Natural Play Areas Blend into the Triangle

Courtesy of Annie Louise Wilkerson, MD Nature Preserve Park

At Prairie Ridge Ecostation’s Nature PlaySpace, a small girl stirs pine needles into the mud in her stone bowl. Nearby, two boys armed with stick wands explore a pathway through tall grass, while a few yards away several children create a complicated waterway using a water tap, plastic pipes and wooden blocks.

Prairie Ridge is one of a growing number of Triangle area institutions that offer natural play areas for children. Sometimes called natural playscapes, these areas incorporate elements from nature such as boulders, sand, water and branches, into children’s play spaces in ways designed to inspire active, engaged play.

Natural play areas have become increasingly popular both nationally and locally over the past decade. In the Triangle, 11 natural play areas have been built for public use over the past six years, while the Natural Learning Initiative at North Carolina State University has been actively developing many more in local schools and preschools.


The Movement Toward Nature-Based Play

In 2005, Richard Louv brought widespread U.S. attention to nature-based play experiences with his best-selling book, “Last Child in the Woods,” which suggests methods to combat what Louv calls “nature deficit disorder.” Louv believes spending time in nature is essential for children, and medical research supports his belief.

In 2010, Frances E. Kuo, a natural resources and environmental sciences associate professor at the University of Illinois, reviewed medical studies examining the effects of nature-based experiences on human health. She found that regardless of all other factors, experiences in nature are good for people. Spending time in green areas helps combat obesity, relieves anxiety, helps children with attention difficulties to focus, reduces aggression — the list goes on.

“Rarely do the scientific findings on any question align so clearly,” Kuo writes.


Introduction to the Natural World

Designers of natural play areas believe nature-based play opportunities can teach children about their local environments. By delving into the land through play, children learn about seasons and native plants, creatures and insects. The designers hope to make outdoor experiences habitual for children so they continue to explore the outdoors into adulthood.

“Hands-on nature play experiences … are retained as vivid memories, often for the rest of life” writes Robin Moore, director of the Natural Learning Initiative.

Most of the Triangle’s natural play areas offer child-appropriate introductions to larger natural areas for people of all ages. The Prairie Ridge Ecostation, for example, is designed for multigenerational use.

“Prairie Ridge is a lifelong destination,” says Jan Weems, a member of the team that designed the Nature PlaySpace. “You spend time in the play space getting comfortable with nature. Once you get a little more adventuresome, you venture out to hike down by the woods, in the prairie, by the stream — there’s 45 acres to explore.”

Weems and Dawn Mak, another member of the Nature PlaySpace team, hope children learn to love experiences in the natural world for the sake of the land and their own well-being.

“We try to create a love of nature,” Weems says. “You can’t expect people to care for and protect something they don’t, in some way, know and love.”


A Different Kind of Play

Most natural play areas differ from traditional playgrounds in their emphasis on loose, natural parts, giving children creative autonomy and room to explore as they play.

“Children can manipulate the environment,” Weems says. “You can make a merry-go-round go around, but you can’t move it; you can’t change it.”

“The space doesn’t dictate the play” Mak adds. “Here they can use all their senses. It’s picking up the leaves and the mulch and moving them around and smelling things.”

Kids might stack wood pieces, or bake them as “cookies;” they might plant a “garden” using soft dirt, shovels and branches. The possibilities depend on the child’s imagination and creative use of the materials.


Designing Natural Play Areas

Because children themselves are experts on the type of play they enjoy, it makes sense for designers of these spaces to consult with children as they plan. Both Weems and Michele Kloda, a member of the team that designed the newly opened Hideaway Woods exhibit at the Museum of Life and Science in Durham, say their teams worked with children as they designed their play spaces. The Prairie Ridge team asked community members, including children, to vote on which elements to include in their play space.

Kloda says the space itself plays an important role in determining how the play area will take shape.

“We allow the site to speak and figure out what it really wants to be,” she says. “You could place play elements because you want those elements, but what if they didn’t fit the site?”

The Hideaway Woods team followed natural terrain patterns whenever possible in their design. The streambed in the exhibit, for example, was moved from its location in the original plan to what had once been a natural streambed in the same area.

Creators of natural play areas hope to implement elements of mystery and exploration that excite children and encourage them to push themselves.

“Pathway networks can be exploratory — curvy pathways where a child never knows what’s around the next corner,” Moore says.

Like many natural play areas, Hideaway Woods is designed for children to grow into its challenges. The exhibit contains Explorers’ Crossing, an area for young children to gain the experience and confidence they need to explore other parts of the exhibit.

“We hope that children discover a deeper sense of themselves; think, ‘What am I capable of?’” Kloda says.

The overall goal for a natural play area, Moore says, is to provide “something that a child can return to time and time again and never get bored because there is always something new happening. That’s the nature of nature.”


What Happens Next?

Both Moore and Nilda Cosco, director of programs at the Natural Learning Initiative, have seen other U.S. communities focusing on making natural play areas more easily accessible to the general public, and they hope to see the movement grow here in the Triangle.

“Kids need to have them in the places where children’s families spend their time,” Moore says. Public parks are ideal locations for natural play spaces because they are designed with easy public access in mind. Some cities are even linking natural play areas to children’s libraries.

“They see the connection between children’s literature and the natural world,” Moore says. “It is a powerful, synergetic kind of relationship.”

This approach makes nature play part of a child’s routine — a day-to-day activity rather than an exceptional event. Normalizing experiences in nature is, after all, the essential reason designers create natural play areas. Their goal is for children to return to nature habitually, interacting with it daily and, through play, making these spaces their own.

Photo of Hideaway Woods courtesy of Museum of Life and Science

Natural Play Areas in the Triangle


The following places in the Triangle offer publicly available natural play areas:



*Play area contains one or more water elements in warm months.


Outdoor Fun With PlayPrints


This fall, several Triangle communities will encounter colorful changes on their playgrounds. Over the summer, Blue Cross and Blue Shield of North Carolina working with the North Carolina Recreation and Park Association offered members of the Triangle community the opportunity to apply for PlayPrints: bright images painted onto pavement to stimulate children’s active play. The images include robots, paw prints, flowers, and other child-friendly designs, most of which encourage games such as hopscotch and four square. Look here to find out where PlayPrints will be coming:


Elizabeth Brignac is a freelance writer and mother of two adventurous boys. She lives in Cary.



Categories: Outdoors, Things To Do