The Importance of Playing Naturally

As Riveredge celebrates 50 years of connecting kids with the natural world in 2018, we want to be a continued part of spreading this movement throughout our local communities. That’s why we’re excited to be launching a new Playing Naturally Initiative, offering our assistance in creating simple and cost-effective, yet proven, nature-based play areas that bring the health and happiness benefits of time spent in the natural world to our local schools, parks. and neighborhoods. In this blog post, Phyllis McKenzie, our Playing Naturally designer, reflects on what this initiative means to her. 

It’s Saturday, and I’m feeding Glitter, an ornate box turtle, when a flash of white catches my eye, and I look up from my work. I look again and begin to chuckle gleefully, for there on the Crow’s Nest in the Natural Play Area is a young girl in a long white taffeta dress half-way up the cargo net. Then I see the boy, maybe 5 or 6 years old, in his crisp black suit, straddling the webbing right at the top of the net. Another boy, also in black, is standing atop the platform, cheering them on. I wish I had a camera.

For me, it’s a beautiful sight; it reminds me that the desire to play knows no bounds. Fancy clothes and big events can’t stop it. It is a kind of innate need, something that we all do from birth – we crawl, we climb, we explore, we challenge ourselves, we strive together, we lead, we follow, we laugh, we fall, we splash, we persevere. Playing freely was once part of most children’s lives; it is a way of learning about ourselves in the world. Angela Hanscom, a pediatric occupational therapist says that time spent playing in nature allows children to learn balance, to know how far their body reaches, and build core and upper body strength. It helps them burn off excess energy allowing them to be able to sit more still and focus better in the classroom.

The Crow’s Nest is an adventure element in our Natural Play Area, an area that includes a small pond, a man-made creek, prairie plants, tamarack trees, a sand play area, a mud kitchen, and a stump walk among other things. In 2016 and 2017, Riveredge partnered with the Kettle Moraine YMCA to create two other nature-based play areas used by students in the West Bend School District 4-year old kindergarten program. As a natural playspace designer, it is fun to see kids in action in these spaces. Better yet, are the words of the teachers whose students spend time here. One of the teachers says that she and her 4K students can meet nearly all the assessment criteria of the school district in their natural playspace. Parents with students in the program are excited that the kids are encouraged to play and get muddy.

Natural playspaces exist on a spectrum from bits of grass with added logs or loose parts to truly wild landscapes like woods or prairies. Each is uniquely fitted to its surroundings giving the children a sense of place. Designed with the help of the teachers, caregivers, and children who will use them, these spaces evolve over time.

I grew up playing Pooh Sticks in irrigation ditches and lobbing cottonwood seeds at my friends. I loved to follow the animal trails down the banks toward the water and the burrows. How many times did my mother have to bring dry clothes to school because my tights were covered in red-brown clay? Where did you play as a child? Where do your children play? If you want to see more natural play areas in Wisconsin, or wherever you live, please visit the Playing Naturally page. Send me a note. Together, we can make nature-based playgrounds a reality.

—–

Phyllis McKenzie has been a naturalist and environmental educator for over 25 years. With a background in theatrical stage design and home construction, she is well – suited to design engaging and effective playspaces.