Now is a great time to explore ‘nature play’ in the Miami Valley

Allowing children to get dirty, crawl on the ground and play with the earth will inevitably result in extra loads of laundry, but the benefits of young people regularly playing with nature have been studied to be long lasting.

“It keeps us happier, healthier and smarter when we’re playing outside (and) it gets us ready for school,” said Doug Horvath, Five Rivers MetroParks naturalist and outdoor educator of over 23 years.

“Nature play” or “outdoor play” is as simple as it sounds — it’s “creating a safe place that parents can bring their children and allow them to interact with natural objects, where they’re using different kinds of play skills,” Horvath said.

Of course, nature play can take place anywhere outside where imagination is allowed to roam free. However, Five Rivers MetroParks and other park districts in the Dayton area have designated areas that combine natural objects like boulders, logs and tree stumps, with more familiar playground equipment like slides, monkey bars and other manufactured surfaces.

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Upgrades to the Hills & Dales MetroPark play area, located at 2655 S. Patterson Blvd. in Kettering, have recently been added and opened to the public. The park’s White Oak Camp area offers a traditional play area and a nature play area on the tree-covered hill, according to the Five Rivers website. Kids can move back and forth between the two play areas, and guardians can walk on nearby paths or enjoy the comfy Adirondack chairs.

To access the Hills & Dales play area, park in the lot off of Hilton Drive or access it by a three-quarter-mile trail walk from Twin Oak Camp off of South Patterson Boulevard.

Possum Creek MetroPark, located at 4790 Frytown Rd. in Dayton, is also adding a little hill and a tunnel through the hill for kids to crawl through and explore at its nature play area. It is expected to open early this spring.

Here’s where to find designated nature play areas in the Dayton area:

  • Englewood MetroPark, 4490 W National Rd., Vandalia
  • Hills & Dales MetroPark, 2655 S Patterson Blvd., Kettering
  • Possum Creek MetroPark (planned to open in spring 2022), 4790 Frytown Rd., Dayton
  • Sugarcreek MetroPark, 4178 Conference Rd., Bellbrook
  • Wesleyan MetroPark, 1441 Wesleyan Rd., Dayton
  • Russ Nature Preserve’s Nature Playscape, 2380 Kemp Road, Beavercreek

Many developmental opportunities await at local nature play sites.

“Nature playscapes have uneven surfaces in them,” Horvath said. “That might be different than let’s say, you go to a playground that has the rubber mats underneath all the equipment, which is very great fall surface, but it’s also very level. For children to develop, (they) actually need uneven surfaces so that they can learn how to balance and move their body.”

Especially following a year where many students were out of in-person schooling for chunks of time, nature play can help grow skills that young children typically learn in class and with classmates.

Credit: Staff

Credit: Staff

“In nature play, there’s a lot of loose parts,” Horvath said. “Children, particularly young children, when they’re picking up sticks and rocks and manipulating those and laying them down and making patterns or playing games with them — they’re actually developing that fine motor skill with their hand eye coordination and fingers. We’re going to ask children to pick up pencils and crayons and this is wonderful practice for all that.”

Horvath said when he’s talked with people who have studied and designed nature play, one thing that stood out was how “children stick out their tongue a little bit in a sign of intense focus.”

“They say that happens because the kids are very engaged with their environment,” Horvath said. “If you’re doing the same routine, like at a playground where everything is static, things don’t move around — kids get a little complacent and bored, and they don’t pay attention to what they’re doing anymore. So that’s when you slip and fall a lot of times.”

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So while nature play encourages children to learn about risk by exploring and taking chances, Horvath emphasized that it doesn’t mean it’s a more dangerous way to play compared to a traditional playground setting.

“A lot of times we have sand spaces in the (play) area,” Horvath said. “And the sand is deep. It’s actually an approved fall surface. So instead of a rubber mat, there’s sand to fall into if you jump down into that.

Another way parks create a conducive place for kids to grow confidence and develop their independence while playing in nature is by putting the benches for parents “just a little bit farther away.” By combining natural safety features like sand or grass around designated spaces to play with nature, it becomes a healthy place for kids to learn about risk taking.

“We love interaction between parents and kids… but (it’s) great to give them a little bit of that (space) for independence. … A child looks at a log, let’s say or big rock, and they say ‘I want to climb that! And they climb on top of it. Well, they did take a risk by climbing up because they can fall down. But risk like that is very healthy for children. It’s how we test ourselves. And we also fall down, but then we learn to get back up and that is a practice of resiliency. We teach ourselves to be a little more self sufficient.”

There’s now a national movement happening surrounding natural play areas, and Horvath said there are local grassroot efforts that are working to get children into nature. “Miami Valley Leave No Child Inside” is a collaboration between local park districts, Dayton Children’s Hospital, Brukner Nature Center, Public Health of Dayton and Montgomery County and Ohio Naturally, and its mission is to educate the public on the important role nature plays in child development.

For more information, find upcoming events and to get involved, visit ohiolnci.org.

Credit: JIM NOELKER

Credit: JIM NOELKER

Credit: JIM NOELKER

Credit: JIM NOELKER

Credit: Staff

Credit: Staff

Credit: Sarah Franks

Credit: Sarah Franks

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