Nature Playgrounds in the Twin Cities – Get Back to Green

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


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 17 places we’ve discovered that have those goals in mind

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    Minneapolis Nature Playground

    Lake Nokomis Park

    2401 E Minnehaha Pkwy, Minneapolis, MN 55417
    Completed in 2017, the nature playscape features a woven willow fort, called “The Thicket”. You’ll find it next to the regular playground. Other natural features at this park include the beaches.

    Lake Nokomis Park Playground featuring "The Thicket"
    Image courtesy Minneapolis Parks.

    Twin Cities North Metro Nature Playgrounds & Play Areas

    Tamarack Nature Center: Discovery Hollow & Garden 

    5287 Otter Lake Rd, White Bear Township, MN 55110
    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, pack snacks and bring your swimsuits in the summer, the water feature is the best part!

    Bonus Fun Idea: Build A Waterfall

    Discovery Hollow Nature Play Area

    Wargo Nature Center: Maple Hollow Nature Play Area 

    7701 Main St, Lino Lakes, MN 55038
    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 Fun Idea: Visit Wargo Nature Center on Earth Day Weekend

    Springbrook Nature Center: Nature-Based Play Area 

    100 85th Ave NW, Fridley, MN 55432
    The grand opening for the new nature playground was July 2017. Our family was there to enjoy the centerpiece: a sandy play space kids can pump their own water into. Dress for a mess.

    Bonus Fun Idea: Visit Springbrook Nature Center in March for Maple Syruping Activities

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

    Eastman Nature Center: Nature Exploration Area

    Elm Creek Park Reserve, 13351 Elm Creek Rd, Maple Grove, MN 55369
    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

    370 Owasso Blvd N, Shoreview, MN 55126
    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 Idea: Combine nature fun with the beach at Lake Owasso County Park.

    Twin Cities East Metro Nature Playgrounds & Play Areas

    Maplewood Nature Center Nature Play Yard

    2659 E 7th St, Maplewood, MN 55119
    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.
    MAPLEWOOD NATURE CENTER trails, picnic area, and nature play yard are available to use every day of the year.

    Bonus Fun Idea: Try Pond Dipping at Maplewood Nature Center.

    Sally Manzara Interpretive Nature Center: Messy Play Area

    Sunfish Lake Park, 3554 Kelvin Ave N, Lake Elmo, MN 55042
    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. Indoors, the interpretive center is packed with little exhibits that will interest kids.

    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 

    3675 Arboretum Dr, Chaska, MN 55318
    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 16+, free for kids 15 & under, includes admission to the Minnesota Landscape Arboretum.

    Bonus Fun Idea8 Twin Cities Water Fountains to Visit with Kids

    Green Play Yard, Minnesota Landscape Arboretum

    Minnesota Valley National Wildlife Refuge Nature Play Area

    9500 Old Cedar Ave S, Bloomington, MN 55425
    A new nature play area has recently opened near the Old Cedar Avenue Bridge trailhead. It’s fairly rustic with mostly opportunities to construct habitats and shelters with large sticks. There are many large log benches for parents to rest on while kids engage in free play.

    Richardson Nature Center Nature Exploration Area 

    8737 E Bush Lake Rd, Bloomington, MN 55438
    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. You’ll find this playground Keep in mind that indoors, the nature center is filled with fun ways to spend a colder day.

    Bonus Fun Idea: Visit Nearby Chutes & Ladders Park in Hyland Lake Park Reserve

    Richardson Nature Center - Twin Cities Nature Playgrounds

    Patrick Eagan Park Nature Play Area 

    3995 Lexington Ave S, Eagan, MN 55123
    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 Idea: Visit Eagan Art House within Patrick Eagan Park.

    Schwarz Pond Park Nature Playground

    13787 Dodd Blvd, Rosemount MN
    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 Playground

    Terrace Oaks East 12650, Parc Dr, Burnsville, MN 55337
    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 Nature Play Area

    6710 Lake Shore Dr S, Richfield, MN 55423
    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 

    17100 Station Trl, Farmington, MN 55024
    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

    7025 Victoria Dr, Victoria, MN 55386
    Originally, there were two playgrounds to explore here. The first was entirely man-made, but I mention it because it followed a “habitat” theme and prompted kids to learn about and interact with the park environment. You could climb to an osprey’s nest, peek into and scuttle under a “beaver dam”, tunnel like a mole and more. We mention the playground here because it was very well-loved in our family. There are plans underway to replace the equipment, so stay tuned.

    The second playground, a true “nature exploration” area remains and is a very rough collection of stumps, fallen trunks, and club-sized sticks. Bring the bug spray.

    nature playgrounds

    Westwood Hills Nature Center

    8300 W Franklin Ave, St Louis Park, MN 55426
    The playground incorporates traditional playground equipment with a nature theme with more rustic nature features, like a fort made of tree branches and a water feature. 

    Nature Playground at Westwood Hills Nature Center in St. Louis Park, MN
    Nature-Themed Playground at Westwood Hills Nature Center

    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.

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

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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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    3. 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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