West Side Nature Play Network
What Does the Network Do?
The West Side Nature Play Network presents an innovative and urgent intervention on the West Side. This model addresses both the need for accessible nature play sites for children and additional community stewardship of existing gardens, often maintained by dedicated older adults and long-time resident leaders. Nature play gardens offer promising, accessible, safe opportunities to create intimate green spaces in urban communities where children can be free to do the important everyday work of playing out their ideas and imagination. They provide the additional advantage of being neighborhood spaces that children and caregivers can easily access every day. And finally, these gardens offer a unique model for intergenerational community cohesion and care in a public square.
Why is the Network Important?
The outdoor world, with its natural play props and landscapes, provides children with not only an open-ended place to play, but limitless natural toys to play pretend. This opportunity to imagine one thing being another is a powerful pre-literacy skill. The ability to create a play scenario with other children is a vital cooperation skill. The chance to use the outdoors in imaginative play develops self- agency, self-soothing, and problem-solving skills. The list of why outdoor play matters goes on and on, but recent studies show that children are playing outside less and less.
Nature Play Gardens are an innovative and inspiring development in the evolution of community gardens. According to field scholars, the most meaningful memories of outdoor childhood play are most often set, not in formal playgrounds or parks, but in intimate outdoor spaces that are discovered or created by children themselves. It is in these secret spots where children construct an imaginary world that creates wonder in childhood that supports life-long curiosity, learning, inquiry, and stewardship of the earth. Unfortunately, children are, increasingly, unable to access safe, unmanaged outdoor spaces. Community gardens, in their relatively intimate size and micro-neighborhood location, offer a promising, accessible, and safe site for children’s play, with the additional advantage of being spaces that children and caregivers can easily access every day.
The West Side
The importance of access to free natural play is a social justice issue. Currently, communities that are prioritizing nature play for children are often located in neighborhoods with more wealth. This disparity of access is complex and holds within it an important opportunity for under-resourced neighborhoods. The recognition that perceptions of safety and community cohesion are increased by the presence of intergenerational public projects such as community gardens is confirmed by the three LISC organizations that the network is partnering with. Nature play spaces create an opportunity for a unique community stewardship. Children playing in public, while adults care, is an important stewardship optic, that increases its impact over time. The intersection between caring for children and caring for public space is a sweet spot of community cohesion.
Phase One Nature Play Sites
West Side Nature Play Network partners have initiated planning and implementation of nature play sites and learning networks in the East and West Garfield Park, North Lawndale, and Austin communities. Three nature play sites are planned to be constructed on NeighborSpace-protected land already developed and/or designated as a community garden in three locations: Eco Orchard in West Garfield Park; Unity Garden in North Lawndale; and Harambee Community Garden in Austin.
Phase Two Nature Play Sites
After Phase One, one additional site will be selected in each community: Garfield Park; North Lawndale; and Austin. Some existing NeighborSpace sites have been identified with potential, although the selection process is ongoing. The selection of sites will prioritize a) empty lots near concentrations of housing or in areas lacking green or play space; b) existing, under-utilized NeighborSpace sites; and c) proximity to early childhood educators / providers. After a site is selected, the Network will convene community residents and other stakeholders to participate in planning and design sessions.