Unstructured play is so important for kids, which is why we love finding spots where they have the freedom to build, explore and flex their imaginations. These unstructured playgrounds bring free play to a new level with zip lines, wood rafts and oversized building blocks. Is there one on this list near you? Keep reading to find out. 

Adventure Playground - Huntington Beach, CA

At the Adventure Playground in Huntington Beach, you’ll find hand-built tree forts, a giant makeshift water slide and a lake that kids can paddle across on wooden rafts. Needless to say, this is a spot where everyone will get messy, and that’s all part of the fun. Kids are also given access to real tools so they can make their own additions to the tree forts. Check out our insider’s guide to get the most out of your visit.

Good to know: The playground is open every summer from June until August—be sure to check their website for exact dates.

Online: huntingtonbeachca.gov/residents/parks_facilities/parks/huntington_central_park/Adventure_Playground.cfm

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Imagination Playground - New York, NY

Designed by celebrated architect David Rockwell, Imagination Playground is a totally interactive spot where kids get to create their own play space using sand, water and loose parts. They’ll have access to mats, huge foam blocks, wagons, crates and fabric to create whatever they can dream up.

Good to know: Since the creation of the flagship Imagination Playground in 2010, sets have popped up all over the globe, from Hawaii to Chicago to Mexico.

Online: nycgovparks.org/parks/imagination-playground

Lions Park Playscape - Greensboro, AL

This unique play space was designed and created by architecture students at Auburn University. The playscape features a maze of 55-gallon galvanized steel drums, which encourage kids to run, hide, jump and climb. There are also sound tubes and sensory rooms hidden throughout the maze.

Good to know: Rural Studio, the Auburn University program behind the park, works to help an underserved population in West Alabama's Black Belt region. Check out their website to learn about the other projects they’ve completed and to donate to the program.

Online: ruralstudio.org/projects/lions-park-playscape

Rotary Park - Moab, UT

Rotary Park has picnic tables, barbecue grills and a basketball park, but the coolest part has to be the musical playground, complete with xylophones, drums, bells and chimes. Your whole family can work together to create a musical masterpiece in this one-of-a-kind playground.

Good to know: There’s plenty of open space to explore once you’re done making music, as well as trails for hiking and biking.

Online: moabcity.org/Facilities/Facility/Details/City-ParksRotary-Park-33

photo: The Grove

The Grove - Rockford, IL

This nature exploration area adjacent to the Severson Dells Nature Center includes seven sections, each with a different way to explore. Kids learn to work together on projects like building a fort out of fallen branches. Climb on the giant rope spider web or make music with the wooden drums. See how many wooden blocks you can stack on top of each other. The possibilities are endless!

Good to know: The nature center offers programs throughout the year for children and adults. The Science Saturday programs are particularly popular with families.

Online: seversondells.com

photo: Ramsey County

Discovery Hollow at Tamarack Nature Center - White Bear Township, MN

Discovery Hollow at Tamarack Nature Center is ideal for wanderers, explorers, curious kiddos and eager beavers alike! It has a hobbit house structure (with living roof); a big sand pit; The Stream, which allows kids to play with water flow, sound and movement, and The Wood: an area full of sticks and logs for kids to drag around and make forts and stacks. While the water flow in the stream doesn't happen in the coldest months, the nature play area is open year round and The Cliff area, designed for climbing, becomes a sledding hill for local kids. There's also a large garden on site, miles of walking trails (where you can spot owls at dusk and see tons of fall colors) and snowshoeing/cross country ski trails for the winter. The center even offers rentals.

Good to know: Pack food for hungry bellies because it’s on a big property outside of White Bear, there are no nearby snacks, and your children will not want to leave.

Online: ramseycounty/parks-rec/tamaracknaturecenter/discoveryhollow

Adventure Playground - Berkeley, CA

This incredible, half-acre "wild" play space has been open since 1979 and is one of the most lauded playgrounds in the country. A mix between Neverland and Lord of the Flies, the entire space is filled with scrap wood, old spare parts, paint, zip lines and any other creative building material you can think up. Visitors can climb and build upon the unique, kid-designed-and-built boats, forts and other structures and can paint on anything in the entire park (except each other!). Based on European-style spaces, Adventure Playground encourages kids to think and play creatively. And that killer view of San Francisco? It only adds to the imagination.

Good to know: This play space is best for kids ages seven and over. Little siblings are welcome, but only with direct supervision from mom or dad.

Online: ci.berkeley.ca.us/adventureplayground

photo: Wander Woods

Wander Woods Nature Play Space - Highland Park, IL

This play area located within the Heller Nature Center was built in conjunction with the Chicago Wilderness organization to encourage wonder and discovery in outdoor play. Nestled in the trees, children find simple one-word suggestions and basic tools such as water, mud, sticks, wheelbarrows and shovels, and then they are set free to play as they wish. Hide out in the teepee to cool off on a hot day or climb the tree house to see what the birds see. Let the creativity and messiness begin!

Good to know: The nature center offers tons of programs for little explorers and after-school classes for kids to get them excited about the world around them.

Online: pdhp.org/heller-nature-center

Hands-on-Nature Anarchy Zone - Ithaca, NY

At the Hands-on-Nature Anarchy Zone inside the Ithaca Children’s Garden, when it comes to unstructured, natural play—anything goes. There are locust logs, straw bales, river clay, cardboard, sand, shovels and other materials, all of which invite little explorers to play, destruct, work together, solve problems and have fun. The Anarchy Zone is a combo of nature play, city farms and adventure playgrounds. Kids have so much fun digging and moving and making, they don’t realize they are working, too!

Good to know: There are 11 other exhibits at Ithaca Children’s Garden.  

Online: ithacachildrensgarden.org/hands-on-nature-anarchy-zone

photo: play:ground

play:groundNYC - Governor's Island, New York

Play:groundNYC is the first wild playscape in the New York City area. The 5,000 square foot space follows other Adventure Playground formats—designed as a junkyard of sorts and filled with “trash”—which means kids are free to build, wreck, move, dig, create and take chances at their own pace and level. There’s an area just for the tiniest adventurers (a mud kitchen that requires parental supervision), and there’s a junk play area for kids ages six and up (supervised by play-workers). The only “rule” is to wear sturdy, closed-toe shoes. Check out our insider’s guide to find out more.

Good to know: play:ground is seasonal and will close on Oct. 1 until spring 2019.

Online: play-ground.nyc

photo: Eureka Villa

Eureka Villa - Val Verde, CA

If you've ever dreamed of building a fort out of palm fronds or hiding out in an elderberry bush, then Eureka Villa is the place for you. This two-acre adventure playground in northern Los Angeles County is home to over 100 trees, many of them over 100 feet tall. Kids can explore as they wish, and trained playworkers are available on-site to encourage kids to explore. Be sure to save some time for the tire swing! Eureka Villa is open to the public every Wednesday and Friday during the school year.

Good to know: Eureka Villa is also available to rent out for birthday parties and other private events.

Online: scvadventureplay.org/eureka-villa

photo: Polk County Conservation

Jester Park Natural Playscape - Granger, IA

Jester Park in Polk County, Iowa is home to a natural playscape that has no trace of metal, plastic or play signage. Instead, guests wander the grounds made up of a number of unique sections. You'll explore the maze of the Tall Grass Tangle, roll down the hill at Bison Bluff, search the playscape for 11 hidden petroglyphs, wade through the wetland to cool off, marvel at the stone henge and explore the forest of the dead (decaying trees, not zombies!).

Good to know: Don’t miss the “Peace Pole,” located in the middle of the playscape. It’s an area where the spirit of peace is embraced by the people.

Online: polkcountyiowa.gov/conservation/jester-park-natural-playscape

Westmoreland Park Nature Play Area - Portland, OR

Westmoreland Park Nature Play Area opened in 2014 as part of the Portland Parks and Recreation’s Nature Play Initiative. Your little ones can climb on boulders, traverse logs, dig in the sand and use cut pine branches to make forts and caves. The park opening went hand-in-hand with the restoration of the Crystal Springs Creek wetland so be sure to check out the play creek for the kids. There’s also a giant grove of sequoia trees and a picnic area. Get more details from our insider’s guide here.  

Good to know: Going during the winter season? Bring your own water because the drinking fountains will be off.

Online: portlandoregon.gov/parks/westmorelandparkandnatureplayarea

Natural Playscape at Prescott Farm - Laconia, NH

Prescott Farm brought in designer Rusty Keeler of Earthplay to put together a Master Plan design for their natural playscape. The space opened in May 2016 and includes a fairy and gnome mossy area, tree sawing, a sand pit, nest building, a rocky ledge, balance logs and much more. Keeler’s vision, combined with the dedication of hardworking members of the community, created a space where families can come together and enjoy a natural take on play.

Online: prescottfarm.org/education/naturalplayscape

Adventure Playground - Irvine, CA

Adventure Playground Irvine has both a traditional play structure and an open-ended play area. There’s a huge mud pit with dump trucks, a loose-parts area, giant LEGO blocks, a mural wall for painting, a sensory garden, a bamboo forest and a tree fort.

Good to know: There are several old-fashioned water pumps perfect for cleaning up dirty kiddos!

Online: cityofirvine.org/adventure-playground

Leonard Schine Children’s Natural Playground - Westport, CT

Nestled in the woods of Aspetuck Land Trust lies 10,000 square feet of fort building, digging, tower-climbing, tea parties, stick stacking and nature collages. Designed for kiddos ages three to seven, and build entirely out of materials found on the preserve, the Leonard Schine Children’s Natural Playground is a hidden gem. Features include a bear’s den cave made from grapevine and a giant bird’s nest which kids can improve with sticks.

Good to know: Don’t miss the Elvin fairy village!

Online: aspetucklandtrust.org/leonard-schine-preserve-childrens-natural-playground/

— Kate Loweth & Gabby Cullen

 

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