Web Exclusive - September 2015
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Going Natural

Incorporating Nature Play Into Urban Parks & Greenways

By Emily Tipping


Over the past decade or so, there has been a growing awareness of the need to get more children—and adults, too—out into nature. From the No Child Left Inside legislation down to grassroots efforts at the local level, there has been a vast deal of attention given to this subject.

We all know the benefits of a little exposure to nature. No matter what your age, there's no denying that it's a boon to your health—mental and emotional, as well as physical—to get outdoors and interact with the wild world. But not everyone has easy access to the outdoors. Happily, more and more cities and towns are giving attention to this need for nature. Especially in urban areas, where green space is limited, a little dedication to nature-based play along greenways and in public parks can go a long way.

Here, we'll expand a bit on our coverage of urban greenways from the September issue of Recreation Management (visit Naturally Urban to read that story), to discuss how a couple of urban parks have incorporated nature-play elements.

South Creek Linear Park Trail
Springfield, Mo.

A number of sites were examined for their suitability before the project team planning a "playful pathway" settled on the South Creek Linear Park Trail. Located near the Springfield Greene Botanical Center, this project took advantage of pathways already crossing park property and incorporated "playful pockets," according to Anne-Marie Spencer, vice president of marketing and communications at PlayCore.

"The playful pockets were themed to match the surroundings," she said. "A butterfly pocket features a custom sculpture that highlights the metamorphosis of the Monarch butterfly." She added that this play pocket adjoins butterfly gardens and the butterfly house.

"A sign near the sculpture shares details of the butterfly's metamorphosis, from egg to worm to chrysalis to emerging butterfly, and provides games of imagination for children to play, which reinforce the non-formal learning opportunities."

Other play pockets along the trail also feature signage to promote learning and highlight such natural elements as mushrooms, trees and pond life.

"Children and families are often seen playing together and discussing the information found on the sign," Spencer added.

The goal of the project, according to Terry Whaley, executive director of Ozark Greenways, a nonprofit group of private citizens in greater Springfield working to develop a greenway trail network, was to "… experiment with the features that might offer unique and interesting elements to the trails that could encourage more trail visits and trail usage by youth, the thinking being that if we could make the trail interesting to youth, their parents would accompany them for trail visits, thus encouraging trail activity, and family-based activity on the trails."

"Playful pathways are a great tool for broadening community options for improving children and family access to nature, extending play opportunities in nature by creating attractive, fun routes for them."

Cumberland Park
Nashville, Tenn.

Cumberland Park in Nashville, Tenn., was developed as part of an ongoing and extensive riverfront redevelopment that aims to celebrate the Cumberland River and bring disparate communities within the city together.

The 6.5-acre park encompasses 900 feet of riverfront between the Shelby Street Pedestrian Bridge and the Korean War Veterans Memorial Bridge and has direct access to the pedestrian bridge—which offers stunning views overlooking downtown Nashville and its surroundings.

"For a long time," said Tommy Lynch, director of the Nashville Metropolitan Board of Parks and Recreation,

"there was no real celebration of being a river city. Now we're connecting the greenways across the pedestrian bridge, and we're getting people down to the shore. Historically it's been a place that Nashvillians and people visiting almost avoided. There were no accommodations, and no recreational aspect to it."

Now, the park, with its nature-inspired play structures and water features, provides a wide variety of experiences in a relatively constrained space.

"We had a vision to use natural features to create play," said Chris Koster, special projects manager for Nashville's Metropolitan Board of Parks and Recreation.

So instead of just relying on a traditional modular playground, the project team took a close look at how children play. "Part of the vision was to create a situation where you want to be out there, and as you grow up and keep coming back, you'll discover different things," Koster said. "You may go back three or four or a dozen times before you notice all the different elements of the park."

Some 1,700 new shrubs were planted along a sloping hill, and Koster said many plants were chosen to attract butterflies. "As we got toward fall last year, all those shrubs were shimmering, and I touched one of the bushes and hundreds of butterflies just drifted up off those plants. It was incredible.

"The climbing wall is set up so you'll find a challenge for toddlers all the wat to teens," he added. "And the water feature creates a basin for babies and toddlers to play in a calmer zone, while older kids can play more in the shooting jets. We tried to create reasons for everyone to keep coming back."

And the park, so far, has been an overwhelming success.

"There was a lot of uncomfortableness about that side of the river, and concern that the park might not be well attended," said Koster. "But we were confident and hopeful, and Tommy engaged in a public effort to do this to bring healthy and sustainable park places to all Nashvillians." The park is now seeing close to 200,000 to 250,000 unique visits in a year, Koster added.

"There's a lot packed into a really small area," he said. "It's getting a bit overrun, but the beauty of that is it's touching all socioeconomic backgrounds. It's really set a precedent and we're pleased because it added to the momentum of the riverfront development project."