“It’s your turn to be the dragon!” my 5-year-old said recently on a visit to one of our favorite parks. We’d been taking turns all afternoon in a make-believe world he created, and I was happy to play along.

A child’s adventure is only as limited as their imagination in natural play areas, whether they are exploring a wooded, fantasy forest in search of hidden treasure or climbing a windswept mountain peak on a make-believe expedition.

At Bend Park & Recreation District, I am fortunate to be directly involved in these hidden gems tucked into neighborhoods.

Natural play areas

Natural play areas are park features made of natural elements or inspired by nature, which are meant to provide a different sensory experience than modern plastic and metal play structures. They are designed to invoke more creative, free play.

In natural areas, kids are encouraged to walk or hop across stumps and logs, race up a cluster of boulders or play tag with friends in a log forest. Using built-in hand water pumps, children can mix sand and water to build sandcastles — getting their hands dirty and exploring in the process.

Wildside play areas

Uniquely named at our district, Wildside play areas are specially designated natural play areas within parks for free-form play. Imagine a vacant lot where you may have created bike jumps or built forts as a kid. Wildside spaces are outside of pristine habitat or developed areas where it’s OK to be creative. Children are encouraged to dig, stack logs and even create their own forts and other structures with logs, tires, PVC pipe and other materials. Al Moody Park and Compass Park each have very active Wildside play areas.

Both spaces enable children to connect to the natural world, encourage physical activity and set the stage for independent exploration. Spending time outside has numerous proven health benefits including reducing stress, improving sleep, boosting the immune system and even reducing ADHD symptoms according to studies cited in the National Guidelines for Nature Play and Learning Places by the Natural Learning Initiative, National Wildlife Federation and US Forest Service.

Experts have shown that children need access to nature the same way they need good nutrition and adequate sleep. In addition, these studies have shown that natural play areas can help foster an affinity toward nature and inspire the next generation of conservation minded community members.

In recent years, Bend Park & Recreation District has been working to provide more natural areas for kids to play, explore and learn as the community grows and residential areas increasingly offer less immediate access to natural spaces.

One of my favorites is Rockridge Park, located in northeast Bend, directly south of Lava Ridge Elementary School and Sky View Middle School. Rockridge Park was designed with a minimal footprint to maintain over 60 % of the original terrain as natural space, which makes you feel like you’re miles outside of town. The natural play area is a central experience to the park. This play area features a Juniper “log forest” where children can navigate smoothed and repurposed trees that were harvested from local Bend parks. Children can also create their own natural adventures on log steppers, boulder scrambles and a climbing tree.

Now is a great time to explore a new nature play area. I hope you enjoy them and they inspire you and your child to go wild!

Jeff Amaral is the Natural Resources Manager for Bend Park & Recreation District.

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