It used to be, according to my children, that in order for a park to be authentic, it needed at least a slide and a set of swings. I was less enthusiastic about taking them to places like state parks simply because I felt I’d have to go the extra mile to “prove” that playing and exploring in a natural environment could be just as fun as clambering around a commercially manufactured jungle gym. Don’t get me wrong – the local playgrounds can be a lot of fun, too. And some are really inventive! But I have to say that I get a deeper satisfaction from watching them play in a more natural setting: digging, figuring out how to climb that tree, following paths, building forts. They become immersed in tossing rocks into the water, scouting frogs, collecting wildflowers. They also gradually forget that “playing at the park” requires a plastic treehouse.
So here’s what I find really cool: incorporating natural elements into new playground designs seems to be the trend. More places are popping up where kids get the opportunity to interact with the landscape and, perhaps, develop a greater appreciation for it. Here are
seven places I’ve discovered that have those goals in mind:
Play space: Discovery Hollow & Garden
Location: Tamarack Nature Center, White Bear Township
Cost: Free, donations accepted.
The scoop: This spot all but guarantees hours of entertainment. It contains all the classic elements of nitty gritty outdoor play: sand, water, mud, natural building materials, a garden to tend and, though engineered, a beautiful cliff of rocks to climb. Prepare to invest hours and bring your swimsuits!
Play space: Maple Hollow Nature Play Area
Location: Wargo Nature Center, Lino Lakes
The scoop: A few unique elements here include a rope swing, an outdoor kitchen set (complete with stump table and chairs), and some creative musical instruments. Plus the staples – logs to balance on, sand for digging, and building materials.
Play space: Nature-based play area
Location: Springbrook Nature Center, Fridley
The scoop: The completely made-over nature center hopes to add a nature playground in the near future. For now, check out their brand new indoor exhibits.
Play space: Nature Play Yard
Location: Maplewood Nature Center, Maplewood
The scoop: Small, but it does the trick. The boulders and giant logs are particularly pleasing to scale, there’s a natural amphitheater for an impromptu performance, and the butterfly garden gives it a nice pop of color.
Play space: Green Play Yard
Location: Minnesota Landscape Arboretum, Chanhassen
Cost: $12/pp ages 13+, free for kids 12 & under, includes admission to the Minnesota Landscape Arboretum.
The scoop: This beautiful new space is divided into three zones for age-appropriate play. The infant area (0-16 mons) includes a garden to crawl through, a wall peek over, and a swing in the trees. An area for toddlers (16-33 mons) features sand and dirt for digging, a hill to roll down, and “woods” for playing hide-and-seek. The space for preschoolers (ages 3-5) boasts a stage for mini-theatrical productions, a play house, a track for wheeled play and a spot specially made for forts. Gardens are incorporated throughout.
Play space: Nature Exploration Area
Location: Richardson Nature Center, Bloomington
The scoop: Build away at stick shelters and bridges over a shallow ravine. It’s amazing what happens when kids realize that going to the “playground” doesn’t have to involve a plastic slide and swings.
Play space: Nature Play Area
Location: Wood Lake Nature Center, Richfield
The scoop: This is a fenced-in, though completely natural space containing two giant trees and all sorts of earthy materials to let the imaginations run freely.
Play space: Nature playground
Location: Dodge Nature Center, West St. PaulCost: Free
The scoop: It’s not well publicized and not accessible when the nearby students at Dodge Nature Center Preschool have first dibs, but wander over to find logs to scale and “vines” to swing on.
Play Space: Fawn Crossing Nature Play Area
Location: Whitetail Woods Regional Park, Farmington
The scoop: Had the pumps been working the day we visited and the water flowing through the channels, my kids would have wanted to stay for hours. As it was, they were perfectly happy digging in what amounted to a giant sandbox (dishes to play with included) and exploring the areas stocked with fort-building materials, logs and boulders.
Play Space: Nature Exploration Area
Location: Lowry Nature Center, Victoria
The scoop: There are two playgrounds to explore here. The first is entirely man-made, but I mention it because it follows a “habitat” theme and prompts kids to learn about and interact with the park environment. You can climb to an osprey’s nest, peek into and scuttle under a “beaver dam”, tunnel like a mole and more. The second playground is a very rough collection of stumps, fallen trunks, and club-sized sticks. Bring the bug spray.
Have you been to any of these nature play spaces? Or maybe you know of a few more to add to the list? Please share. My kids and I are always on the lookout for places to broaden our park horizons!