Natural Play


Natural Play Areas are outdoor spaces designated for play that are made of natural components such as plants, logs, water, sand, mud, boulders, hills and trees. These components represent the larger wild environment in a way that feels safe and manageable to young visitors and their parents while inviting imaginative and explorative play.

“My best memories of childhood are from walking through the woods with my sister and climbing what we then called ‘mountains,’ exploring creeks for hours and looking up at the sky from grassy fields. I hope my children and grandchildren are able to enjoy those same experiences.” – M. Lowen, an Oregon parent

At first we though that a definition for nature paly would not be that hard. We can all identify it when we see it and many of us think about it on a regular basis. But this is a slippery beast and nailing down a definition that works for all the different situations and locations is tough. ON Play’s current working definition is:

Natural Play challenges and fascinates children and teaches them about the wonders and intricacies of the natural world while they explore and play within it. It is intuitive and unstructured, constructive (or deconstructive), and timeless, encouraging interaction with natural materials, features, indigenous vegetation, and creative landforms. Natural Play is often a blend of materials and experiences to create purposely complex interplays of natural and environmental objects. – Oregon Natural Play Initiative Definition of Nature Play



There is not one single type of play area that describes natural play.  They come in a variety of themes, shapes, sizes, purpose, and age ranges.  It is the variety that often causes confusion over exactly what is a natural play area.  We have created catergories that begin to describe this range, you can see if from the range which play area type might suit you best or fit your landscape setting.  The basic categories are:

1.  Structured Play in a Natural Context Play equipment, Specific Activities, etc.

2.  Unprogrammed Play Collaborative Games, Spontaneous, Imaginative, etc.

3.  Immersed in Nature Learning to be outdoors, Confident to go out and explore, etc.

4.  Nature as Educator Specific message, guided, school based, knowledge of the natural world, etc.

5.  Daily Nature Shadows of leaves, ant hills, Specific moments (meteor showers), etc.



Oregon SCORP parent and youth survey findings show that Oregon’s children are spending considerably less time than their parents did in unstructured outdoor play. Parents describe safety concerns, disappearing access to natural areas, competition from television and computers, and more homework as the main reasons why they are spending little time in nature. Research shows that this is leading to negative psychological and physical effects on today’s children including obesity, loneliness, depression and attention problems.

Almost all Oregon parents feel it is a priority for their children to spend more time in outdoor activities. As a result, greater priority will be given to projects developing innovative Natural Play Areas which are conducive to youngsters learning about and interacting with nature in OPRD recreational grant programs.