Play Parks Vs Natural Play Spaces

Play Parks have been a feature of towns, cities and villages for decades. Without looking at one, I bet that you could close your eyes and guess at least nine out of any ten items in them. Apart from some changes in material, style and flooring, the main elements have remained the same.

Not only have the parks themselves stayed the same, but the way they are played with has also remained unchanged. The rules are the same. Don’t stand up on the swing! Don’t run up the slide! Get off the roof of the climbing frame!

The reason why children are always trying to push the boundaries of what is possible, is that risk and challenge is a biological need. It supports vital development of their minds and bodies. This is built into them, yet it isn’t built into the design of the play park.

Play Parks Are Built By Adults

Play parks are built by adults to contain children and control how they play. Each piece of equipment is expected to be used in a specific way. Next time you’re in a park take a look around and watch out for the signs of children trying to engage in risky play. 

You may spot: 

  • Coming down the slide backwards, upside down or headfirst
  • Running up, or down, the slide
  • Standing up on the swings
  • Climbing up onto parts of equipment not designed to be climbed on. Because it isn’t purposefully designed to be climbed on, it offers a more significant challenge and sense of achievement.

Something else that comes to mind in my own childhood, is trying to make the swing go over the top of the bar. Just watch the determination in the eye of a child trying to make a swing do something incredible that it shouldn’t do.

A risky experience

I remember watching my youngest daughter beginning to use a slide. The thing that caught her imagination wasn’t the slide itself; it was the feeling of panic as she started to slip. Once she reached the bottom and realised she was safe, she was desperate to experience it again.

Play parks are brilliant for providing these opportunities where children can experience the feeling of risk and challenge. The problem is that it doesn’t last. For a youngster, it doesn’t take long before that exciting, slightly risky feeling fades away. Then they start looking for the next challenge, the biggest slide, the tallest climbing frame. And when those are exhausted, they turn to the forbidden. Run up that slide, jump off the monkey bars.

The importance of risk to children’s development

Risky play can be defined as a thrilling and exciting activity that involves a risk of physical injury, and play that provides opportunities for challenge, testing limits, exploring boundaries and learning about injury risk (Sandseter (2007; Little & Wyver, 2008).Feb 25, 2015)

Taking part in risky play allows us to navigate the world we live in successfully. Just walking down a street is full of hazards, and as people, we need to know how to respond. For children, those risks they take in their play teaches them their capabilities and develops an essential sense of risk management. 

If risk management is just told or instructed to them by an adult, they don’t learn to manage the risk they are just learning how to follow instructions.

Risk-taking is an essential part of children’s play. Managing that risk is the key to providing opportunities that support growth and development and keep children safe from unreasonable risk and injury. The balancing of these two is vital for our children’s health and development. (Allen and Rapee, 2005 cited in Sanseter, E. and Kennair, L. 2011)

Play without risk leaves children unprepared for the dangers and hazards of everyday life.

Natural play spaces

This is where natural play spaces come in. A natural play space can be anywhere where you can get outside in nature. It could be a local wood, a nature reserve. Any area where children can play in nature without the addition of specially designed ‘play equipment’.

A natural play space doesn’t need slides and climbing frame; it already has everything you need to play.

In our Smartkidz settings, we always aim to make the most of our natural surroundings and add as little as possible. The things we do add like slack lines, web netting and canvas shelters are designed to complement the environment rather than replace it.

Recently Ofsted said of us:

[Children] have enormous fun outside, balancing on raised tightropes, climbing trees or building dens and serving a variety of meals from their mud kitchen. […] This helps them to build on their communication, social, physical and creative skills.

Play Parks Vs Natural Play Spaces

When it comes to a head to head between a Play Park and a natural area, a Play Park often has the most initial attraction. However, just like loose parts play, a natural space takes a little imagination and time but can hold a child’s attention much longer.

The incredible thing about natural play spaces is that they can engage children in the risk-taking and challenging behaviour that they love, while posing less risk of actual harm than in a play park. Because play parks have specific uses, when children engage in activities beyond those uses, the risk of an accident is increased. In a natural space, they can explore challenges, often without the same level of danger.


Playgrounds or play parks are often built by adults saying “this is how children want to play” … and are wrong.

The equipment is built in a way that offers minimal opportunity and lacks imagination for the child. As a result, children try and find more ways to push their boundaries, i.e. sitting on top of the roof of a playhouse, climbing up the slide, standing up on a swing, climbing on top of the monkey bars or climbing a tree next to the park.

A natural space provides many of the challenges they crave and allows them to explore and discover in a way that isn’t possible in a purpose-built play park.

Next time you’re thinking of taking your children to a play park, why not try a trip to the woods instead?