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STEPPING STONES: Natural Play Areas to Reconnect Oregon’s Youth with Nature

Oregon Parks and Recreation Department (OPRD) seeks to reconnect youth with nature through Stepping Stones; a series of Natural Play Areas designed to encourage more confident, creative interaction with Oregon’s natural world.

“If you’ve ever climbed trees, rolled down hills, scrambled up rocks, made mud pies, hidden in grass, played house in bushes, or had fun outside in other, similar ways, you’ve experienced natural play.”
-Ron King, AIA


Oregon Parks & Recreation Department seeks to create Stepping Stones, a series of Natural Play Areas found in a range of settings from the urban to the wild, with the goal of increasing youth confidence and creativity when interacting with nature. Each Natural Play Area will act as a ‘stepping stone’ to gradually build knowledge about the outdoors and to develop a lasting affinity for outdoor play.

The first Natural Play Area at Silver Falls State Park will act as a model for future phases that will involve the development of Natural Play Areas in a full range of settings from rural towns and metropolitan areas to backcountry locations.


Natural Play Areas are outdoor spaces designated for play that are made of natural components such as plants, logs, water, sand, mud, boulders, hills and trees. These components represent the larger wild environment in a way that feels safe and manageable to young visitors and their parents while inviting imaginative and explorative play.

“My best memories of childhood are from walking through the woods with my sister and climbing what we then called ‘mountains,’ exploring creeks for hours and looking up at the sky from grassy fields. I hope my children and grandchildren are able to enjoy those same experiences.”
– M. Lowen, an Oregon parent


There is not one single type of play area that describes natural play.  They come in a variety of themes, shapes, sizes, purpose, and age ranges.  It is the variety that often causes confusion over exactly what is a natural play area.  We have created categories that begin to describe this range, you can see if from the range which play area type might suit you best or fit your landscape setting.  The basic categories are:

1.  Structured Play in a Natural Context
Play equipment, Specific Activities, etc.

 2.  Unprogrammed Play
Collaborative Games, Spontaneous, Imaginative, etc.

 3.  Immersed in Nature
Learning to be outdoors, Confident to go out and explore, etc.

 4.  Nature as Educator
Specific message, guided, school based, knowledge of the natural world, etc.

 5.  Daily Nature
Shadows of leaves, ant hills, Specific moments (meteor showers), etc.

If you go to our “Which Type is for You” tab at the top of this page, it is possible to see example of how these types might look.


State Parks are stewards of most of a community’s green space, and are experienced at providing programming for children and families. This makes State Parks the natural leaders in any campaign to connect children and families to the outdoors. Building Natural Play Areas in parks can enhance the ability of State Parks to bring children quality nature experiences, which tend not to happen when children are restricted to formal trails or picnic areas.

Natural Play Areas will promote activities that bring children and families to park lands, and offer introductions to other activities found in parks including conservation education programs and interpretation, and training in outdoor skills and sports. OPRD’s Silver Falls State Park will be the first to have a Natural Play Area because:

  • A lot of people visit Silver Falls. In 2007, almost 800,000 visited the day-use areas and over 60,000 stayed overnight.
  • Silver Falls has high Hispanic visitation and there is a need to introduce under-served youth populations to outdoor recreation.
  • Local schools in the area want to collaborate with OPRD to get their kids outdoors.
  • The Natural Play Area can be strategically located within Silver Falls to introduce kids to the more ‘wild’ areas of the outdoors.

* * *

Oregon SCORP parent and youth survey findings show that Oregon’s children are spending considerably less time than their parents did in unstructured outdoor play. Parents describe safety concerns, disappearing access to natural areas, competition from television and computers, and more homework as the main reasons why they are spending little time in nature. Research shows that this is leading to negative psychological and physical effects on today’s children including obesity, loneliness, depression and attention problems.

Almost all Oregon parents feel it is a priority for their children to spend more time in outdoor activities. As a result, greater priority will be given to projects developing innovative Natural Play Areas which are conducive to youngsters learning about and interacting with nature in OPRD recreational grant programs.


OPRD aims to create a participatory design process that will serve as a template of how to design and build for Natural Play Areas. The overarching goal of this project is to aid in the state (and national) effort to better connect youth with nature. In addition to building play areas, the design process and model designs will be “packaged” for use by other park providers applying for LWCF and local grant funding.

2008-Winter – Implement grant funding program through LWCF & local programs.
2009-Fall – Define & implement a design/build process.
2010-Summer – Build the first Natural Play Area at Silver Falls State Park.
2010-Fall – Critically review design process & effectiveness of Natural Play Area. Package as model.
2010-on – Investigate building Natural Play Areas in other settings: an urban area, rural town, coastal
town, or ‘wilderness area.’
2010-on – Market design/build process and model Natural Play Areas. Continue to improve and refine.

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