“Nature Play” is a fun catch phrase folks in the education field like to throw around. It can refer to special playgrounds with features like logs to balance on, trails to walk, and boulders to climb. Nature play areas have lots of sticks, dirt and rocks. Mimicking being in a forest or field, these thoughtful spaces are designed to help modern children to explore outdoors and get their hands dirty. They are toddler nirvana.
Columbia Springs has a specific part of the site for Nature Play with boulders and sticks and dirt, but really the whole site is a space for children to explore. For this reason a parent group uses our site most weeks for “free play”. What this looks like is dozens of toddlers running amok: laughing, running, hollering, and teaching each other in toddler-speak. On the surface it’s adorable, but more than that these free play days are an amazing opportunity for small children to develop physical, emotional, and intellectual skills by interacting with a natural space.
When my family was young we used to bring my boys to Columbia Springs all the time. Our youngest son especially benefitted from being a rowdy toddler running amok. Born with physical delays that required years of therapy, he benefitted tremendously from walking the uneven surfaces of Heron Loop Trail, throwing stones into dead tree stumps, picking up sticks, and getting up every time he fell. His medical providers often commented on how well he was progressing and asked us what we were doing at home. “We get him outdoors all the time,” is what we told the doctors. “Well, keep doing that!” they replied.
Getting all small children outdoors is absolutely essential to their well-being. A wealth of new studies has confirmed this. But I have never needed a study to tell me what I know to be true, which is that Nature is the great teacher, healer, and escape for children. No app can touch that. No computer games can compete. The best playground in the world is right outside, beyond the pavement.