Let your walks now be a little more adventurous.
– Henry David Thoreau
Do you have a natural playground in your yard or near your home? A natural playground is an outdoor play area that’s landscaped with materials such as logs, dirt, grassy hills, sand, natural bridges, and streams instead of plastic playground equipment.
Aside from our beloved plastic playhouse, our small suburban garden is full of natural loose parts and I’m constantly looking for ways to develop it into an inspiring, open-ended, natural play area.
Why a natural play scape?
In Children’s Outdoor Play and Learning Environment: Returning to Nature, playground designers and early childhood experts Randy White and Vicki Stoecklin, found that when given the option of imagining an ideal outdoor play space, children would choose things like water, sand, and vegetation over jungle gyms and slide; a surprising conclusion considering what most of our neighborhood parks actually look like. The reason? “Traditional playgrounds with fixed equipment do not offer children opportunities to play creatively (Walsh, P. (1993). Fixed equipment – a time for change. Australian Journal of Early Childhood, 18(2), 2329.) and promote competition rather than cooperation (Barbour, A. (1999). The impact of playground design on the play behaviors of children with differing levels of physical competence. Early Childhood Research Quarterly, 14(1), 7598.).
Start with Tree Stumps
Tree stumps are useful for walking on, turning into seating for impromptu fairy tea parties, using as a base for bridges or tables.
We live near a children’s museum with a large-scale spiral tree stump path that will entertain my kids for hours. The stumps are of various heights that challenge children to climb, crawl, skip, walk, and jump. When they bump up against each other, as they move in opposite directions, they have to negotiate the space and make concessions. In short, it’s brilliant.
Ever since I first discovered this neighborhood treasure, I’ve been on the hunt for some tree stumps of our own. No small feat, though! We don’t own a chain saw, our trees never get trimmed, and I had no idea where I could find these beauties.
My radar was tuned and then low-and-behold, I spotted these guys, hard at work.
I asked them if they would be so kind as to share a few pieces with my stump-loving kids, and they said yes. I’m indebted. My car was soon overloaded with heavy lumber and I was beaming!
So how do you find tree stumps? This one stumped me for some time (how could that pun not be intended?). I was on the lookout for tree trimmers, and lucked out that my trunk was empty and these guys were generous with their time and muscles. I would caution you that trees can be infested with termites or other dreadful bugs and diseases, so it could pay to secure your stumps at a cost from a local lumber yard. These stumps appeared to come from a healthy tree that was getting trimmed away from a power line, but I’m no tree expert. If you know more about this than me, please let me know if our stumps are healthy!
I got these beauties home and my kids wanted to play with them right away (notice the tap shoes — ha! — these two crack me up). I put the stumps in our front yard until we could find a good place for them, and of course our next door neighbor friends wanted to come over and play too.
I think I have a good spot for them now, in the dirt and under a tree, and I’ll share more of our natural play scape ideas as it comes together.
More Nature Play Ideas
Theory of Loose Parts (Let the Children Play)