Discovering a generation of children uncomfortable playing out-of-doors, Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore is the first national park to launch a Nature Play Zone to encourage unstructured free play, said Sue Bennett, Chief of Interpretation and Education (right). Located next to the Paul H. Douglas Center for Environmental Education, this area is less than one acre in size but offers a shaded area for adults and plenty of space for kids to play.
In contrast to park rules that encourage visitors to “leave only their footprints,” here youngsters can dig holes, pick up sticks and build forts. Children benefit from playing in nature, said Education Specialist Kim Swift, who helped lead the development of the model play zone starting in 2011. This area is part of the Nature in My Neighborhood Program designed to influence kids who don’t get outdoors due to school demands and competition from TV. “This kind of unstructured play area is unique to the traditional approach of how national parks engage youth,” Bennett added. Funded with a $60,000 grant from NPS’s Healthy Parks, Healthy People Program, this project is designed to help kids have fun in nature and increase their appreciation of the outdoors But when they leave the play zone, children are taught to respect park rules. More than 2000 visitors have enjoyed the play zone since it opened April, 2013