Unleashing Children into the Great Outdoors

How natural playscapes can bolster the intellectual, emotional, social, spiritual and physical well-being of children.

A group of young children splashes around a pond in search of slithering tadpoles. They tip-toe their way through the grass to observe butterflies and then set about creating a mini track and field area for beetles in the sand.

Scenes like this are taking place all the time at Jester Park Nature Center in Granger, Iowa. Children who come here roam free, their play is unstructured, unassigned and does not take place in a classroom or on manufactured equipment. They have been unleashed into the great outdoors.

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Natural playscapes like Jester Park provide unique opportunities for families to experience learning on a different level. This type of natural engagement is important but is becoming increasingly rare in a world where our eyes and brains are tied more closely to our phones than ever before. After some 50 years of growth following World War II, nature-based recreation turned a corner in the late 1980s in the U.S. and exhibited declining participation on a per capita basis. The decline is broad-based and national in scope. It covers state parks, national parks, hunting, fishing, boating, wildlife watching and wilderness use.

A recent study showed that on average, American children ages 8 to 12 spent almost five hours each day on screens; teens average a little over seven hours, not including time spent using screens for school or homework. Children are increasingly being pulled indoors by screens and pushed away from outdoor play, which is not only leading to an increase in dependency on technology but also an increase in sedentary illnesses, including childhood obesity.

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The good news is, we have the power to change the health landscape for our children by encouraging outdoor play. The importance of play for children’s healthy development is grounded in a strong body of research. Play promotes intellectual, emotional, social, spiritual and physical well-being, and offers opportunities for children to thrive and learn.

Enter natural playscapes – outdoor spaces where children learn in uniquely engaging ways. Natural playscapes allow free play in a stimulating earth-focused context. Here, the situation has a bit more control and security for parents, who themselves may have lost touch with their wilder roots. In a natural playscape, parents can introduce healthy risk and adventure into their children’s lives.

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Designing an Effective Natural Playscape

RDG worked with Polk County Conservation to design Jester Park Natural Landscape, and since its opening in 2018, it has become a destination for families across Iowa. By designing this space and many others like it, we’ve established a list of critical components to consider when designing an effective natural playscape.

  • Pursue public engagement. Development of the Jester Park Natural Playscape began with some creative ideas and a quick recognition we were going to need others who could understand the vision. Why? This had not been done before, and we needed champions; otherwise, we may get push back with people asking why we didn’t just put in a swing set. Once people could see the vision of where this space was going, it didn’t take long to persuade them of the value.
  • Create a goal-oriented design. As funding gained momentum, our design was driven by some basic goals:
    • To provide a free, unstructured, creative environment that builds on nature’s stimulating play.
    • To provide space and opportunity for physical exploration, and accommodate varying abilities
    • To manage risks reasonably and provide a safe environment.
  • Acknowledge and address design challenges. The Jester Park Natural Playscape sits atop a hill next to a live bison and elk exhibit.  The pre-playscape site had a significant amount of grade change in a small area. Safety issues from the nearby animals were handled with a native plant buffer, which discourages users from reaching the fence. Storm and wastewater management issues were addressed with parking lot grading that shaped a large rain garden.
  • Manage risk. The Natural Playscape was constructed using naturally occurring, salvaged, recycled or donated materials, which meant the playscape’s features had not been bought off the shelf and met pre-set standards for safe play. We worked directly with safety guidelines and Polk County Conservation’s risk managers to test and check each individual feature of the playscape, and how these features would work together to ensure the safety of visitors.
  • Consider maintenance. We weighed maintenance considerations throughout the design process for Jester Park. While the playscape isn’t 100 percent maintenance-free, overall upkeep needs are minimal – especially after the first year when extra work was required to help establish the native prairie plantings. Staff at the park say maintenance costs have actually dropped over time in that they have little investment now in watering or weeding.
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A (Virtual) Tour Through Jester Park

Excitement and engagement at natural playscapes come from engaging features. At Jester Park, these features serve to promote STEM learning and to foster interest in Iowa’s natural landscape. A virtual tour of the outdoor area takes us through a few of these key features:

  • Stonehenge was inspired by the mysterious stones of its namesake. Four stone monoliths frame views to adjacent park landscapes, while vertical stones use small “petroglyphs” of native animals, star constellations and larger globe carvings to inspire exploration and questions.
  • The Hollow Tree features salvaged timber log from the adjacent decaying floodplain forest and encourages players to go over, under, around and through.
  • The Wetland offers a cool and refreshing shallow pool for wading and wildlife. A waterfall and bubbling stone are ever-present, but transient creatures like dragonflies, bullfrogs and painted turtles offer the ever-changing experience.
  • The Archaeology Dig is a sandpit for the discovery of artist-created fossils.
  • A grass slide and log stairs created from a lush, soft, grassy hill give visitors a chance to slide and roll down to the bottom and then charge back up again.
  • The Grass Tangle serves as a prairie grass maze of opportunity.

The playscape integrates art throughout – pathways and bridges encourage movement and the natural materials engage users quickly. Visitors immediately recognize this experience is not the same as others they’ve had at regular playgrounds.

The Proof is in the Data

A Polk County Conservation study, completed shortly after the space opened, compared the Jester Park playscape to the traditional playground and shows:

  • 58 percent more usage at the playscape.
  • 82 percent of the playscape users agree the area “inspires children to play creatively, using their imagination” compared to 42 percent of users at a manufactured playground.
  • Compared to a traditional playground, 70 percent of the playscape users called it a “better experience.”

But that’s just the data. It’s the unique experiences that keep people coming back to this natural playscape. Jester Park and others like it offer a truly unique, original way to play. Parents see the value it brings to their kids. In using and embracing these spaces, parents and children are once again being pushed to the outdoors, drawn to the experience of nature.

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This article was originally published in 2015 and has been updated.

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