inclusiveness, and quality. Each piece of playground equipment is tested carefully 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. Our manufacturing facility is also lean and green, ensuring it has the smallest carbon footprint possible.
  • Our play areas can be integrated into different natural environments or urban areas. Whether you have a big green space or a small urban area, we have play equipment which can bring the joy of nature-focused play to kids in your community.
  • Durability. Our commercial playground is designed to last, even with heavy use. It is intended to stand up to heavy play and the elements.

The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends children spend 60 minutes a day of outside playing. Nature-inspired play can be one way to ensure kids get that time, no matter where they live. If you’re ready to start building a playground inspired by nature, request a quote or find a rep to get started.

build your playground inspired by nature