This article originally appeared in “Chicago Tribune”
The other day an article appeared on my Facebook feed about a new “natural playground” in Schaumburg. Considering that playgrounds and nature are two of my favorite things, I just about jumped up and down.
The goal of the park, according to the article in Chicago Parent, is to “inspire today’s youth to remain active, develop agility, learn resilience, discover the benefits of cooperation and experimentation, solve problems and learn to navigate the world around them confidently.”
Love it. I’ll probably bring my kids there soon. But I can’t help wonder, can a carefully constructed, nature-inspired play space live up to the real deal?
My boys (and I) frequently play in the woods near our house, where they remain active, develop agility, learn resilience, discover the benefits of cooperation and experimentation, solve problems and learn to navigate the world around them confidently. Quite simply, they accomplish all of this by climbing on a bunch of dead trees. But being in nature – the real kind – also offers a whole lot more.
It’s not just about physical challenges. It’s about the creativity sparked by the right size stick. It’s about the curiosity to look inside a log to see what lives there. It’s about being in touch with your senses: listening to birds chirping and bugs buzzing and feeling the crunching of leaves under your feet. It’s about cultivating a relationship with the natural world around us.
We’ve lived in River Forest, less than a mile from the river (Des Plaines) and the forest (Thatcher Woods), for nearly five years, and it still surprises me how underutilized our woods are. I suspect a few reasons deter people from taking their kids to the woods to play. For one, certain areas are not seen as “safe,” which is a bit of a Catch-22 – if more families used the woods, they might not seem so sketchy. Secondly, people believe that if you don’t like to hike, the forest really doesn’t have that much to offer. I beg to differ.
Here are 10 kid-friendly things you can do in any forest preserve. Don’t wait for a natural playground to open up near you. Get outside!
1. Go on a scavenger hunt. You can be official and make a list, or just give your kiddos a bag and let them collect to their heart’s content. My kids frequently come home from the woods with rocks, acorns, pine cones and all kinds of treasures.
2. Climb and balance on fallen trees. I swear, every time my kids see a fallen tree or log in the forest, they shout out “balance beam!” The movement possibilities are endless. Walk, crawl, jump, climb, vault. It all starts with giving your kids the green light to play.
3. Look for wildlife, or evidence of it. Kids love playing detective in the woods. We’ve found trees gnawed by beavers, animal bones and teeth and various animal tracks.
4. Pick wildflowers or collect leaves. Take them home and look them up to identify them.
5. Find a treeter-totter. I can’t promise you’ll find one of these, but we’ve come across a couple. They form when one tree falls and lands in the fork created by another tree, with about half of the fallen tree on each side. The result is a giant teeter-totter that you and your kids can ride.
6. Have a picnic. Or just bring a snack and eat it on a log. Food always tastes yummier in the woods.
7. Climb a tree, or look for a branch you can hang on.
8. Embrace the mud. Don’t let the previous day’s rain deter you from having fun. Dress in washable shoes and play clothes and have everyone toss their muddy stuff in a plastic bag when you’re done.
9. Bring a net and catch butterflies or other insects.
10. Wander. The wider and easier the path the more bored my kids get – so much that we often wander off trails to keep things interesting. Just be sure to watch for poison ivy and check everyone for ticks when you get home.
Nicole Radziszewski is a freelance columnist. She lives in River Forest and is a certified personal trainer and mother of two. Check Nicole out on Facebook at Facebook.com/mamasgottamove.