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Natural Play Spaces

Play space examples
Examples of possible nature play space features. Images courtesy of Earthscape

Natural play spaces are alternative playgrounds that use natural elements to inspire active and creative outdoor play, and connect people – young and old – to nature. They are made predominately with natural elements such as sand, water, wood, landforms, plants and boulders. These elements allow kids to interpret, on their own, how to play and use the different pieces to discover and create. This type of play space contains as few synthetic/man-made components and structures as possible.

A traditional playground is an outdoor play area usually equipped with standardized play equipment such as swings, slides, monkey bars, and the like. They are typically placed in the centre of a large, defined, flat area filled with approved safety surfacing such as pea gravel or pour-in-place rubber. Most traditional playgrounds encourage active, structured play that exercises the body through physical activity.

Although important, active play is not the only type of play children need. Play spaces that meet the needs of creative, imaginative, nature-based and self-directed play are also vital to children’s cognitive, emotional and social development.

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Why is Calgary Parks creating these play spaces?

In June 2015, ParticipACTION, a national non-profit organization whose mission is to help Canadians sit less and move more, released the report card on the Physical Activity of Children and Youth in Canada. Canada’s grade was a D-. At the same time, the organization released an evidence-based position statement that suggested Canada could increase its grade by focusing on active outdoor play, and take a stand on the benefits of playing outdoors and playing in a way that challenges and teaches children how to recognize opportunities and risks, problem solve and make sound choices.

On the heels of these announcements, the Lawson Foundation put out a national call to fund projects/initiatives that could action the recommendations of the position statement. The City of Calgary received a $160,000 grant from the Foundation to conduct research with Calgary parents on this new form of play and play spaces, pilot evidence-based programs and build play infrastructure in City parks, and create a municipal Play Charter.