Backyard Adventures with Nature Playscapes

Reader Contribution by Wendy Gregory
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Nature playscapes are outdoor spaces created to encourage nature play that promotes risk-taking, exploration, and hands-on learning. The natural materials such as wood, stone, grass, sand, and native plants surround children with the natural world. Studies have shown that children stay engaged longer and use more imagination and creativity in a nature playscape than in traditional playgrounds. Finally, one of the single most common influences on adult conservation values comes from unstructured, frequent childhood play in wild settings that can be obtained in a nature playscape at home or a park or school setting. 


Many of the components are easily and inexpensively created in a back corner or side yard at home or in preschools, daycare settings, schools or children’s museums. All of the components create an environment that encourages imaginative adventures like digging for treasure, cooking up a menu of mud favorites, catching critters that are attracted to the playscape, collecting leaves, stones or other natural materials and hiding in tall grass or rolling down a grassy hill. Some of the elements of a playscape can be included into any outdoor space:

  • Stumps, stepping stones, or tree cookie paths (log slices used as stepping stones)
  • Grassy hills to roll down or even sled on
  • Digging space with soil and/or sand 
  • Boulders and large rocks for climbing
  • Log or lumber balance beams
  • Natural hiding spots created with plants such as willow tunnels, sunflower teepees or tunnels from hollow stumps or built into a hill
  • Loose parts-tree stumps, logs, tree cookies (slices of logs), pots, pans, cooking utensils, buckets, leaves, acorns, buckeyes and natural materials
  • Shelters, tents, playhouses, forts
  • Mud or sand kitchen
  • Trees to climb

A source for inspiration, ideas and supplies is nature playscape expert, Rusty Keller’s, Earth Play site.

A quick Internet search will provide ideas and plans for a mud kitchen made with pallets from very simple to kitchens for multiple budding mud chefs.

Adding a raised bed for vegetables and herbs expands the learning and play value and encourages children to try new vegetables they have grown themselves. Bird feeders and butterfly garden provides more of nature to explore.

Nature playscapes are popping up all over the country providing fun family outings.

Our favorites:

AHA! A Hand’s On Adventure Raymond B. Martens Playscape Lancaster, Ohio

Franklin Park Conservatory Children’s Garden Columbus, Ohio

Cincinnati Nature Center Schott Nature Playscape

Bernheim Arboretum and Research Forest Kentucky

Wendy Gregoryspent her career working with children as a culinary and gardening teacher in an arts-based summer camp for at-risk children in Nelsonville, Ohio, and as the director of a children’s museum in Lancaster, Ohio. She is a freelance writer exploring the ways seniors can contribute, grow, and reinvent themselves in a new chapter of life. Read all of Wendy’s MOTHER EARTH NEWS posts here.

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