A PLACE TO PLAY: A Pioneering Design for Future Play Spaces

About the Author

Bill Hopple is the Executive Director of the Cincinnati Nature Center.

With the leadership of Richard Louv and the Children & Nature Network, and the hard work of many people across the country, the word is spreading about the critical importance of unstructured play in nature for children and adults.  Energy is now being focused on solutions – the cure, if you will, to “nature-deficit disorder.”

In my conversations with parents I hear the same comments that Rich reports:

I learn about special places they remember from their childhood. Their eyes light up and their voices rise as they describe the times they spent outside as children.  When I ask if they let their children have the freedom they had to play outside, they say no. They state that it is not safe for their children. And they are not persuaded otherwise by statistics that indicate the incidence of stranger danger/abduction is lower today than it was 30 years ago. Their fear is real! (And there are three other obstacles we must overcome to get children out in nature: competition from electronic media, reduced access to natural areas due to increased urbanization, and the belief that academic readiness requires children to have frequent structured activities.)

But, parents do listen eagerly to the research that indicates experiences in nature are critical to the healthy development of their children. When they learn of the physical, emotional, intellectual, and spiritual benefits, they want to know how they can safely provide such opportunities for their children – they want the best for their children!

So, we must be more intentional in providing spaces for nature play. We have to create places in nature that parents feel are safe, but will allow their children to explore and discover on their own.

One strategy is to create Nature PlayScapes  – which the Cincinnati Nature PlayScape Initiative defines as “play environments intentionally designed to engage children in nature.“

At Cincinnati Nature Center, we have had an incredible response to our dedication of 1.6 acres for the creation of The Marge & Charles Schott Nature PlayScape. It is intentionally designed for children to climb, build, dig, splash, discover, and explore the natural world. Ironically, the perimeter fence which has only one entrance may be the most important feature to facilitate children’s unstructured play in nature.

The Schott Nature PlayScape was dedicated in August – over 1,000 children and adults came to the opening.  We have had over 8,000 visits in the first three months!  Families are coming repeatedly, meeting other families, and then making arrangements to meet on a future visit. We have received numerous unsolicited expressions of gratitude for creating the Nature PlayScape!

A second Nature Playscape is under construction in Cincinnati on the campus of the University of Cincinnati.  It is a project of the Cincinnati Arlitt Child and Family Research and Development Center in the College of Criminal Justice, Education and Human Services.

The Cincinnati Nature PlayScape Initiative (NPI) is a collaboration of Cincinnati Nature Center and the University of Cincinnati Arlitt Child and Family Research and Development Center, to promote the importance of nature play and facilitate the creation of Nature PlayScapes. NPI will provide educational programs, training for adults, and tours of our two Nature PlayScapes to encourage people to “PlayScape” their backyards, neighborhoods, parks, and school grounds.

Bill Hopple is the Executive Director of the Cincinnati Nature Center.

Photos: Cincinnati Nature Center


  1. Chelsea, this is very exciting! I agree. Kids need to be able to play outside like we used to do…and I understand parents’ fears these days. No matter what the statistics say….it’s hard to let go when you have all the news that tells you how much you shouldn’t. We’ll have to talk. Love to hear more about it.

  2. Great post, Bill — Thanks for sharing this exciting example of what every urban community in the country will be doing once they see it can be done — not to mention realizing the long-term costs of raising a generation of screen-bound kids.

  3. Some of my favourite childhood memories were either making leaf houses or playing house amongst the lilac bushes at the end of my street. They had lots of paths in them and made perfect hiding spots for hide go seek. I remember my mom telling us that once the street lights came on it was time to come in the house, oh to be able to just allow that to happen now.

  4. There is a very nice playscape at the Boston Nature Center. Yes unreasoning fear is big, largely due to what I call the evening “Disaster News” on TV. Yet consider this: We all know that driving our cars is for most of us the most dangerous thing that we do regularly, but we don’t let that deter us from driving around everywhere, including places where we could easily walk or bicycle, quite often in the most dangerous conditions, i.e. rush hour traffic. I am glad I was so lucky that my dad grew up on a farm and loved being outdoors, so he took us on many memorable camping trips when we were kids. A priceless gift.

  5. I have seen the playscape in person and it is very nice. It’s beautiful! I understand the idea behind needing such a place around UC or similar settings. I don’t understand why we needed a play area in the middle of hundreds of acres of forest, field and marsh with 14+ miles of well maintained trails throughout. CNC was all ready a huge playscape! My kids who are adults and teens have experienced the CNC their whole lives and have many memories of playing in nature without ever having a structured playscape. I do like the improvements to the Rowe Building and the Krippendorf House and desire they continue to maintain and update those all ready existing structures but I hope they don’t build anything else new in the nature areas. You can’t improve nature by making it more structured.

  6. I just love it! There are never enough words to express how much children benefit from playing in natural spaces … but you can definitely see it in their faces! Isn’t it wonderful that Cincinnatti has the vision to intentionally create such a wonderful space for children? Don’t you wish more communities could do the same?

  7. Excellent! All public parks should include areas for natural and free play, even the smallest. In addition, children and families should be involved in the initial planning to ensure ownership by the community to create a truly dynamic and sustainable project. This form of play is imperative for all urban areas. School grounds should also include such areas. Both need to encourage learning through landscapes in a truly holistic way.

  8. Very Nice, very loose and very natural, this is truly a landscape for play and NOT a playground with elements that still remind of a conventional playground.

    Anita Van Asperdt
    Principal LandCurrent landscape architects

  9. Bill Hopple

    The greatest irony of all of teh nature deficit issue is that we have to create places to do what children do natureally – play in nature without adult help. In addition to saftey, a key rationale for a Nature PlayScape at a nature cneter is to allow play that generally is not allowed due to the preservationist mentality of a nature preserve. THe PlayScape becomes a place that invites children to play rather than “look but do not touch.”

    We invite anyone to come for a visit – or contact us for information about the two Nature PlayScapes in Cincinnati.

  10. This is an interesting concept. I wish we could have done something like this when we got our new playground this fall. I could have had a say in the design, but honestly it wasn’t even on my radar.

  11. Thanks, Bill, for publicizing your Natural Playground! From our work over the last 13 years, we can tell you *without reservation* that children (and their parents!) who play in this kind of environment have a far healthier approach to life in general, and are better able to cope with pressures of school, homework, and the tight schedule of everyday life – and are far safer than when they play on manufactured playgrounds!

    Whenever we have a grand opening of one of our Natural Playgrounds, the reception by the community is phenomenally supportive, which is also probably the reason our online store of handmade natural play elements has grown so rapidly. You might want to check out our website at, and especially our gallery of projects around the country to see the variety of natural play environments we’ve created. You can also gain access to our store through this main website.

  12. As it is for children, parents too need the s*olace of nature. Playing with kids releases all the family hormones that will help strengthen bonds. The ocean of activities in nature that involves; sound, sight and touch are crucial component in micro adjustment to macro universe. Nature PlayScapes should be in priority list in forest of concrete that is ever expanding. I will look forward to wider research in best use of available technology and nature in its natural best. Land grab and unplanned urbanization is defacing emerging cities.
    Rural life is also at the mercy of intensive agriculture and land fragmentation, which is stealing playing spaces for children.
    Let us bring children out to nature, let us show them the real life amidst nature as they seek solace in virtual world. Let us preserve nature for future kids as we achieve progress by sustainable development.

  13. Wow. I wish there was one in every neighborhood.

  14. Magnificent! If you build it they will come…
    A beautiful model for all those who care about play.
    Thanks Bill for an inspirational piece.

  15. I love it! It is ironic though that we have to intentionally create “natural” places for play. From a parent who has been admonished by CNC staff on occaision for allowing my kids to wade in the creek, it will be interesting to see how/if this facility can create a real bridge to the real outdoors and if the traditional ethic of “look and don’t touch” evolves over time. I completely understand the preservation ethic and the need to teach respect and proper conduct in sensitive places, but there will always be a need for outdoor places where unsupervised play can run rampant. I think what these intentional, enclosed, nature play spaces really accomplish is make parents comfortable so they can let go and let happen what kids already know what to do.

  16. I feel it’s critical that children have large natural areas to roam around in, learn life lessons, learn to trust their instincts and develop a healthy respect for nature. Growing up on a farm would be ideal, but for my kids that wasn’t in the cards. I took them on hikes until the social demands of teen-hood took over. Hopefully, some of those nature experiences resonate within them.



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