Nature Playgrounds in the Twin Cities – Get Back to Green

Girl swinging on Rope at Maple Hollow in Wargo Nature Center in Minnesota

The best twin cities Nature Playgrounds & Nature Play Areas

Nature Playgrounds are a growing trend for good reason; scientists keep finding connections between nature to child development and well-being.

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 13 places I’ve discovered that have those goals in mind:

Twin Cities North Metro Nature Playgrounds & Play Areas

Tamarack Nature Center: Discovery Hollow & Garden | White Bear Lake

Newly updated in 2020, 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!

Bonus FunBuild A Waterfall

Discovery Hollow Nature Play Area

Wargo Nature Center: Maple Hollow Nature Play Area | Lino Lakes

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.

Bonus FunVisit on Earth Day Weekend

Springbrook Nature Center: Nature-based Play Area | Fridley

The grand opening for the new nature playground was July 2017. The centerpiece is a sandy play space kids can pump their own water into. Dress for a mess.

Bonus Fun: Visit in March for Maple Syruping Activities

Kids playing in the sand at Springbrook Nature Center
Springbrook Nature Center play area

Eastman Nature Center: Nature Exploration Area, Maple Grove

The nature play area is just one of many things to visit within the sprawling ELM CREEK PARK RESERVE. Just a short walk from the nature center building you’ll find the typical elements for nature play plus a log seesaw and a sweet little outdoor play kitchen set. You’ll likely find this spot much less crowded than the giant (but fun!) ELM CREEK PARK RESERVE PLAY AREA.

Nature Play Area at Eastman Nature Center

Lake Owasso County Park: Nature Playground, Shoreview

The nature playground includes stumps and stick building materials plus slides and swings. It’s on the small side so consider packing a picnic and swimsuits and spending the rest of the afternoon at the sandy swimming beach across the street on Lake Owasso.

Bonus Fun: Combine Nature Fun with the Beach

Twin Cities East Metro Nature Playgrounds & Play Areas

Maplewood Nature Center: Nature Play Yard | Maplewood

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. While the MAPLEWOOD NATURE CENTERN is currently closed until the fall of 2021, trails, picnic area, and nature play yard are available to use every day of the year.

Bonus Fun: Try Pond Dipping

Sally Manzara Interpretive Nature Center: Messy Play Area | Sunfish Lake Park, Lake Elmo

Found behind the nature center, the Messy Play Area includes a sand area, sticks for open play, stepping-logs, a crawl through passage, and a stick-fort building area.

Bonus Fun: Play a round at the Buckthorn Croquet Court.

Nature play at Sally Manzara Interpretive Center

Twin Cities South Metro Nature PLaygrounds & Play Areas

Minnesota Landscape Arboretum: Green Play Yard | Chanhassen

This beautiful 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. $15/pp ages 13+, free for kids 12 & under, includes admission to the Minnesota Landscape Arboretum.

Bonus Fun8 Twin Cities Water Fountains to Visit with Kids

Green Play Yard, Minnesota Landscape Arboretum

Richardson Nature Center: Nature Exploration Area | Bloomington

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.

Bonus FunVisit Nearby Chutes & Ladders Park

Richardson Nature Center - Twin Cities Nature Playgrounds

Patrick Eagan Park: Nature Play Area | Eagan

In response to Eagan residents’ desire for a natural place where kids could climb trees and play in nature, the city created its first nature playground. This park combines elements of traditional playground equipment — like a zipline and climbing webs – with natural elements.

Bonus Fun: Visit Eagan Art House

Schwarz Pond Park: Nature Playground | Rosemount

This playground combines the natural with modern playground fun.  Kids can build a teepee with sticks and branches or zip line through the nature playground.

Terrace Oaks East Park – Nature Play | Burnsville

The grand opening for this brand new nature play space was June 9, 2018. Burnsville’s first official nature play area offers features that include painted animal tracks for kids to follow, tree cookies and sticks for building, logs and rocks for climbing and jumping and log trails for exploring. There are also limestone block benches for a rest break.

Wood Lake Nature Center | Richfield

This is a fenced-in, though completely natural play space containing two giant trees and all sorts of earthy materials to let the imaginations run freely.

Whitetail Woods Regional Park: Fawn Crossing Nature Play Area | Farmington

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.

nature play

West Metro Nature Playgrounds & Play Areas

Lowry Nature Center: Nature Exploration Area | Victoria

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.

nature playgrounds

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.

Build your own nature play backyard

We love nature play areas so much, that we have researched ways to incorporate them into our own backyards. These 65+ Ideas for Nature Play can be incorporated into a home nature playground or park play around town.

educational nature play

Twin Cities Nature Centers & Outdoor Interpretive Centers

Most nature centers in the Twin Cities have nature playgrounds – either formal or informal. They’re also stocked with educational exhibits and hands-on activities to make nature super fun! Browse from our big list of Twin Cities Nature Centers & Outdoor Interpretive Centers.

6 thoughts on “Nature Playgrounds in the Twin Cities – Get Back to Green”

  1. Rebecca Benstead

    Richardson Nature Center in Bloomington is great too and has free activity days for kiddos! The indoor spot is nice too with animals.

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    1. Thank you, Cori.

      This information isn’t on Springbrook’s website yet. I’ve just emailed our contact to get the details and will update this information as soon as I get it.


      1. This was the reply from Springbrook:

        “We will be holding a grand opening for our new amphitheater and nature play area this Saturday [July 29, 2017] from 1-4 pm. Both features will be open from that point forward. The nature-based play area has a few features that are backordered or still in production and they will be added when they are ready. However, there will still be plenty of things to do and explore and the area will be open daily starting on Saturday and through the early Fall.”

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