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Volume 30
Number 2
Fall 2013
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Children create a shelter using tarps and logs at the Nature Play Zone at Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore Designing Parks for Human Health Benefits
The Nature Play Zone at Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore: A case study

By Kim Swift
Published: 4 Sep 2015 (online)  •  14 Sep 2015 (in print)
Site criteria and description
Lessons learned from the pilot program
Positive response
Author information
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It is a gorgeous June day at Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore, and I am watching several families enjoying the park (see photos throughout this article). One group is standing around a young oak tree looking up at two young girls scurrying up the branches like a couple of squirrels. Their mom turns to me and says, “I didn’t even know they knew how to climb a tree.” Another group is playing in the sand, hiding rocks, digging up others, and exclaiming with joy as if they just found gold. A third group is building a small fort, laying an intricate pattern of sticks and driftwood around a larger trunk they have inserted into the ground. The older sibling is helping the younger one in a rare display of cooperation, according to their dad. In another park location, these would all be ticketable offenses, and I would be going out to chide the parents and wrangle the kids back onto a trail or to a picnic area. However, these are just the sort of park interactions we are seeking at our new Nature Play Zone, so I just smile and watch.

Children build with driftwood as part of the activities available at the Nature Play Zone at Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore.

NPS Photo Collection/Katrina George

Children build with driftwood as part of the activities available at the Nature Play Zone at Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore. These children attended the park’s opening event in April 2013.

We have been witnessing and facilitating this kind of behavior in kids since we started testing the play area in April 2012, and we could not have asked for a better response. It all started with Richard Louv’s 2008 book, Last Child in the Woods. Several of us on staff read his book, including our park superintendent, Constantine Dillon, who approached the interpretive staff and suggested we initiate an unstructured play area similar to what Louv describes. First, we visited other nature centers to see their play areas. We found some excellent examples and were inspired by the range of options, from the highly developed Hamill Family Play Zoo at Brookfield Zoo to the Wild Place at Lyman Woods, which is just a roped-off section of meadow and woods behind the nature center.

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This page updated:  15 January 2014

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