Over the past few decades, children have spent less and less time in nature. Our grandparents did not return home from playing outside until sunset, something parents of today cannot fathom. At present, most children’s outside experiences are highly structured. Be it a brief school recess or sports practice, children no longer have the opportunity to create their own imaginative outdoor worlds. This trend has resulted in what author Richard Louv called nature deficit disorder, a condition with real health consequences. The cure is simple: bring kids back to nature.
The word nature may bring to mind expansive forests or national parks, but in reality nature is found in our everyday worlds. This includes our own backyards. With a few modifications, your backyard can become a natural play space that harmonizes children’s innate need to be in nature with their desire to play.
Naturally Fun Materials
Several design elements make natural play spaces successful and can easily be incorporated in your home landscape. However, no two natural play spaces look alike. Part of the allure is in the informal design and loose pieces that leave play entirely up to children.
Natural materials that kids can play with, build, touch, and move around engage all their senses and provide physical activity. These may be logs, pinecones, or a mudpit, but smaller objects, like seeds, shells, and leaves, can quickly be repurposed into teacups and plates for a tea party. Kids can be endlessly creative with these materials, making each playtime an entirely new experience, something they don’t get from a traditional playground.
Plants are also an essential element in natural play. They are beautiful in their own right, but the birds and butterflies they attract are a delight to all. Children often enjoy showy plants that change dramatically through the seasons. The immense growth spurt of a sunflower or the crunchy fall leaves of a maple tree are awe inspiring. My own experience has also proven that children are far more likely to eat their vegetables if they have grown them themselves.
Larger spaces in the natural play area should cater to the ways in which children play. Kids like to create their own games and engage in active play with one another. This requires some amount of open space. Oftentimes this is lawn, but it could be a winding path or wide driveway. For the adventurous child, climbing, jumping, and physical activity are necessary. A tire swing from a tree, terraced slope, or steering wheel mounted to the deck will quickly become favorite places.
Older children enjoy quiet spaces too. Adolescents seek places of seclusion to hang out with one another. Giving them a designed space, perhaps a table under the canopy of a willow tree or a boulder wall to sit upon, recognizes their need for nature.
Bring Your Kids Into the Process
The exuberant energy of children can be put to good use when building a natural play space. Including them in the design process is a learning experience that also gets them excited about the space. Allow them to select and plant some of the plantings and give them the opportunity to build a fort from the materials on a location of their choosing. Their creative minds may even teach you a thing or two.
This collaboration between parent and child does not have to end. Natural play spaces are shown to foster relationships between adults and children more so than traditional playgrounds. It’s as much a space for you to play as it is for your children.
The absence of illness is not what makes us healthy. The health of a whole child includes spending time in nature. In a natural play space, children are engaged in physical, sensory, and social activities. They are invited to explore and learn. These spaces encourage a respect for the environment and appreciation for its resources. Your backyard can become a haven of health, creating joyful childhood experiences remembered for a lifetime.
Joan W. Ziegler is a horticulturist and garden designer and winner of the 2015 Perennial Plant Association Merit Award for Residential Landscape Design. Lily Mank is an intern landscape architect for ZDA, Inc. Landscape Architecture, 4797 Capitol View Road, Middleton. Call (608) 831-5098 or visit zdainc.com .