So long over-programmed playgrounds! Natural playgrounds with abstract play structures and movable materials are popping up around the country. Here's why that's great news for developing kids.

Advertisement

Research shows that kids today lead more scheduled and structured lives than ever before, and they spend much less time outdoors than older generations did when they were kids. According to one British study, on average, children play outside for just over four hours per week these days, compared to more than eight hours per week that their parents' generation spent outdoors.

Parents eager to break from routine and get their kids outside might head to their nearest playground for an afternoon. But most neighborhood playgrounds offer structured environments that circumscribe play opportunities and leave little space for developing kids to exercise their imaginations.

"With traditional play structures, there is a sense of monotony that decreases the yearning to try innovative things," explains Leela Magavi, M.D., a board-certified child and adolescent psychiatrist.

Fortunately, there's a growing trend in playground design to eliminate over-programmed playgrounds in favor of more natural ones. Natural playgrounds are often designed to honor local landscapes: a slide might be installed on an existing slope, while boulders and stumps are re-engineered as safe play features. When natural playgrounds include play structures, they tend to be abstract. Some still host traditional favorites like swings, but kids will also find new things to love, like climbing walls, log jams, and movable materials like dirt, sand, and water. All these are pluses for developing kids.

The Benefits of Natural Playgrounds

These spaces invite unscripted play, which is vital to childhood development. Dr. Magavi explains that "unscripted play allows a creative platform" that "helps foster children's creative, social, emotional, and physical development."

Regine Muradian, Psy.D., a clinical psychologist specializing in children and adolescents, says that natural playgrounds also encourage kids to "think outside the box," which helps build their critical thinking and conceptualization skills. Exercising these different skills appeals to active and curious youngsters, so it's no surprise that studies show kids spend more than twice as long playing on natural playgrounds as they do on traditional ones.

When designed well, natural playgrounds can also be more inclusive than traditional playgrounds, ensuring that kids with disabilities can play together with their peers. For example, when Let's Play SF!, a partnership between the San Francisco Recreation and Park Department and the San Francisco Parks Alliance, committed to renovating 13 of the city's most timeworn parks, it opted for both natural and inclusive designs to meet community needs. The new San Francisco parks feature smooth surfaces for safety and accessibility, accessible swings and sandboxes, and abstract play structures built from natural materials.

As more people learn about the benefits of natural playgrounds, community groups and city administrators have come together to install them in neighborhoods across the country. Many organizations that offer grants are eager to support natural playgrounds because they're oriented toward fitness, nature, education, and community-building.

An image of little girls playing in nature.
Credit: Getty Images.

What If There's No Natural Playground Nearby?

For families that don't have a natural playground in their neighborhood, Dr. Magavi says that educators, parents, physicians, and community organizations should work together to develop "creative, yet realistic methods" to provide outdoor experiences for children. For example, she suggests walking or hiking, finding an area to plant seeds, or organizing an outdoor scavenger hunt.

It's also possible to advocate, fundraise, and plan for a natural playground in your neighborhood. That's what the non-profit San Luis Valley Local Foods Coalition did in its rural community in Alamosa, Colorado. "The non-profit conducted a community master planning process with a parents group leading the way," explains Liza Marron, the organization's director. The result of their hard work is the Rio Grande Farm Park Natural Playground, which opened in 2019. Marron says the voice of parents, who joined the planning process and showed up at city council meetings to advocate for funds, was crucial for making the space a reality. Parent involvement is also attractive to funders, explains Marron, "as it shows community support and need."

Margie Wilhelmi, director of marketing for Wheaton Park District, home to the impressive Sensory Garden and Playground in Lisle, Illinois, agrees with the importance of parents getting involved. "We included parents and caregivers of children who have physical disabilities and those on the autism spectrum [in our project]," explains Wilhelmi, and "they provided very valuable insight." Of course, kids should be included, too, as the foremost experts on what they want and need in their spaces. Wilhelmi encourages parents looking to start a similar project in their neighborhood to reach out to community leaders, city administrators, the local park district, and community service clubs that represent different parts of the community.

The Best Natural Playgrounds in the U.S.

If you're looking for a natural playground to visit with your family this summer or for inspiration for a future project in your area, here's where to start.

Woodland Discovery Playground

Near Memphis, Tennessee, this giant playground was designed by some of the world's best landscape architects, play experts, and kids themselves. The park has six "play nests," each geared toward a different type of play. From scaling seven-foot-tall climbing boulders to exploring treehouses—there's something here for every kid.

Harper's Playground

At the intersection of natural and inclusive play, Harper's Playground in Portland, Oregon, features a sloping hill packed with play features accessible to every kid. With climbing boulders, a space to play with wet sand, musical instruments, swings, and slides, this playground is ready to welcome the whole family.

Bridgeland Dragonfly Park Playground

Northwest of Houston, Bridgeland Dragonfly Park in Cypress, Texas, is a complex complete with a community center, pool, walking trails, and one of the nation's most whimsical natural playgrounds. An enormous purple dragonfly climbing sculpture with a 34-foot wingspan is the main attraction, but kids will also enjoy the playable log jam, swings, and climbing nets.

Sensory Garden and Playground

This park in Lisle, Illinois sets a high standard for inclusion and natural design. Children who visit will find fresh herbs in the fragrance garden, massive musical instruments in the sound garden, and accessible treehouses and other play features to explore with their friends.

Tongva Park Playground

Just across from the Santa Monica Pier in California, the Tongva Park Playground is a natural playground oasis. It features a climbing wall and boulders, colorful and abstract play structures, and slides built right into the hillside. The surrounding landscape is full of native plants to boot.