By DELLE WILLETT | Downtown News
When I was growing up, we played outdoors all day long. Luring crabs into our nets with a chicken neck on a string; collecting wagons full of chestnuts to throw at each other as friendly fire; playing hide-and-seek under huge pine trees, sharing the secret space with an escapee chicken.
Today, kids mostly play inside in front of their computers, televisions, cell phones and iPads. And when they do go to a playground, there’s the same old stuff: plastic slides, fake rock-climbing walls and concrete animals with hot rubber surfacing below. (The exception being the playground at Waterfront Park that every adult probably wishes they could play in.)
Recently the city of San Diego opened a Nature Exploration Area (NEA), one of the first of its kind in a municipal park in San Diego County. Above Florida Canyon, south of the tennis courts at Morley Field in Balboa Park, this new type of play area was designed with nature in mind.
Said landscape architect Shamli Tarbell, park designer, “This is a place where kids can explore, build and play in a safe, natural environment.” It features a fort-building area with natural building materials such as branches, reeds, pinecones and tree cookies (1-inch thick log rounds), along with a large log and boulder-climbing area.
Unfortunately, these types of natural spaces, where you can build a fort, make a mess or scramble on rocks and logs are getting harder to come by, said Tarbell.
To start the process of developing this NEA, in the fall of 2015, the city of San Diego’s Parks and Recreation Department created an internal group called the Committee of Change. Under former Director Herman Parker, the committee was tasked with finding out how the city of San Diego could create more natural spaces for exploration within our city parks.
The outcome was the Nature Play Initiative — envisioned to provide opportunities for youth to play and explore in natural settings within our city parks; to help kids reconnect with nature, promoting fitness and creativity through play in natural dynamic environments.
“Past generations grew up with a lot more access to nature and were allowed more freedom to explore independently,” said Parker. “Kids today are generally more ‘plugged-in’ with limited access or connection to nature.”
There are numerous studies supporting the benefits of kids spending time in nature including higher test scores, improved health (prevents obesity and alleviates ADD) and care and respect for nature.
The average cost of a new playground is upwards of $300,000. Parker tasked the committee with the daunting challenge of creating the pilot NEA for less than $15,000.
Significantly less expensive than traditional playgrounds, NEAs can be almost anywhere. From existing parks and open space to vacant lots, nature playgrounds can be implemented throughout San Diego.
The park uses materials the Parks and Rec Department can easily, and cheaply, procure. Large logs were salvaged from city parks when a huge windstorm knocked down over 300 trees. Massive boulders were repurposed from a local decommissioned beach project. Sand from an old playground was salvaged to create a new sandbox digging area instead of sending it to the landfill.
Native and drought-tolerant trees and shrubs from the city’s Balboa Park Nursery were added to create shade and interest. Other than engineered wood chips for safety surfacing and decomposed granite for access to the site, all materials were free and creatively repurposed for nature play.
The NEA is intended to whet a kid’s appetite for more adventure in nature and the adjacent trail system facilitates the opportunity for miles of hiking and exploration. Morley Field is also located within a highly urban area and the committee wanted to ensure the play area would be within reach of kids who may not have a lot of experience outside in nature.
“I often see families here constructing forts or whipping up kitchen-play ‘foods’ with the natural loose materials we provided at the site,” said Tarbell. “There are a few constructed elements to serve as a rough framework, but the site is really designed to encourage creativity and imaginative play.”
Vertical branches set in the ground create the frame for weaving in branches and reeds to create a log cabin-like fort. Tree cookies often serve as plates while sand, cobble, wild berries and pinecones serve as pretend “foods.” Upright boulders with natural notches support branches for a small lean-to-style fort.
“One thing can be expected in this area,”explained Tarbell. “Every time you visit, you will find different forts and structures created in different ways and places.Come and make your own!”
What especially interests Tarbell is the programming that can be developed to go along with the design of the nature parks at Morley Field and another at Golden Hill Park.
“As a public agency, we have the opportunity to connect programming with design that you can’t do in the private sector, where I often found myself wanting to design things to be programmed but that was never part of our scope.”
Explained Tarbell, “here at Parks and Rec we can talk to the kids and parents and develop nature-based programs with them to dynamically activate the space. In addition to free play, at the Rec Center at Golden Hills, kids can take part in nature play activities like crafts and mud play.”
Landscape Architect Ilisa Goldman of Rooted in Place Landscape Architecture + Consulting, and a temporary expert professional with the County of San Diego’s Live Well San Diego vision, donated her time and considerable expertise to this project, providing technical assistance to the city in the creation of this first NEA area. A champion of nature-based experiences, Goldman has been an advocate for more NEAs in San Diego.
The Nature Exploration Area is in the Morley Field area of Balboa Park (2221 Morley Field Drive, San Diego, CA 92104), directly south of the Balboa Park Tennis Club and about ½ mile east of the San Diego Zoo. The other is at Golden Hills Park and Tarbell is currently working with Parks and Rec crews on the Jennifer Jones Memorial NEA at Gershwin Neighborhood Park in Clairemont.
— Delle Willett has been a marketing and public relations professional for over 30 years, with an emphasis on conservation of the environment. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.