Anyone with children knows that if something can be climbed on, they’ll climb it.  Outdoor play sets fill this role, but here’s another way to keep your kids active while adding to the natural beauty of your landscape: natural play areas!

If you’ve spent time at a park, nature preserve or in the woods you’ve undoubtedly seen kids balancing on a fallen log or jumping from boulder to boulder.  When designed properly, these are the types of features that can provide your children a wonderful place for unstructured play and be near to the comforts of home.  Natural play areas are becoming a popular trend because the possibilities are practically endless.

Each site is unique and provides its own opportunities for play areas.  Rolling hillsides can be utilized to create a network of tunnels or even partially excavated to create small climbing areas (such as rock climbing walls).  Small “caves” are a fun way to give kids a place to “hide” from their parents while staying safe and supervised.  Flatter terrain can be used to create a meadow with wildflowers and a mowed path, providing kids the opportunity to come in contact with nature more readily.  Mowed paths are another great way to give kids a chance to run – when they see a path they just want to take off!

There are many other elements that kids are drawn to naturally, such as fallen trees and boulders.  Logs can be used as balance beams for kids to run along (which they love) and can now be hollowed out to create a tunnel!  Stumps of different heights can be placed around each other to create an interesting place to step up and down from safely.  Kids also adore climbing on boulders of all sizes.  If the site allows it, boulder walls can also be built for kids to climb.

Kids also love to play with plants, whether that means climbing trees, playing inside a group of bushes, or eating berries, and there are many ways to integrate them into a play area. Gardens are a source of wonderment because kids love to plant seeds and watch them transform into full grown plants, then enjoy the fruits or vegetables that follow. As an added bonus to parents, giving your kids their own garden helps keep them healthy because they love eating what they plant all on their own by giving them choice and control.

The Natural Learning Initiative ( is a research and professional development unit at the College of Design at NC State University that promotes the importance the natural environment to children through their daily experiences.  Check out their website for excellent information that will help you get your kids interested and involved with nature, along with even more ideas for outdoor play!

The safety of children should always come first, so if you are considering a natural outdoor play area for your children be sure to start with a proper design, and always supervise your children during play!

Join the discussion about natural play areas on our Facebook page and tell us how your kids play outdoors!

Special thanks to Angie Six of The Risky Kids for giving us permission to use her image.