Relax, here's a playground

My kid and I have very different opinions about outdoor recreation. I like to relax. She likes to run and get into things. This is a piece that ran in The Living Land column in The Hawk Eye today. Enjoy!

“Daddy, c’mon,” my almost-three-year old says as she pulls on my arm. All I want to do is sit and relax for a bit but she has other things in mind.

“Where are we going?” I ask, only to be answered with silence and another tug. She probably doesn’t know. She just has to move. She needs to do something. Play. Explore. Learn. Get into something she shouldn’t. Get in trouble. Burn energy.

Because that’s what kids do. Apparently.

As I maintain a rather blurry line between home and work life, I try to apply these little lessons to my job. How can I create parks that work for families like mine? Because if it works for my energetic kid and her relaxation-seeking parents, it will probably work for other families.

We like to camp. And, just like at home, our kid has a different opinion of what a camping trip should be than we do. While we just want to sit leisurely around a campfire expending no more energy than it takes to roast a marshmallow or lift a beverage, the kid has other ideas.

“Daddy, c’mon!”

Relaxation, it turns out, is an after-bedtime luxury in her opinion.

In the parks and campgrounds, the arm tug is usually so we can go off and explore a trail, or heed the siren song of the nearest mud puddle, or gather sticks, or bugs (mom loves that one), or throw things in a pond, or fall face first into the nearest patch of poison ivy.

And while trails, mud puddles, and most bugs are little concern, some of the other things require a bit more parental guidance or, at times, full intervention. Further, until the kids reach a certain age and maturity level such that they can be trusted not wallow in poison ivy (which, at this rate, I’m guessing is around 25), they require active parental supervision in environs where such wallowing is possible.

Here’s where things get professionally complicated for me. When I was a kid, I spent much time out in my parents’ few-acre woodlot. My friends and I would chop wood and build forts and tree houses and dam the little creek that ran through it. Repeatedly. It was a real lesson in the power of moving water.

Remnants of past adventures are still visible in that small little woodlot, which at the time seemed like a vast forest to me. Craters left from dam building excavations. Tree house lumber protruding from tree trunks. Probably an old rusty hammer or two if you dug around enough.

But makeshift dams are tree houses are frowned upon in public parks. And frankly, gone are the days when most parents were okay with their kids building their own elevated structures. But the desire for parents to relax and kids to play remains as strong as ever.

Growing up as I did, I long subscribed to the belief as an adult that kids should just be allowed to run in the woods and explore trails on their own and basically be left to their own imaginations. And while I still hold to that belief to a certain degree – after all, research has found plenty of value in free play in natural environments – as a parent, I’m beginning to appreciate the value of a more built environment.

Specifically, I see now why so many parents in our campgrounds encourage us to build a playground.

Having camped at some state and county parks with playgrounds within walking distance of my campsite, I have to agree they’re worth the investment. At the end of a long day of trail hiking, or fishing, or whatever park adventures we had, I can turn my kid loose on a playground while I relax at the periphery.

Some parks have taken it a step further and have integrated natural features into a defined play area. These “natural playscapes” use logs and boulders for climbing, stones for stacking, tunnels of willow branches for climbing through, and various other features using mostly natural materials. It’s kind of like playing in the woods, but without the poison ivy.

It’s a cool idea, and one we’re all too happy to steal.

A local group of volunteers has kicked off a campaign to raise funds through the Partners for Conservation Foundation to build a playground in the campground at Big Hollow Recreation Area. We’ll start with a traditional playground but in the future we plan to expand out from that initial play area with a natural playscape. In the end, there will be all sorts of things for kids to climb, slide down, swing on, and crawl through right in the center of the campground.

All while parents like me watch them from our favorite camp chair.