Create a nature play space in your backyard

If you are thinking of putting in a playground in your backyard — consider creating a nature play space instead.

When mom Sara Schomig of Annapolis wanted to create an outdoor play space for her two young children, she found everything she needed right in her own backyard.

“We live in a very wooded area and I thought a natural play space would work well in our surroundings, and it was economical too,” she says.

Backyard play Logan Kolstad frogWWSchomig outfitted the space with a few boulders for climbing, birch tree stumps for seating and some river rock to create a dry creek bed to mimic a natural stream. She repurposed old railroad ties into a balance beam and found a handmade cedar bridge online from an artisan.

“I thought a more natural play area would foster their imaginations and it could grow with my kids. They could be active and still engage in imaginative play,” Schomig says.
Everett, 5, and Melodie, 17 months, can’t get enough of the space.

“My son spends hours out there, creating obstacle courses with the logs and structures with some old bricks we left in the area,” she says. “Although my daughter is much younger, she loves it too, and all of the climbing is great for motor development.”

Nature play spaces — outdoor play areas that use only natural elements like rocks and tree stumps — are both the oldest and newest trend in backyard entertainment. More families are choosing to forgo traditional play sets in favor of this more rustic alternative.

“It’s about getting back to an old-fashioned version of childhood,” says Nancy Striniste, founder and principal of Early Space, a landscape design firm that specializes in natural play spaces in the Washington, D.C., area. “Lots of parents remember climbing in trees and digging in the dirt during their own childhood, and they want to encourage those opportunities for their children.”

 Natural creativityBackyard 5BEAN TEEPEE W

Studies have shown that kids are far more creative in a natural play space than on a typical flat playground. Nature play has also been shown to promote longer attention spans and psychological health, according to the Children and Nature Network, a national organization dedicated to connecting children with nature.

“By creating a play area in your own yard, it can make nature more accessible to kids on an everyday basis,” Striniste says. “Plus, natural play spaces are more of a landscape feature for homeowners and they appeal to children of all ages. It’s not something that kids will outgrow.”

Creating a nature play space in your own backyard is easy, inexpensive and fun for the whole family. Julie Dieguez, owner of Wild Child, a design firm in Annapolis that specializes in nature play and outdoor classrooms, says that most homeowners already have everything they need in their backyard.

“It’s not necessary to spend thousands of dollars to create a space,” she says. “Most homeowners already have the resources, but they just don’t know where to begin.”

Dieguez suggests homeowners start with a simple area and include some physical components such as seating made from logs and boulders or old tree trunks for climbing. She suggests hiding places like teepees made from bamboo or forts made from plants.

“It can be as easy as planting a ring of sunflowers that will grow tall and create a magical space,” she says.

Nature play spaces also might include a water feature, such as a wet or dry creek bed or an area for water play and mud pie making. Loose parts, like piles of sticks, branches and small logs, are an essential component of a nature play space, as they encourage building.

A landscape designer or local nursery is a great resource for choosing native plants and designing a space that is not only engaging, but also attractive. Or get started on your own by keeping in mind these tips.

Click next below for tips to create your own nature play space.

Backyard play WebTips to create your own nature play space

  • Trust in nature. The best places for play have already been designed by nature, so take a close look at what already exists in your yard.
  • Include digging and building. The most engaging elements of a nature play spaces are sand and dirt to dig in as well as loose parts — piles of sticks and branches that kids can use to build and create.Incorporate secret places. A circle of grasses, a thicket of shrubs or a willow tree are all appealing spots for kids who love to hide.
  • Create a path that leads to something. Stepping stones can help guide children to a specific part of the yard.
  • Turn on the water. Water features, in the form of a fountain or creek bed, promise hours of entertainment. Don’t have the room? Set up a mud pie station near a spigot. It may be messy, but your kids will thank you for it.
  • Don’t forget a place to relax. “Kids will lay in a hammock for hours and just look up at the trees,” Dieguez says.

Natural play space resources

Visit the following organizations’ websites for additional tips to create your own nature play space or to learn more.

The National Wildlife Federation has tips on what to include in a nature play space.

Green Hearts Institute for Nature in Childhood has a parents’ guide for incorporating more nature play.

Maryland Partnership for Children in Nature is dedicated to nature play and has lists of nature play spaces in Maryland.

7 nature play spaces in the Baltimore-Annapolis area. A list of parks and nature centers that have nature play spaces.

The Department of Natural Resources has a video on nature play spaces.

The Wild Child, Julie Dieguez's Annapolis design firm, specializes in nature play and outdoor classrooms.

Early Space is a Washington, D.C., area landscape design firm that specializes in natural play spaces.

By Katie Riley

Frog photo by Carolyn Kolstad
Bean teepee photo by Julie Dieguez
Bridge photo courtesy of Early Space