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How to build a natural playground


Ben Taylor

Outdoor play is one of the most important parts of a child’s development, and it’s one that’s increasingly being overlooked. With more and more time being taken up by technology, making sure your child gets enough time outdoors can be difficult. One solution can be to schedule supervised play in the garden.

If you’re looking to make a play area for your child, you may be wondering what the best option is - both in terms of price and how much your child actually gets out of it. Should you go for a natural playground, or an artificial one? And if you choose a natural design, how should you set about creating it?

What is a natural playground?

First of all, let’s make it clear what a natural playground is. Natural play areas are very similar to artificial playgrounds in their purpose - giving children a range of equipment to stimulate healthy, creative risk-taking and play. Where they differ is in the materials. 

An artificial playground will often use metal or plastic equipment that’s one size fits all. It probably won’t make the most of your garden’s layout or topography, and chances are you’ll have to replace it in a few years anyway as your child outgrows it. 

On the other hand, a natural playground is just that - natural. Using materials like wood, stone and even any raised areas or trees you already have in your garden. Natural playgrounds are made to fit the space they’re meant for, so you can take advantage of whatever’s to hand to make it fun and exciting for your child. 

Are natural playgrounds better than artificial ones?

Natural playgrounds are often better for the environment than their artificial counterparts. This is because they’re made from natural materials. By using what’s already in your garden, plus natural landscaping supplies, your playground will be more sustainable and have less impact on the environment. Plus, natural playgrounds are often cheaper, as you don’t have to go out and buy lots of equipment. 

It can also be cheaper in the long run to build a natural playground, if you think ahead at the design stage. Children grow up so fast and change their interests all the time - so you want to make your playground structures as multipurpose as possible. The key is to ensure your playground will be used for as long as possible - and not necessarily just by children. You can use it, too!

A log could be used as a balancing beam, a bench or a step-up for outdoor workouts. As for rocks and boulders, they could be seats, something to jump on and off or something to dribble around when practising football skills.

Natural playground design ideas

There are a few more things to think about when designing your natural playground on top of ensuring its longevity and making the most of your garden’s layout. These are the three most important:

  • Size
  • Multisensory opportunities
  • Risk-taking

The size of your natural playground will depend on several factors - how many people will be using it, for example, and whether you use your garden for other things, too. You might consider using only one half of the garden for your natural playground, leaving the rest free for picnics, sunbathing, flower beds and vegetable patches. 

It’s also worth considering how you can make your natural playground multisensory. Using different textures like bark and moss and adding wooden windchimes can help to make an engaging environment for your child to learn and grow in. Landscaping supplies such as bark chips, mulch and soil are great options, too. 

And most importantly, giving your child the space to take risks is vital. Making mistakes is the best way to learn, and that applies to having adventures as much as it does schoolwork. By allowing your child to take risks in a way that minimises damage and injury, you’ll help them to develop well. Using a soft surface such as bark chippings is a great way to do this.

Building a natural playground

You don’t have to be a DIY expert to build your own natural playground - far from it. Here are some easy ideas you could try:

  • Stepping stones - create a path of stones that can be used either as an obstacle course or as a stepping stone bridge. If you don’t have stones to hand, don’t worry - you could also use handy tree stumps or logs. Just make sure that whatever you use is stable so your child can jump from step to step.
  • Digging pit - something so easy, you barely have to try. Simply dig up an area of garden for your child to use, similar to a sandpit. You could border it with wood, logs, or stones, or just leave it as it is. Who says you have to go to the seaside to play with a bucket and spade?
  • Tree-climbing - a great way to engage your child, especially if you have a tree with low branches. This one doesn’t require you to do anything at all - but you could add a rope ladder or swing to make it extra exciting.

How to lay bark chippings for play areas

Whenever a child does anything adventurous, there’s always an element of risk involved - but that’s a good thing. Taking risks and learning from their mistakes is healthy. That said, it pays to make sure your child doesn’t injure themselves badly while using their natural playground equipment. In areas where they could slip or trip, try a layer of wood chippings to soften the fall.

To calculate how much you’ll need, you’ll first have to take the measurements of your planned play area. Multiply the length, width and depth of the space you’d like the wood chippings to go in. This will give you the volume you need in litres. It’s recommended to have between 150 and 300mm of depth to your bark chippings layer, but you may need more depending on the height of possible falls.

You should also consider how well your ground drains. If there are any problems with waterlogging, it may be best to include a layer of well draining material such as sand beneath your wood chippings. This will increase their lifespan.