Ready to hear something shocking? When given the choice, research shows that children prefer to play in natural areas rather than traditional playgrounds. Playgrounds as we know them, are primarily a concept manufactured by adults of what we believe a child should enjoy playing with. Now that is not to say that your kids, and even you, don’t enjoy playing on a traditional playground, it is simply a testament to our innate predisposition for interacting with nature.
For children, quality play includes practicing gross and fine motor skills, engaging in sensory and emotional experiences, utilizing intellect, and encouraging social interaction. However, most traditional playgrounds only support practicing gross motor skills and engaging in social interaction. In light of this research, many design companies are moving towards more naturalized “playscapes” aimed at promoting quality childhood play in more natural playground areas.
Here are 20, in no particular order, of the coolest natural playscapes in North America. Hopefully some are near your own backyard, but if not keep these in mind on your next road trip.
1. Westminster Center Park; Westminster, CO
Westminster Center Park, as known as the Peter Pan Park, for its Neverland design theme incorporates many natural elements like boulders, tree trunks and water into a landscape that includes more traditional playground elements like slides. Add the pirate ship and tree house inspired towers and maybe a bit of pixie dust and its off to Neverland!
2. Smothers Park; Owensboro, KY
Smothers Park in Owensboro, KY is definitely a must see attraction. The park features 3 signature fountains complete with a cascading waterfall and a show ever 15 minutes. If the kids are with you, they will love the Lazy Dayz playground and Spray Park. Natural elements meet innovative design in this park that was named the #1 playground in the world by Landscape Architects Network in 2015.
3. Shelby Farms Woodland Discovery Playground; Memphis, TN
The Woodland Discovery Playground in Shelby Farms Park boldly intertwines traditional playground elements with natural play areas that include a tree house, climbing wall, boulders, vines, sand, and slides built right into the topography of the park. This playground is accessible and sustainably built.
4. Alexander W. Kemp Playground; Cambridge, MA
The Alexander W. Kemp playground uses the landscape to create a play area that fosters imaginative play. Slides and wooden stepping blocks are built right into the hillside. Loose wooden blocks, sand and a hand-cranked water spout all encourage interaction with natural elements and creative play.
5. Indian Creek Playground; Berwyn Heights, MD
This playground was inspired by the native Americans that were some of the areas earliest inhabitants. Many traditional playground elements were designed using a more natural woodland appearance and bright colors. Imaginations will run wild here while learning a bit about the area’s heritage.
6. Big Woods Play Area in Lake Rebecca Reserve Park; Rockford, MN
This playground is an absolute wonderland inspired by nature. Kids will have a blast climbing through the tree trunk tunnel, going down the log slides, playing in the log cabin and climbing the rock wall to a fort complete with an extra tall enclosed slide. Time spent here is sure to be filled with climbing, tunneling and sliding excitement and fun!
7. Sunset Park; Las Vegas, NV
Following a renovation completed in 2013, Sunset Park revealed a nature inspired playground featuring log slides, mini cave, and rock climbing areas. Add other natural elements like sand and this park showcases a natural playscape fit for afternoon fun (just don’t forget the sunscreen).
8. Hideaway Woods at the Museum of Life and Science; Durham, NC
This woodland wonderland is nothing short of astonishing. There are several exploratory play areas including a collection of tree houses connected to one another by rope bridges, a sensory exploration area, an installation of artist Patrick Dougherty’s Stickworks, a creek, and hammock area. Both parents and children alike will love this exceptional natural playscape.
9. Silver Falls State Park Natural Play Area; Sublimity, OR
As the first play area of its kind in Oregon, the Silver Falls natural play area educates children by allowing them to see nature through the eyes of various species of wildlife including birds, bears, and cougars. Using all natural elements, like felled trees, logs, rocks, and plant life, play area designers have created various nesting and foraging areas that encourage an appreciation for nature.
10. Blue Lake Regional Park; Fairview, OR
The playscape in Blue Lake Regional park is composed of nearly all natural materials and encourages exploration and creativity. Children can climb on logs, use sticks for digging, play in sand pits, and hop across stumps, or engage in more traditional playground pursuits by playing on the swing set. Don’t forget a change of clothes, because the water feature is irresistible on a warm summer day!
11. Khunamokwst Park; Portland, OR
The unique name given to this park when it opened in 2015 is a Chinook wawa, the language spoken by people indigenous to the area, word meaning “together”. The park features a traditional playground area but also incorporated into the design is a natural play area. This playscape includes an interactive water feature, climbing rocks, native plants, and a slide built into the hillside.
12. Westmoreland Park Nature Playground; Portland, OR
This amazing natural playscape is part of the Portland Parks and Recreation nature-based play initiative. This park incorporates all-natural building materials including tree trunks, logs, tree cross-section climbing stacks, a creek running through a large sandy bank, boulder climbing mounds, and loose parts. Creativity, ingenuity and fun will flow freely in this innovative playscape design.
13. Shady Lane Park; Houston, TX
Shady Lane park was constructed under the theme “Play Worx” and features an imaginative design. Kids can climb structures designed to look like tree houses complete with stump steps and slides, or run over to the life-sized bayou boat in a mini wetland. But beware of the alligators when crawling through log tunnels. Yikes!
14. Kids’ Trek at Northwest Trek Wildlife Park; Eatonville, WA
If your family is up for an outdoor adventure, this is your chance to get face to face with wildlife and get back to nature in the outdoor adventureland known as Kids’ Trek. Access to this nature-inspired playscape is included with admission to the wildlife park. Climb rocks, crawl through giant tree trunks, build your own stick fort or hide out in a kid-sized cabin, you can do it all at Kids’ Trek! This playscape is intended for toddlers through tweens so there is truly something for everyone, so take on a new adventure and get back to nature!
15. Outdoor Discovery Center at Hands On Children’s Museum; Olympia, WA
The outdoor discovery center is a terrific place to allow children of all ages to interact with natural elements like plants, rocks, sand and more in a very unique way. The discovery center boasts a stickworks installation by artist Patrick Dougherty, a sand play area with child-sized row boat, mini hiking trails, gravel pit, loose parts area (for encouraging imaginative and constructive play), a chicken coop and much more! Access to the outdoor discovery center can be obtained with admission to the Hands On Children’s Museum. One thing is for sure, your family will have a blast discovering together!
16. Teardrop Park in the Battery Park City Parks; NYC, NY
This park allows you to feel connected to nature while remaining in one of the largest cities in the world. Teardrop Park uses natural rock work to create multiple areas of exploration and play. Run through the water fountains that are built into boulders and create a large water play area, or climb boulders to the top of the hillside slide, then enjoy sliding all the way to the sand pit at the bottom! Winding paths through geologically constructed areas coupled with open grassy space make this park a great place to explore.
17. Fort Washington Park Playground; NYC, NY
A large tree house with climbing ropes and a slide dominates this playscape. Plenty of opportunities for practicing balancing skills can be found on the numerous nature-themed statues surrounding the park. During the warmer months, have fun splashing in the sprinkler or playing in the sand pit. If your little ones are adventurous, they will love the climbing pyramid and pint-sized zip lines!
18. Governors Island; NYC, NY
The potential for outdoor fun is endless at Governors Island! There are picnic areas, specialty outdoor exhibits, and bike rentals. If you’re looking for a little outdoor relaxation over the weekend, hit up the hammock grove featuring 50 hammocks, perfect for a little R&R. The kids will love The Hills area, particularly the slide hill which boasts the longest slide in the city and offers amazing 360 degree views! The newest attraction is Play:groundNYC, an adventure playground which looks more like a scrap yard but is actually a monitored play area that encourages creativity and imaginative pretend play and construction. No matter what your family is interested in, they are sure to find a wealth of activities on the island!
19. Exhibition Park; Guelph, Ontario, CA
This natural playscape gets kids back to nature while having fun playing outside. This modern interpretation of tree climbing allows children to climb logs and tree trunks or walk rope nets. A large sand pit and old-fashioned water pump provide for mixed natural materials play in a community setting. Children and teens will enjoy creating their own adventure on this unique natural playscape.
20. Terra Nova Adventure Play Environment; Richmond, British Columbia, CA
Input from children was instrumental in the innovative design of this playscape. Using natural elements, a wonderland for climbing, swinging, sliding and wandering has been achieved! The enormous tree house with winding slide, zip lines and log jammer features all offer countless hours of adventure and excitement! Kids will also have fun climbing ropes and wandering through the meadow maze. Rolling hills, and a water and sand play area also add to the nature-inspired playscape and help children connect with the world around them!