On a morning at the nature play space at Irvine Nature Center in Owings Mills, a group of preschoolers build a life-sized bird’s nest out of sticks and pinecones, while some friends gather nearby to make mud pies.
“It is play time the way Mother Nature intended,” says Monica Wiedel-Lubinski, early education director and founder of the Nature Preschool at Irvine Nature Center.
Kids can explore hollowed out logs, climb on uprooted trees and jump from old tree stumps. There are no slides or monkey bars, but the kids don’t seem to mind.
“On a traditional playground, there is one way to play. But in a natural play space, kids make their own purpose for being there,” Wiedel-Lubinski says. “The elements are much less predictable and kids must bring their imagination to it.”
Nature play spaces—outdoor playgrounds that use only natural elements such as trees, sand and rocks—are growing in Maryland. Since 2008, 30 nature play spaces have been established and more are in development, according to the Maryland Partnership for Children in Nature.
“What’s old is new again,” says Sandi Olek, chairman of the organization, which is dedicated to promoting nature play spaces in the state. “We wanted to reach out to families and encourage interaction with nature. These spaces promote climbing and getting your hands dirty. They challenge kids in different ways than a traditional playground.”
The benefits of nature play spaces are many. A recent study by the University of Tennessee found that kids who played in a natural play space versus a traditional playground engaged in more physical activity, played for longer periods of time, and appeared to use their imaginations more.
“Not everyone grows up near green space,” Olek says. “Our goal is to connect kids in a fundamental way to the natural world.”
Mary Rivkin, professor of Early Childhood Education at University of Maryland Baltimore County and author of “The Great Outdoors: Advocating for Natural Spaces for Young Children,” believes that these spaces can reestablish a child’s ability to connect with nature.
“The world has become such a manufactured environment that children miss out on experiencing a natural habitat,” she says. “In a nature play space, we restore some of that habitat. Having that sense of connection and belonging with nature is absolutely essential to a child’s development.”
Check out these seven spots where Mother Nature rules the playground and kids can dig, climb rocks and jump stumps.
Paw Paw Playground at Adkins Arboretum
The First Light Village Playspace has a Native American theme that features two wigwams, a snake balance beam and a turtle-shaped tree stump ring. It is tucked into the Upland Forest along the Upland Walk trail. Families can also hike the 5 miles of trails or explore the 400 acres of fields and woodlands filled with plant life native to the Mid-Atlantic. Adkins also features Emily’s Play Garden, which has climbing logs, a mud play kitchen, and a nature labryinth.
12610 Eveland Road, Ridgely
Admission: $5 for adults, $2 for students 6–18 and free for 5 and younger.
Hours: Tues.–Sat., 10 a.m.–4 p.m.; Sun., noon–4 p.m. **The Visitor’s Center is closed during COVID** Grounds open daily dawn to dusk.
Jug Bay Wetlands Sanctuary
The nature play space at Jug Bay has a wetlands theme and includes stump jumps, balance logs and a digging area. Kids can build nests with sticks, play instruments from the musical mailbox or sit in a canoe, all surrounded by the natural beauty of Jug Bay’s ponds, marshes and 16 miles of hiking trails.
1361 Wrighton Road, Lothian
Admission: $6 per vehicle; free for active military, veterans and their families with ID.
Hours: Wed. and Fri.-Sun., 9 a.m.-5 p.m.
Patapsco State Park
The Hollofield area of Patapsco Valley State Park has a natural play space with a stump jump, willow tunnel and a natural staircase made of logs. Kids can climb on the many boulders that dot the space or hike along the bark trail that leads to more trails and a wooded area.
8020 Baltimore National Pike, Ellicott City
Admission: $2 for in-state vehicles on weekdays; $3 for state residents on weekends.
Irvine Nature Center
The outdoor classroom at Irvine Nature Center has multiple zones, such as the stage and music area with wooden instruments, a storytelling circle and a building station with blocks for young engineers. Kids can play in a canoe in the dry creek bed, crawl through hollowed-out logs, balance on log beams or explore two uprooted trees perfect for climbing. A mud pie station complete with rainwater barrels and water pumps promise good old-fashioned fun.
11201 Garrison Forest Road, Owings Mills
Admission: One-time guest passes ($5) available to the Outdoor Classroom or $75 membership annually.
Hours: Daily, 10 a.m.–4 p.m.
The Brookside Gardens Nature Exploration area includes a digging area, life-sized birds’ nest, log-rolling game, musical feature, stump jump and a bird blind. Kids can climb through a hollowed-out log, sit in the kid-sized log furniture or explore the fairy garden. Bridges and paths connect the area to a larger meadow and wooded area, while adjacent Brookside Gardens has three ponds with waterfalls, paved garden paths and abundant wildlife.
1800 Glenallan Ave., Wheaton
Hours: Tue.-Sat., 9 a.m.–5 p.m.; Sun., 1–5 p.m.
Constitution Gardens is the first municipal public park in the whole Capital area that is focused on nature play. Located in the heart of Gaithersburg, the ADA-accessible space has digging areas, a sliding hill and a stump scramble. Kids will love “Log Town,” a preschool space with log animals, log cabins, a sand pit and push pump log flume. The “lost library” area incorporates a lending library, a log circle and a giant log storyteller’s chair.
112 Brookes Ave., Gaithersburg
Hours: Daily, dawn until dusk
Rocks State Park
The nature exploration area of Rocks State park is right near the park’s famed “King and Queen” seats, a rock outcrop believed to be a ceremonial gathering place for Susquehannock Indians. The play space includes a miniature rock-climbing area called the “Prince and Princess Seat” for climbing and jumping on a kid-sized scale. Kids can explore hollowed out logs, a digging area, stump jump and a life-sized birds nest. For more activity, hike along the trail and enjoy stunning views of the rolling hills and surrounding farmland.
3318 Rocks Chrome Hill Road, Jarrettsville
Admission: Weekdays, $2 per in-state vehicle; weekends, $3 for state residents.
Hours: March-October, 9 a.m.-sunset; November-February, 10 a.m.-sunset
Jefferson Patterson Park & Museum
Jefferson Patterson Park & Museum has a brand new nature play space that opened in September, 2020. It has a giant bird’s nest to climb on, a faux tree tunnel, tree stumps and logs, and embankment slides. The play space is located near the Visitor’s Center. You can also hike miles of trails, visit the Woodland Indian Village, picnic and kayak at the park.
10515 Mackall Road, St. Leonard
Hours: Daily, 10 a.m.–5 p.m.
Robinson Nature Center
Robinson Nature Center opened in Columbia in 2015. Its grounds are open to the public and feature an unstructured play area for kids, complete with a tunnel through a hillside, metal pipe xylophone, rain wheel, climbing logs, art tables, mushroom drummers, carved wooden structures and a gathering deck.
6692 Cedar Lane, Columbia
Hours: Grounds open Wed.–Fri. 9 a.m.–5 p.m.; Nature Center open Sat. 9 a.m.–5 p.m.; Sun. Noon–5 p.m.
For a complete list of nature play spaces in Maryland, visit the Department of Natural Resources page at dnr2.maryland.gov/cin/Pages/NPS/index.aspx
or search Facebook for nature play spaces in Maryland.
By Katie Riley