Traditional playgrounds are getting a natural makeover in the form of rustic, natural play spaces. Schools, zoos, and nature centers the world over are re-thinking the value of play in nature and with natural materials. The old standby equipment on asphalt doesn’t stack up compared to magical, wild play spaces.

Consider your own reaction to a natural play space versus a traditional one. If you’ve made a recent visit to Irvine Nature Center in Owings Mills, Maryland then you know what an Outdoor Classroom looks like: huge logs to tunnel in and jump on, stones to stack, recycled instruments to perform with, sand and soil to dig, uprooted trees to climb, slate to draw and paint on, gardens to plant and tend, birdfeeders to observe – there’s so much rich play value and learning taking place that I can’t begin to list it all.

Grown-ups and kids alike are inspired to play when they enter Irvine’s Outdoor Classroom. Everyone asks “Who made this? How long did it take? Was it expensive?” The answers vary but the bottom line is this: if you decide to create a natural play space, people will jump at the chance to help you. (Feel free to contact me at Irvine Nature Center if you want some guidance as you begin.)

But perhaps you are not with a school or child care center. Suppose you’re a parent that loves this idea. How do you go about creating a natural play space at home? The following natural play features and timeline should get your creative ideas flowing:

Logs: Seating. Tables. Jumpers. Building material. Logs can be all things! Place logs or stumps in the ground to create stump jumpers. (Bury these partway to steady them before use.) Position long logs as balance beams, bridges, or seating. Scoop or carve out sections of logs to create planters.  If you have chainsaw skills, cut large branches into small plate-sized pieces (tree cookies) so they can be used to stack and build with. Consider making a rustic arbor or seating to utilize branches and vines.

Plentiful Tree Parts: Stock up on any readily available natural materials – your neighbors are dying to give them to you. Fill bins with magnolia seed pods, pine cones, acorns, and sweet gum balls which are usually easy to come by. A pile of untreated fire wood is perfect, too. Gather up a pile of sticks and branches for building.

Stones: From smooth, irregular stones to geometrically cut ones, these are useful in many ways. Use them for stacking walls, step stones, or painted plant markers. They can be either structural elements (like flooring and paths) or play materials for building.

Recycled Goodies: Oh how the list could go on…reclaim and up-cycle anything you can get your hands on! Cake pans, tires, gutters, wood pallets, silverware, farm crates, shutters, bicycle wheels, window frames, old picket fencing – you name it and it can probably be repurposed here. (Be safe! Watch out for sharp edges, splintering wood, lead paint, or items that may get too hot in the sun.)

Wildlife Support: Yes, life ‘life support’ pun intended. Help wildlife by offering feeders, birdbaths, roost boxes, bat houses and the like. Get kids involved in filling feeders, changing water, and monitoring nest boxes as a way to encourage respect for living creatures.

Gardens: Designate a plot for your tot! Include native and non-invasive plantings throughout your space. Think about foot traffic to prevent plants from being trampled! Consider heights, bloom times, soil, and sunlight needs as you make your selections. (Stick with native plants, they require less fuss than exotics and support native wildlife.) Wee ones can plant, water, weed, and help choose plants. Themes give gardens a concrete purpose for kids: embolden your child to choose a theme he enjoys.

Digging: The mere act of putting one’s hand in the soil produces powerful benefits. Provide a big ‘ole pile of dirt, mulch, or sand for hands-on play. And for goodness sake, don’t worry about the laundry!

Hide-Aways: Peace and quiet need not elude your child. Whether it’s an elaborate playhouse or basic twig fort, provide a hide-away for solitude and imaginative play. Make a teepee with bamboo or fallen branches, just secure with twine around the top. Shape grapevine into an oversized nest or hut. Create tunnels or crawl spaces with barrels, culvert pipe, or bamboo hoops. Make a shady fort with a beach umbrella or drape a drop cloth over a long branch resting in the crook of a shady tree. Plant sunflowers in a large circle and tend them until they create a leafy sunflower house.

Artistic Spaces: Get creative with slate stone for a make-shift chalkboard. Join two fan trellises at the narrow end to make an easel, or install hooks on a fence to hang a shower curtain studio space. Make instruments from recyclables and natural materials (acorn maracas, anyone?). Mount instruments (pots, pans, lid “cymbals”, etc.) on a fence, table, or log. Even a 4×4 post can become a music totem. Use burlap, branches, and picket fence section to create a theater for performances.

Water and Mud: Okay, really all you need is a milk jug full of water and you can transform that digging area into a heavenly mud pit. More intentional designs make use of a peg board with movable hooks so kids can arrange funnels, plastic jugs, tubing, or hoses for water to flow through. Water wheels, troughs, and hand pumps pour on more fun. His mud will be delicious in his mud-pie kitchen made from reclaimed farm crates and old kitchen wares (pie tins, measuring cups, baking pans, you get the idea). Then again, don’t underestimate the fun you can have making a river with the garden hose!

Moving Parts: A thick rope knotted at one end is a simple swing, so long as you’ve got a sturdy branch. Tire swings, hammocks, and homemade see-saws offer more ways to get kids moving.

Tools: Now that you’ve amassed lots of cool natural materials, you may want to supplement her adventures with magnifiers, shovels, watering cans, and child-sized hand tools. A sturdy wagon will help her cart creations all over the yard, and perhaps to neighborhood pals. Plastic pots, egg cartons, and lidded recyclables can also inspire projects.


editor’s note: Check back next week for a handy timeline for creating your own natural play space! Images are courtesy of Irvine Nature Center, with the exception of the image of the tractor tires and teepee. That’s at North Run Farm!