Grounds for Play
When it comes to determining what’s best for kids, it’s great to have resources — especially natural resources. Rocks, sticks, shrubby hiding spots and all the other elements that make up nature’s playgrounds are the fodder of many a happy childhood memory.
If you’ve been to the Wildflower Center and visited one of our nature play areas, most notably the Family Garden and the Fort Build in the Texas Arboretum, you’ve witnessed the power of childhood creativity unbound. These areas feature big stumps to crawl on or through, simple tarp tents, and many moving parts: rocks, sticks, bamboo and “tree cookies” (cut rounds of tree trunks and branches). They aren’t designed with directive elements such as seesaws, slides and monkey bars, yet children jump right in and begin playing and creating as though it’s the most natural thing in the world — because it is.
According to a 2014 study in Frontiers in Psychology (among others), this type of play notably reduces stress, increases physical activity, and encourages the development of vital skills such as reasoning, planning, exercising self-control, problem solving and cooperation. And the truly fantastic thing is that it’s affordable and scalable to fit within any budget or space. From apartment patios to full-scale gardens, anyone can create an area for nature play and offer these benefits to the children in their lives.
The goal of these spaces is that play is open-ended and child led,” says Michelle Bertelsen, Wildflower Center ecologist and co-leader of Austin’s OLE! (Outdoor Learning Environments) coalition. She says natural environments are great at promoting a particular type of exploration: the kind you get when kids “have freedom and the pieces in front of them are not defined — they can do or be anything.”
Nature play is healthy for any child, but research suggests the cognitive benefits are strongest and most lasting for children who are given such opportunities from about 18 months old to kindergarten age. “If they get past age six and have never had any freedom outside, it’s harder for them to get started,” notes Bertelsen, who is, in addition to being an ecologist, a mom. “My children are ages 4, 9 and 12, and there is no formal playground that can accommodate them all.”
Nature, on the other hand, can. Once you’re in a conducive place, Bertelsen says it mostly just takes you, the adult, “chilling out and letting them lead.” Here’s how to get started.
This is the most basic and vital element of nature play. While a prefab playground at Home Depot will cost you upwards of $600 (and provide fewer cognitive benefits), you can purchase a bag of river rocks at your local garden store for about $5 or hunt for your own (fun and free!). Sticks, straw and stumps can be scavenged on brush collection days in your neighborhood, or check with your local park or nature preserve to see if they offer opportunities to collect natural materials that have been removed during maintenance.
Consider a ring of rocks for sitting or climbing, an ever-changing array of potted plants, and larger stumps. Native plants can be selected to add color, texture and fragrance, to attract butterflies and more (see “Playtime Plants” below for suggestions). “You have to be comfortable with your plants looking a little less than perfect,” says Bertelsen, “but the more you can resolve yourself to [that] to allow kids to have this active, creative place, the better.
Whether you’re planting permanently or in containers, there are a lot of small shrubs and trees that can be positioned to make refuge nooks. Bertelsen suggests Texas persimmon trees (Diospyros texana) for interesting branch structure and low climbing opportunities (bonus: fragrance and fruit), American beautyberry (Callicarpa americana) for canopied shelter (bonus: color) and any grasses with an arching habit, “so you get that little hiding space underneath.” “A couple of shrubs planted a foot and a half away from a fence becomes a secret place,” she says, “and it also becomes a pathway; or a few grasses in a circle, or stumps in a row — whatever you can do to create more interesting ways to move through a space.” She advises taking your cell phone, putting it at thigh level, and recording a video as you walk around the area to experience it from a child’s-eye view. You’ll be amazed at how differently you see things.
ONE EASY STRUCTURE
If space allows, having a simple structure (think a small fort) can be helpful as a meet-ing place or jumping-off point for play. “This can be a really rudimentary structure,” says Bertelsen. She notes that bamboo is a great option for building this “landing spot” and also as a loose material for play: “Bamboo is plentiful and invasive, so we don’t mind cutting it down.”
WHAT ABOUT SAFETY?
Think about being there more as a facilitator, advises Bertelsen, to prevent serious injury but not direct activities. Children can sense the fears of adults, and if parents are anxious, children are going to feel inhibited. Make a habit of doing a safety check with children before starting free play, and review basics such as lifting objects from the top rather than reaching under, not sticking hands into holes you can’t see into, and not leaving piles. Remember, the most important part is the play: “If they want to stack coconut shells up and you know it’s going to fall over, that’s fine!” says Bertelsen. Her approach is to let kids follow their whims and tell adults what they need help with.
Most native plants provide a variety of these benefits, but our recommendations highlight particular senses or traits.