Nature Provides: Play in the Park

“I thought we were going to the park!” For many children, the word park is synonymous with playground. When students arrive for a field trip to Frick Park , many are confused when they step off the bus and are greeted with a scene of woodlands, meadows, and streams. Their preconceived notion of “park” does not match what they see in front of them, but despite the lack of expensive playground equipment, this natural space has plenty of play opportunities.

At the Frick Environmental Center, our education staff strives to facilitate diverse and authentic experiences that deepen and inspire personal connection to nature and foster a sense of identity as part of the natural community. Children connect and learn through play. We have worked hard to incorporate play into our programming and have also looked at ways to make the physical environment playful as well. Over the past few years, we have developed a nature play area at the base of South Clayton Trail using the natural materials found in the park. The space is designed to invite park users to connect with nature in a playful way.

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When the new Frick Environmental Center opened, the area beside the beginning of South Clayton Trail was heavily changed as invasive Norway Maple Trees and hazards were removed. Felled logs and a massive array of scattered branches and natural debris remained in an uncovered area between the small dogwood grove on site and the woodland.

To add a playful element to the area, we decided to repurpose the material left behind and create a playful space for park visitors. It started small at first. Staff and interns cleared out part of the area and arranged the large cut logs and scattered branches into a circular nest-like structure dubbed The Eagle Nest. This structure has served as a comfy lesson area for our summer camps for the past two years.

In August of 2017, volunteers from The Mission Continues, a group that pairs veterans with service opportunities, spent a hard day’s work setting stumps and logs into the ground to create more opportunities for physical play. Park users can hop from one stump to the other or balance along one of the logs.

Recently we added a small stick shelter for imaginative play opportunities. In one school program, students pretended the shelter was a squirrel nest and took turns pretending to be squirrels coming in and out as they prepared for the winter. Students were able to act out what they had been taught about squirrels, engaging their whole bodies in the learning.

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We are currently developing a mud kitchen for the space, funded by the Remake Learning Ignite Grant. The kitchen will include counter space for making mud concoctions, storage space for used kitchen utensils, and an inlay tub for water. The introduction of a mud kitchen in our camps last year was a hit with the campers and we are excited to have a structure in the nature play area to incorporate such a creative activity.

As summer begins, we take advantage of our nature play area with the return of our Nature Play Dates. Families are invited to visit the nature play area on the last Sunday of the month from June through September. Between 1:00-3:00pm, a naturalist-educator is stationed at the Nature Play Area with engaging activities geared towards kids ages 3-9. Each month hosts a different main activity such as scavenger hunts, making paper kites to fly around the park, or creative play with mud, along with playful supplies like sidewalk chalk, hula hoops, and loose parts nature play available.  

Many visitors are sad when their park experience comes to an end, but we assure them that the park—and nature—are always available to them. We hope to see many of our young friends playing in the park soon!