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Five Rivers MetroParks Helps Develop New National Guidelines For "Nature Play"

Jerry Kenney

Dayton’s Five Rivers MetroParks played a key role in developing a new set of national guidelines aimed at helping communities create natural, outdoor play areas for children. The report, Nature Play & Learning Places: Creating and Managing Places Where Children Engage with Nature, released last month by the National Wildlife Federation, features the children’s park at Hills and Dales Metropark.

At first glance, the playground at Hills and Dales MetroPark seems pretty typical—there’s a swing set, a couple of slides and a sandbox. Behind that, a leafy path takes you up a small hill and into the woods. 

Credit Jerry Kenney
The Nature Play Area at Hills and Dales MetroPark has been dubbed 'Groundhog Hill' by residents living near the park.

The path leads to a site that parks manager Todd Catchpole says changes every time he sees it. On this day there are signs that children have erected several forts out of sticks they've gathered from the surrounding woods. Catchpole points out a mound of dirt, several small shovels, magnifying glasses, a shallow creek bed. This play area is where  kids are encouraged to get off the beaten path.

“That’s kind of a different philosophy than what a lot of park systems use because it’s been ‘don’t get off the trail, don’t pick, don’t touch,'" he says. "We’ve really gotten to where we’ve raised several generations of kids and families that have basically either no access or no comfort level in the woods.”

Credit Jerry Kenney
Play areas like Hills and Dales encourage kids to explore the surrounding woods and streams. Here, children have gathered sticks and logs to create makeshift forts.

The park manager says that in a technological age of entertainment, outdoor play experiences are a crucial part of growing up.

“You know these are our future leaders and who’s going to care about conserving green space in the future?" he says. "So, I’m watching little conservationists grow up before my eyes.”

The National Wildlife Federation report details how schools and parks can develop and maintain nature play areas based on 12 national case studies, including Five Rivers.

MetroParks says it cost just $500 to develop the Hills and Dales site. It’s one of six in the area—all of them are free to the public.