What IS a natural playground?

This article was originally published in the Chronicle Herald's weekly community papers and has been republished here with their permission.

So, Halifax, you’ve got yourself a shiny new natural playground at the Dingle in Sir Sandford Fleming Park. But what is a natural playground? How does it help families appreciate nature more? Should we encourage kids to play on it? Is it even safe for kids to play on it?

This is the first natural playground on the peninsula. There are also ones in Musquodoboit Valley, Bridgetown, Morden and Bible Hill (and perhaps more in the province that I haven’t come across yet). Natural play areas allow kids to interact with elements they would find in the woods, such as logs, dirt and water, and they encourage use of gross motor skills, as well imaginative and cognitive development because children need to think differently about how they can play on it.

Traditional playgrounds have equipment with an obvious use. Swing on the swings, slide on the slide, climb on the ladder, with parents nearby to quickly correct them if they go up the slide, or hang upside down from the ladder.

A natural playground leaves more open to interpretation which allows children to make up their own uses and discover that, yes, they can hop across a fallen tree without losing their balance, and no, they can’t climb to the top of the rope structure inspired by the Dingle Tower...not yet, anyway.

It’s true that the woods have most of these elements already, but many families today don’t have, or make, the time to go out into nature on a regular basis. A report from Parks Canada noted that, annually, only two out of ten park visitors are families, and the average age of their visitors is over 50 years old.

When kids do get out in nature, it’s rare for parents to allow children to independently jump across rocks over a stream or even climb trees. We’ve become a culture wary of letting our children take risks.

Natural playgrounds offer a happy medium, a gateway to enjoying nature, if you will. It gives parents the comfort of a formal structure, and children the freedom to unlock creativity in play and challenge themselves with unusual structures inspired by nature and learn about risk evaluation in an environment they can both be comfortable with.

According to a 2012 Canadian Pediatric Society report on reducing playground injuries, the risk of having a catastrophic playground injury is lower on natural playscapes than that on traditional equipment.

Kids are drawn to nature but in our urban environment those opportunities are becoming harder to find. By placing a natural playground in the heart of our city, in the middle of one of the most picturesque parks we have, we should be proud that we are bringing nature back to the kids.

This generation will learn to navigate uneven footing on the tree stump steps, pump water into dirt and learn about what happens when they are combined and leave monkey bar climbing in the dust as they scramble to the top of logs crisscrossing each other.

Then the next time these children go into the woods they might be inspired to climb a real tree and, hopefully, their parents will be right up there too.