Let's create vibrant spaces for nature-based play!



Let's create vibrant spaces for nature-based play!

A Natural Fit

At Riveredge Nature Center, we know time spent outdoors improves mental and physical well-being. It reduces stress levels and improves coordination. Kids need to move and they need the opportunity to get outside! 

That's why we believe so strongly in nature-based play. Natural playspaces provide research-proven health, fitness, academic, and beneficial play outcomes. Time and again, children have shown a preference for nature-based elements, particularly when adjacent to traditional (read: boring!) playground structures. By incorporating a diversity of natural materials that can be manipulated, explored, and modified, natural play areas inspire children’s imaginations and creativity, provide small motor skill development, and lead to a wealth of health and happiness benefits.

As a leader in the natural play movement for 50 years, Riveredge has seen these benefits firsthand. That's why we're incredibly excited to launch a new Playing Naturally Initiative, offering our assistance in creating simple and cost-effective, yet proven, nature-based play areas as a way to help re-engage our neighboring communities with the natural world. Our professional education and land management staff look forward to working with you to create a nature-based play area that meets your needs and desires!

The Benefits

Think back to your favorite memories of childhood play. Chances are the scenes in your head don't take place on a stale plastic jungle gym. That's why we want to help you recreate the backyard play spaces of yesteryear - fallen logs, mud pits and foxholes - sandboxes, ponds, and trails through the brush – places to catch frogs, chase butterflies, and play king of the mountain – places to swing on a tire, roll down a hill, and cross a creek on a log. As research now makes clear, these settings and experiences are the ones that stand out to us precisely because they are the ones with the most benefit to our health and happiness. Here's a small sampling of those natural play benefits the research has found: 



Green play areas provide a wider range of play activities that are more appealing to many kids. That means an increase in physical fitness and the incredible range of health benefits we know that brings. 


Natural areas encourage play that is both cooperative and imaginative. Because they're conducive to many styles of play, they also more easily accommodate kids of different ages and abilities. 


Kids immersed in the natural world are calmer, less stressed, more resilient, more positive, and have an increased ability to focus, even showing decreases in ADHD symptoms!


Green schoolyards have been shown to improve academic performance in everything from science to math to language arts. Along with better grades, natural environments increase enthusiasm for and engagement with learning.

What We Offer

Sold? We can work with you every step of the way to help make these benefits a reality at your own school, park, or organization. 


Nature Play Presentations

Need help sharing the power of nature play with your staff and stakeholders? We can provide hands-on presentations to help answer the most important questions like: What is ‘nature play’? How is nature play important in developing the whole child? What kind of learning goes on in a natural playspace? How can we create spaces that develop the whole child?

User Centered Conceptual Playspace Designs

Our play area design staff work with your teachers and students to ensure effective use of the playspace we design and create together. By listening to your needs and dreams, we'll be sure the design will promote the learning your teachers want to take place in the outdoor space.

On-Site Facilitation And Follow Up

To keep your costs down, we'll work directly on-site with your volunteers to install the elements of your playspace. Our partnership doesn't end when the kids start playing, though. We'll also provide a one year follow-up structural and safety inspection so you can be assured these playspaces are designed to last.

What Makes Us?

  • An entry level approach to creating a natural playspace. As a nonprofit, we know a thing or two about tight budgets and capacity. We are here to help you take the first steps toward naturalizing a new or existing playspace with no huge commitment required.
  • A client-centered approach to developing a space that meets your needs, and your desired outcomes. We're here to listen!
  • A design that fits your site, not a cookie cutter arrangement of parts.
  • Hands-on facilitation of volunteers to install the natural playspace, helping build engagement among your staff, families, and stakeholders. Even better? It significantly reduces your build costs. Riveredge was created largely out of volunteer power; let us help you harness that power!
  • Wisconsin-based natural materials to help the children you serve develop a sense of place in their playspace.
  • 50 years of experience connecting children with the natural world. Our own natural playground is a model for the region, and we've become a go-to resource for other educational organizations looking to develop their own. We'd love to share more about these projects and our experience!
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Our favorite part of the process? Hearing how these new natural playspaces are opening up imagination and adventure for the children they're built for. 

"Our natural playground has been such an asset to our class and learning environment this year. The children love to go explore, climb in the trees, create unbelievable scenarios that include large groups of interaction and remember day to day what they were playing and pick it back up later. We just did a unit on hibernation, so we read our book outside in the tree circle and then told the children to make their own dens using sticks and leaves. They ran around working in many sized groups finding the right tree to use, gathered sticks, balanced and stacked and raked leaves into their dens for warmth. They then crawled in and went to "sleep". They continued this on their own for several weeks, building and gathering and pretending to be bears. They also enjoy fishing trips in the boat with stick fishing rods. They catch everything from blue gills and walleye to sharks and whales. They even save each other if someone falls overboard. They have learned how to safely play with sticks as tools using them for axes, shovels, knives and saws to chop down trees or keep bears or monsters away."

"Thank you for helping create the outdoor play space. The kids are enjoying it so much. They have been able to climb, build, run, and be on an adventure every time we go outside. We have seen
the children with special needs play and learn with their classmates in ways that would never happen inside a classroom. The creativity, cooperation, risk-taking and problem-solving that goes on is so fun to watch. The children have built forts, gone hunting, climbed trees and done many other imaginative things. I think the most important thing that the playground has done is to get the kids outside to learn about and appreciate nature."


Meet The Team

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Phyllis McKenzie

Natural Play Area Designer
Phyllis 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. Phyllis has managed the restoration of Westlawn Woods, a community-based restoration adjacent to Westlawn Elementary School in Cedarburg. Phyllis designed and facilitated the installation of the natural play spaces at both Holy Trinity and the main campus of the Kettle Moraine YMCA’s 4K sites. Phyllis has also managed the natural play spaces at the Schlitz Audubon Nature Preschool.
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Sunny Knutson

Education and Administration
Sunny is the Riveredge Director of Education and has served as an environmental educator for over 20 years. She has been involved in the Riveredge Nature Center-KMYMCA-West Bend School District 4K partnership since its inception. Sunny has a strong interest in early childhood education evidenced through many years of leading Pathfinders (5 year-old) summer camps. Additionally, she is on the board of Pathways Charter School in West Bend.



Because we believe so strongly in working with you to design a unique project that fits your specific needs and goals, costs can ultimately vary based on those unique factors as well. If you're interested in learning more about our work and receiving a quote for your space, we'd love to work with you to schedule a free consultation for us both to learn more about each other!

Our designer, Phyllis McKenzie, is always excited to answer any questions you might have and can be reached at 262-375-2715, at, or through the handy contact form right here on the page. We hope to be able to work together to make your kids healthier and happier!

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