GREENVILLE - A national movement has hit Darke County in the form of the Darke County Park District’s newest play area for children, the Natural Play Zone, which is located at Shawnee Prairie, 4267 State Route 502 W.
“It’s a growing trend within a lot of park districts and nature centers to have an area like this allotted for outdoor, off-trail play,” said Robb Clifford, chief naturalist and lead on the project. “It’s a national movement - no child left inside. So many kids are spending more time indoors, in front of a TV; the thought is, if we provide an area for them, they might get outdoors more. If our park district provides a space for this, hopefully we can reintroduce that imaginative play that’s slowly being lost, it seems.”
This design is meant to “combat an epidemic known as Nature Deficit Disorder,” as recent studies show that children are “smarter, happier and healthier,” when they’re allowed frequent and varied opportunities for unstructured play in the outdoors, a Darke County Parks press release stated.
“The idea behind it is that a lot of kids are on a very tight schedule these days; we have to go, go, go…” Clifford said.
Parents are invited to either watch from a distance to ensure safety in the parent’s area, or they can play with their children in the Natural Play Zone, Clifford said. The biggest part is that children be allowed to use their own imagination; so while parents are encouraged to play with their children, they’re also encouraged to let them take the lead, he added.
“I fully encourage parents to interact as needed, to help…but not be the dictating force behind it,” Clifford said. “A lot of the families that have been out already have been pretty hands-on, making it a whole family experience. The goal is to get the kids out there, playing and having fun.”
Some of the features include a natural balance beam, natural loom, digging pit, jumping logs, climbing mound, tunnel and a lock box with additional tools, among other features, Clifford commented. There’s a combination for the lock box available at the Nature Center’s welcome desk, and at some point the park district will include the combination on their voicemail greeting for patrons to utilize the tools even when the office isn’t open, he added.
There are only two rules for the Natural Play Zone at Shawnee Prairie Preserve, Clifford said: Be safe, and be respectful of others and nature; and take pictures, leave only footprints.
The Natural Play Zone is open seven days a week, from sunrise to sunset, and it’s free for everyone, Clifford noted. The funding for the area came through various grants, he said, including the Ami McClurkin Community Fund and the Kremer Family Farms Fund, both administered by the Darke County Foundation (formerly the HOPE Foundation of Darke County).
For questions, call the Darke County Parks District Nature Center at 937-548-0165.