Just add water to a sandbox, and children turn into landscape artists. My 6-year-old daughter tossed off her shoes on a warm spring day and dug an elaborate maze of channels and lakes in the sand with several other children.
"You're building the Hoover Dam," exclaimed grandmother Nancy Holmes of Oakdale, as water gushed from a spigot hidden in some nearby rocks and flooded their waterways.
I had taken my daughter and her friend to the Play Area and Discovery Garden that opened last summer at Tamarack Nature Center in White Bear Township. There are no slides or swings or platforms with monkey bars. Instead children can float sticks down an artificial stream or wander into a shady grove to hop across stumps. They construct forts out of branches or scamper over a terraced hillside of tan concrete molded to look like cliffs.
Later in spring, staff and volunteers will help children plant raised beds of vegetables and flowers and tend a dozen young apple trees in the garden next door.
Tamarack is the largest local example of how nature is inspiring children's playgrounds. Here in the Twin Cities, simpler nature play yards recently opened at Maplewood Nature Center and outside the early childhood family education classrooms in Forest Lake.
This June, the Minnesota Landscape Arboretum will open a nature play space designed for infants through kindergarteners that can be used as a model for day care centers and preschools.
Other examples have popped up around the country, including at the Cincinnati Nature Center and at the botanical gardens of the University of Arkansas, where a man-made stream cascades over boulders kids can climb.
"Our ultimate goal is to reconnect families and children with nature," said Jody Yungers, director of Park Services for Ramsey County, which runs Tamarack.
Kids today are less likely to play outdoors than any previous generation, with consequences author Richard Louv summed up in his best-seller "Last Child in the Woods." When that book was published in 2005, Tamarack was starting to rethink its focus and trying to make itself more exciting and welcoming to families with young children.
"We had taken away that free, unstructured play outdoors that my generation remembers," said Tamarack's director Marcie Oltman. "We wanted to create something outdoors where children could play on their own. "
Tamarack has five miles of trails that wind through 320 rolling acres of restored prairie, oak savannah, tamarack swamps and cattail marshes. But few children were playing there.
"We found that people didn't quite know what to do, other than hike," Oltman said. The "stay on the
Oltman began observing the families who did show up. One sunny day, a play group hung out inside the visitor center, where there are a few animal displays. When Oltman asked why they didn't venture outside, the parents said they didn't want their toddlers to wander while the grown-ups talked.
Oltman enclosed an acre of woods with a split rail fence, hauled in a few benches for parents and some stumps for kids and put up a sign inviting families to enter "The Wild Place."
"Suddenly, people felt comfortable," Oltman said. "We didn't add any equipment. All that was in there were stones and sticks and tree branches and logs. We had one large tree stump, 3 feet in diameter. I watched a group of kids play on that for an hour."
While parents chatted, the children balanced on logs, played hide-and-seek, dug in the dirt and drilled holes in rotten logs like woodpeckers.
Tamarack's new 2.5-acre play area, which was designed and built for just more than $2.2 million, still includes the logs and stumps, but most of it mimics nature with man-made structures designed by MIG, a Berkeley, Calif., design firm that specializes in children's environments.
The Minneapolis firm Partners and Sirny also designed a free-standing classroom with glass doors that can be flung open during warm weather. Power is supplemented by solar panels atop 20-foot poles shaped to look like petals
But the hillside of fake cliffs is what first draws kids.
"Let's go play on the rocks!" my daughter shouted when we arrived. She and her friend raced to the top of the hill and briefly looked out over some prairie. They darted into tunnels and a fake cave.
"You go down that way, and I'll go this way, and we can meet each other on the bottom," she called out as they ran down different paths. They pretended the cliff was their castle and the sand at the bottom was the desert.
Then they spotted the water. Another family had figured out how to turn on the artificial stream. Tap a brown metal disc on a rock and water starts running down a gravel stream bed on its way to a pond in the children's garden, where a windmill pumps it to an old-fashioned water tank.
Staff hope to use to the water to irrigate the garden, but they're still working out design glitches. The stream water comes straight from city pipes and is not recirculated as it is in most artificial stream designs.
"I had a day care for four years, and those kids would have loved this," said Beverly Graham of North Branch who had come with her children, ages 7 and 11.
Her kids and their two friends were gathering sticks to dam the flow. When it washed away, they built another dam downstream. They worked with focus, occasionally chatting about the best way to get the dam to stay in place. When it washed away again, they reinforced it with a couple of rocks.
Aside from the greenery, it's these rocks and sticks and sand - what playground designers call "loose parts" - that make naturalized playgrounds different from traditional playgrounds.
In a traditional playground, children mostly slide, swing or climb and run on the play structures. They use their big muscles. Naturalized settings offer more variety and more things to manipulate, which means kids tend to slow down and use their minds and imaginations more, Oltman says.
"And kids tend to be more cooperative," she said, citing research on children's play. "Kids really bring in their own ideas of how to do something. It's more open-ended."
I saw that in action with my daughter. After splashing in the stream, she and her friend wandered to another sandy area with a water spigot. Seven-year-old twins Tyler and Conner Woehrle were digging channels in the sand with their dad. The girls joined the effort, crouching in the damp sand to patch breaks in the dikes.
"I love that your daughter and my kids were working together," observed their mom Jennifer Woehrle. Her twins have a diagnosis on the autism spectrum and don't always find it easy to play with other kids. "To watch them play cooperatively, that's a huge milestone for them. It's neat to see that this place lets them play cooperatively."
Even Woehrle's 14-year-old niece was lured from sunbathing on the rocks to make dams. I was regretting that I hadn't brought my 9-year-old son. He would have been enthralled with the civil engineering possibilities.
After two hours, I finally dragged my daughter home, wet and happy.
"This was awesome," she said. "I would never get bored if this were our school playground."
Maja Beckstrom can be reached at 651-228-5295.
What: Tamarack Nature Center Nature Play Area and Discovery Garden
Where: 5287 Otter Lake Road, White Bear Township
Information: 651-407-5350 or co.ramsey.mn.us/parks/tamarack
Hours: 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Monday-Friday, 10 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. Saturday, noon to 4:30 p.m. Sunday
Target audience: Toddlers to tweens
Crowd pleaser: Building dams on the artificial stream
Avoid: A wet ride home. Bring dry clothes.
Tip: Bring snacks. Your kids will want to stay for hours.
Special events: The adjacent children's garden and orchard will open in mid-May. Staff and volunteers will be on hand weekends to help children plant, water, weed and explore.
More: Read previously published Family Outings at MinnMoms.com/outings.