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Natural Play

Goodbye, big structures. Hello, dirt and sticks. Old-fashioned fun is back in style.

By Jennifer Bristol

My brother and I had an elaborate network of forts strewn across miles of woods surrounding our home in 1970s Austin. Today those woods, like so many others across the nation, are filled with houses and the trappings of progress. The children growing up there no longer have access to the wild places my brother and I once explored, but today’s kids can still have a nature-rich, playful childhood.

A nature play revolution is sweeping the nation, and Texas is leading the charge. Anarchy zones, natural play areas, play leaders and "pocket" trails are just some of the innovations being deployed to encourage more active play outside — and not just on “traditional” equipment like slides and swings in huge structures.

Natural playscapes are designed to give children a sense of place and a connection to nature while fostering active, imaginative play. Childhood development leaders, architects, educators and urban planners have worked in tandem to create plans for these inventive spaces. One man, Joe Frost at the University of Texas College of Education, led the charge by championing the movement for three decades. He teamed up early with the Children in Nature movement to expand his message beyond educators: Play is the work of children, and, through play, learning occurs.

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“We can create extraordinary places for children to discover themselves and the world around them,” writes designer Rusty Keeler in Natural Playscapes, Creating Outdoor Play Environments for the Soul. “We can create places for children that tickle the imagination and surprise the senses. But first we have to remember the places and spaces of our own childhood.”

Texas state parks are joining in the fun, opening new natural play areas at Mother Neff State Park and Government Canyon State Natural Area, with others soon to follow. Zoos in Texas’ big cities are embracing the concept and engaging in a friendly competition to create the best natural playscapes.

The authors of Nature Play & Learning Places, Robin Moore and Allen Cooper, tell us that children deserve amazing spaces to play, explore and connect with nature. Gone might be the days of exploring the deep woods all day, but that doesn’t mean kids have to stop building forts, climbing trees or engaging in imaginative play.

The Nature Play guidelines offer park administrators, school staff and parents methods for installing safe and manageable natural play environments. Unlike the industrial-style playscapes seen worldwide, these new playgrounds are constructed with natural materials. They fill children’s senses with the smells of native plants and allow them to craft forts from sticks. Small hands can turn mud and stones into a “gourmet meal” in an old pan. Busy minds slow down for daydreams as the wind drifts through the leaves of a sycamore tree.

Are you starting to remember? Here are a few elements found in natural playscapes.

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Mud Play

Follow the laughter and squeals of joy to the mud “kitchen.” A cluster of old pots, a bucket of water, a little dirt and pans stacked on top of a log are all it takes. Children can come up with their own storylines as they pour mud into pots and pans to make pies, donuts or even a birthday cake. Ready to take mud play to the next level? The San Antonio Zoo’s International Mud Day (June) encourages kids to create mud art masterpieces and slide tummy-first across a muddy slip-n-slide.

Hill Slides

Six-year-old Jose rolled down the gentle grass slope so many times that his mother declared, “My son has turned into a log!” Undeterred, Jose throws himself down the hill again with a hearty “Tim-berrr!” Kids can choose to play on the grass slopes of the hill or slide down the two blue slides on the other side at the play area of the Oso Bay Wetlands Preserve in Corpus Christi. Active play exercises like running up the hill, rolling down it and jumping up to do it again all help develop a child’s gross motor skills.

Clubhouses Rule

A group of girls dominates the top of the fort at the Donovan Park play area in Houston. Three fathers watch from the shade as the girls defend their imaginary kingdom from a roving pack of boys. One bold girl yells out new terms to the boys as they expand their game. Clubhouses and forts give children a sense of place where they can explore their imagination through active or dramatic play. A final yell of “We take no prisoners!” is given as the girls burst from the wood structure to descend upon the boys.

Sand is Back

There was a time when sandboxes and the like were removed from playgrounds, but sand is back and here to stay in nature play. The majority of the surface material at the Barbara Fish Daniel Nature Play Area in Houston’s Buffalo Bayou Park is sand. Beside the big log bench, an older boy shows his little sister how to make a sand angel by lying on her back and waving her arms across the soft white sand. At the Austin Nature and Science Center Dino Pit, kids can dig in the sand for fossils or discover hidden dinosaur tracks.

Scaled Trails

Play equipment designer Playcore and the National Learning Institute came up with a method for building trails that are scaled for children with all abilities. At the new Discovery Trail at Government Canyon State Natural Area, children go bolting by along the all-weather trail to one of the “pockets.” Each pocket along the pathway encourages them to explore, learn, imagine or play. Many of the other trails at Government Canyon are too long or too rocky for small children, but the new trail is just right.

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Anarchy Zones

Designer Rusty Keeler coined the term “anarchy zones,” and to some people, the play area looks as chaotic as the name. Children are given an assortment of “loose parts” like sticks, old tents, a mound of dirt, a bale of hay, a pile of smooth rocks or other objects. Children agree to some simple safety guidelines, then create whatever inspires them. Sticks and an old tent are fashioned into a fort by one group of children, and another group turns the rocks and dirt into a fairy garden. The City of Austin Parks and Recreation Department invested in a loose parts trailer so it can take the anarchy zone to various parks around the city.

Quiet Time

Natural play areas can also have spaces where children can feel calm and safe: a pollinator garden where kids can watch butterflies flitter about the flowers, a big shade tree ringed by carved stumps to sit on for story time, a calming stream nestled into a shady garden. Each feature gives children a time to peacefully enjoy nature on a scale that is comfortable for them.

Play Leader

Play leaders can be park staff or volunteers who facilitate outdoor play. At the San Antonio DoSeum, a friendly man in his early 20s introduces a group of children to the manmade stream in the play area. He shows them how it works, then steps back and allows the kids to   create dams to channel the water, have a race using leaves as boats and splash in the shallow creek. He steps in for a split-second to offer a safety tip, then retreats to his watchful station under the tree.

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Water Works

Water is always a fun element for play in Texas. The family garden at Austin’s Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center replicates the Texas Hill Country with a waterfall, complete with a secret hideaway cavern and shallow wading spot. The experience of water doesn’t have to be complicated or costly. Up the fun a notch by combining the water with sand.

Sensory Gardens

Megan, age 4, leans in close to the bluebonnets to take a deep breath. “What does it smell like?” her grandmother inquires. “Bubbles!” she shrieks, pointing at a butterfly floating away on the wind. The Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center specializes in creating tantalizing spaces where children can explore their senses. Megan holds her tiny hands to her chubby cheeks as she comes close to the sound of the waterfall at the center of the Wildflower Center garden. It’s easy to connect with our inner child and feel the same joy and wonder as she does.

Government Canyon’s New Playground

It’s only fitting that the largest urban state natural area in Texas should have a natural playscape. The Friends of Government Canyon State Natural Area raised more than $100,000 to install a new all-weather play area and trail.

Since we’re a state natural area and not a park, we were motivated to provide something that was not the typical swings-and-slides playground, but rather something that would engage children in more of a natural-type setting,” says Park Superintendent Chris Holm.

The new Nature Playscape and Discovery Trail are also built to the Americans with Disabilities Act standards so children with all abilities can enjoy them. Government Canyon is known for its miles of hiking and biking trails, but it is often closed after a large rain event. Children and families can still enjoy the Nature Playscape and Discovery Trail after a storm because they are all-weather features.

“One of our primary motivations was diversification of recreational opportunities for all ages and abilities,” Holm says.

Discover a natural play area near you

Mother Neff State Park

Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center in Austin

San Antonio Botanical Garden

San Antonio Zoo

Government Canyon State  Natural Area

Houston Zoo

Barbara Fish Daniel Nature Play Area in Houston

Hana and Arthur Ginzbarg Nature Discovery Center in Houston

Rory Meyers Children’s Adventure Garden at the Dallas Arboretum

Find more places to play, explore and connect with nature in your community at NatureRocksTexas.org.

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