Unsolicited Endorsement: Natural playscapes

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The author’s family at Homer Lake in Illinois. 

by Jordan Green

Growing up in rural Kentucky, my friends and I had access to acres of creeks and woodlands for play. We swam in the deep pools, of course, but we also waded, learning the textures of different rock formations, sand and mud. We caught crawdads and minnows, not to mention the occasional and inadvertent garter snake and leech. The highlight might have been building dams with rocks, wood and mud, providing a lesson in the relative strength of various building materials and dynamics of hydrological pressure.

My 2-year-old daughter, an urban dweller, won’t have that luxury unless I install the artificial stream of my fantasies in the backyard. The vast majority of children, growing up in cities and suburbs, will likely never get the chance to wade in a natural creek.

So the idea of natural playscapes — a playground of rocks and wood, as opposed to plastic and steel — struck me as ingenious when my mom told me about it. Our family spent a recent weekend at her place in Champaign, Ill. so we could visit my sister and her two kids, who flew from Oregon to meet us. On the second day of our visit, we made a short drive out to Homer Lake expressly so that our daughter, Amy Bell, could play with her 4-year-old cousin in some natural water. There were logs to balance on and rocks to climb over, but the artificial stream was the clear attraction.

Dozens of children in bathing suits flocked to the stream, with parents either watching from boulders on the bank or spotting them from behind. Although there were small waterfalls to climb, our kid was content to pick a spot and plop down in the water. She became preoccupied with picking up small rocks and flinging them — luckily not in anyone’s direction — or dropping them in a plastic tub. She really got into the experience, and her mother and I would periodically have to lift her out of the stream when she lowered her head and started lapping up the water. We were also highly entertained by watching her splash in a conga-playing motion with her hands.

Amy Bell’s cousin was a little more prepared to take advantage of the full experience, and I entertained her by dropping chunks of wood and leaves upstream so she could try to catch them as they darted past in the quick-moving current.

There were no snakes or even jagged pieces of rock to make the experience remotely dangerous. For these girls in the midst of discovering their natural surroundings and their bond with each other, it would be hard to imagine anything more exciting.

  • Jordan, I enjoyed your piece for a number of reasons. It reminded me of you as a small child, giving your Uncle Greg and me clear directions to the creek where your family swam regularly. It also reminded me of your recent visit to Champaign-Urbana and getting to see Amy Bell up close and personal. I agree with you that there should be more natural playscapes for children.

  • Jordan Green

    Yes, Gabe, Chris and I had fun playing in the creek in Kentucky. Catching crawdads was definitely part of that experience. I also remember Chris rebuking me for bragging about the creek, saying that he and Gabe had a creek in Maryland. It probably wasn’t Rock Creek, but that’s a really fantastic amenity for the DC area.