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The nature play zone at Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore: A case study


Park’s natural play space encourages unstructured, creative, cooperative play and exploration

In the spring of 2012 Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore Park began offering a Nature Play Zone. Park rangers and educational staff were systematic in their approach to testing, refining, and capturing data on the natural play space design and use by children and their care providers. Included in this case study, are some considerations for site selection, potential compliance protocols, and physical design elements.

Also included are some insights into the marked difference between how people interact with nature in the play space and other parts of the park. The author describes a scene of children climbing trees, digging up rocks, and building a fort in the Nature Play Zone and states that “in another park location, these would all be ticketable offenses, and I would be going out to chide the parents and wrangle the kids back onto a trail or to a picnic area. However, these are just the sort of park interactions we are seeking [here].” This particular park and natural play area are located in a neighborhood of Gary, Indiana where there are few outdoor playgrounds and no other sanctioned areas for nature play. The author reflects on how well received this area has been by the community it serves and on how different children’s behavior is at the Nature Play Zone as compared to a traditional playground, stating that ‘nature play looks different than traditional playground play. It is inquiry-oriented, with kids asking questions and finding answers on their own or with the help of adults or other kids. They build elaborate nests, forts, and designs. They cooperate with each other and try new things all because the boundaries and spare parts are loose and can be manipulated.” However, an important relationship was observed between the behavior of the adult care providers and the children.  If the adults are not comfortable with their children exploring, experimenting, and potentially getting dirty in the process then the children have notably more restricted behavior, similar to that seen on traditional playgrounds.  Conversely, if the adults are comfortable and even modestly engaged with the nature play, the children have a positive response and interact freely with the natural environment.  The author notes that “When kids are given that freedom, their imaginations kick into gear and the magic of nature happens. Time seems to slow down here, and they forget about electronic devices and TV shows and just play.”


Swift, K., (2013). The nature play zone at Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore: A case study. Park Science, 30(2), 48-51.

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