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What are the Benefits of Natural Play?

Photo credit: Asnières Residential Park by Espace Libre Paysage et urbanisme

The concept of natural play has been steadily gaining popularity in recent years and is now one of the main “buzz words” bandied around by architects, planners, and developers. But what are the main principles of natural play, why is it considered better than conventional play equipment, and what role does landscape architecture have to play in the creation of natural play areas?

What is natural play?

Natural play refers to interacting with natural elements of the environment in an imaginative way. Broadly, natural play includes activities such as climbing trees, building dens, and cooking outdoors. Today, children are becoming ever more environmentally insular, often spending many hours a day in front of televisions and computer monitors. The natural play movement aims to encourage children to get out into the natural or semi-natural environment. WATCH: What are Natural Play Spaces?


Where does natural play take place?
Natural play can take place anywhere where children have access to natural elements. Sadly, in many towns and cities, access to the natural environment is either limited or absent. Therefore, landscape architects are increasingly asked to develop local play areas with natural play elements. These natural playgrounds mimic the natural environment, offering a non-prescriptive and imaginative play resource.

Autumn- CC0- Natural Play

Autumn- CC0- Natural Play

Natural play benefits

Prescribed play (i.e. manufactured play equipment) often has a limited number of ways it can be used. It is believed that encouraging children to simply climb the steps and slide down the slide limits their creative ability. Natural play, in contrast, encourages children to think about how to climb a tree or traverse obstacles such as boulders or fallen trees. Related Articles:

As natural play has no prescribed minimum and maximum dimensions for elements, children engage a greater range of muscles when playing, stretching both their bodies and imaginations. It has even been demonstrated that children with ADHD show better concentration after interacting with the natural environment. “Research indicates that unstructured play in nature increases self-esteem, creativity, motor skills, fitness, and even academic performance. It also seems to relieve symptoms of ADHD.” – Richard Louv, Last Child in the Woods

Girl in Woods CC0 - Natural Play

Girl in Woods CC0 – Natural Play

A natural playground can also offer better value for the money. In the United Kingdom, it is estimated that 20 to 50 percent of playground budgets is spent on safety surfacing. As natural playgrounds often have no safety surfacing, more money is available to put into the design and construction of the playground. Natural play elements are also often cheaper than specialist-manufactured play equipment.
Person CC0 - Natural Play

Person CC0 – Natural Play

Designed natural play Designed spaces should include natural elements designed to encourage children to explore the space in a variety of ways. This could be achieved simply by changing the topography of the site in an interesting way. The Wave Field, by Maya Lin, offers children the opportunity to run up and down slopes and mounds, testing their balance and agility. Water is a great element for engaging children in natural play. Powhatan Springs Park in Virginia, USA, features a rain garden with interactive water play. The space both provides direct access to water and water elements, while educating children about the water cycle and elements of Sustainable Urban Drainage Systems (SUDS). More complex natural playgrounds, mix manmade elements with natural play elements. Wherever possible, they use natural materials. Features include piles of gravel and sand to dig in, a large water feature with direct access, and utilization of the site’s topography.
The Wildwood Den Natural Play Area at Ashridge, UK, CC2

The Wildwood Den Natural Play Area at Ashridge, UK, CC2

How to get the best from natural play Research indicates that children benefit both physically and mentally from playing in the natural environment. Probably the best way to take advantage of these benefits is to allow children free access to the natural environment. Where this is not available, there are many designed natural playgrounds, which incorporate elements such as sculpted earthworks, grass, bark chippings, logs and fallen trees, large live trees, boulders and stones, sand, and planting
Alt Park by Sue Adair-CC2.0 - Natural Play

Alt Park by Sue Adair-CC2.0 – Natural Play

These designed spaces invite children to create their own games and imaginative play. If access to the natural environment in your neighborhood is limited, why not investigate taking your children to a natural playground, where they can experience natural imaginative play within the safe confines of a designed play space. Your local city or regional council should be able to assist you in finding your local natural playground. Recommended Reading:

Feature image: Children CC0.  Article by Ashley Penn Return to Homepage

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