Home » Education » New Nature Play in Druid Hill Park

Construction is complete for Druid Hill Parks’ first ever nature play space! The play space is located at the intersection of East Drive and Red Road just east of Safety City!

Nature play space1Photo: Youth planting a commemorative tree at the July 8th opening day

The story of the Nature Play Space’s inception is a serendipitous series of natural events, wood re-utilization, innovation and partnership. Last year one of Druid Hill Park’s gorgeous white oak trees died. Damage from storms caused the tree to become hazardous. The tree was cut down but left temporarily in the park for later pick up. Normally, the tree would have been taken directly to camp small to be sold for lumber or chipped. However, it was the vision of our Deputy Director, William Vondrasek, that sparked the idea of turning the downed tree into a semi-permanent natural feature that would become part of a natural play space. Mr. Vondrasek instructed Forestry staff to leave the tree in place. Then, during subsequent park events, such as, the Camp Baltimore culmination event, kids… and adults began playing on the down tree, using it as a balance beam and climbing and bouncing on its large branches. This also drew the attention of others within the agency such as the recreation division. Mary Hardcastle, BCRP Development and Resources Director, who has led family and nature programming as well as coordinates the Greater Baltimore Children and Nature Collaborative (GBCAN), organized the initial meetings that brought forestry, parks and planning staff together to create a plan for the space. A design for the space was then created by Sarah Hope, BCRP Design Planner, that include additional features such as a sand box inside of the hollowed stump, a living willow tunnel, tree plantings and much more!
NPS design by sarah

Photo: Nature Play Space design created by BCRP Design Planner, Sarah Hope

Many reading this must wonder, why a nature play space? Why not a normal playground with slides, swings and climbing decks. Isn’t a down log dangerous? Won’t the kids just get dirty? What will they do in this space. Well Nature Play Spaces can incorporate both some of the traditional playground features like slides and swings, but they also present additional challenges and possibilities for childhood development and enjoyment that you often will not find in a traditional playground setting. Nature Play Spaces unlike traditional playgrounds are not “cookie cutter” molds with parallel bars and equal distant stairs to climb. Each nature play space is unique and different. Nature by design is not symmetrical, even or perfectly engineered. Its uneven and challenging with a great diversity of colors and textures and limitless opportunities for a young child …or adult to explore. These natural features help children better develop sensory and motor skill as well as problem solve with difficult and changing landscapes and small building parts. Additionally, nature play spaces provide children with the opportunity to connect to nature in a way that is all their own. These first early experiences with nature can help build a child’s basic understanding of the natural world by allowing them to visualize firsthand water moving through the environment, observing bees collecting pollen or watching how a plant grows over time. These early experiences help not only develop a child’s environmental literacy and understanding of science but also help foster a sense of wonder that leads to appreciation and eventually environmental stewardship.

Kids in sandbox

Photo: A nature play space for all ages! Toddlers and young kids enjoying a shaded sandbox in the nature play space.

Leaders in the Children and Nature movement have set some unofficial guidelines or templates for nature play spaces. These include physical components such as utilizing natural landscapes, plants, water features, hiding places, small pieces that can be manipulated and pathways. Nature Play Spaces should also include physical activities that can be incorporated into the space such as building, climbing, connections to nature, art and pretend play. The Maryland Department of Natural Resources as well as the National Wildlife Federation provide great resources for individuals, organizations or local municipalities working to create these spaces or to encourage play and exploration in non-created nature play spaces such as the old-fashioned forest or stream.

Forestry, Planning and Parks staff as well as non-profit partners have come together to volunteer labor to help construct the nature play space in Druid Hill Park. Forestry staff as well as Michel Anderson, Environmental Education Coordinator, at Blue Water Baltimore helped design and construct the living Willow Tunnel. Summer youth works and CJC crews helped build many of the other features including the sand box. The nature play space is a “living” space in more ways than one. It of course has trees and shrubs but will also continually change as nature does. So new features will continually be added as time goes on.
Willow tunnel construction

Photo: BCRP Urban Forester, Ted Martello and Blue Water Baltimore Environmental Education Coordinator, Michel Anderson helping to construct a Willow Tunnel in the Nature Play Space. 


nature play space ribbon cutting

BCRP Staff from from Forestry, Parks, Finance and Recreation cutting the ribbon at the opening day nature play space celebration.

The opening day for the Nature Play Space was held on July 8th. Youth from Recreation Centers as well as Children of Park’s employees came out to explore and share in the fun of their local environment.  Toddlers and young children crowded around a shaded sand box to play, balanced on logs and stumps and planted a commemorative tree to replace to the Oak that had fallen and initiated the whole series of nature fund events.

Tree Planting

Young children put the first “scoops” of soil into the tree pit on opening day.

— Desiree Shelley, Environmental Conservation Analyst and Education Coordinator