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Hangout in the Hideout in St. Charles

Nature play area provides endless unstructured fun

On one side of the Hickory Knolls Hideout, 2-year-old Michael Elia is venturing across a long tree trunk laying on the ground, carefully putting one foot in front of the other until he makes it to the end. He jumps down and exclaims, “I did it!” to his mom Kathryn Elia, sitting nearby.  “Mama, I did it!” he beams.

On the other side of the nature play area is Michael’s 9-year-old brother William, cooking up a “mystery stew” at the water table, stirring a concoction of mud, water, mulch, pebbles and other natural found objects with his two-foot stick.

“We love it here,” said Kathryn Elia of Batavia. “It gives them so many opportunities for play, more so than a regular playground. There’s so much for both of them to manipulate and explore.”

Built in the spring of 2018, the Hickory Knolls nature play area, the Hideout, provides an opportunity for creative, unstructured play. Its design, with natural elements such as boulders, tree stumps and trunks, plus loose objects including pots, pans, construction vehicles, twigs, branches and the like, prompt the imagination while allowing children to connect with nature.

Creative, hands-on experience

The idea for a nature play area originated when Hickory Knolls preschool staff noticed their students preferred the traditional playground in the nearby athletic fields, to exploring the natural areas.

“The Hideout is a less intimidating introduction to the natural world, while also providing all the benefits of unstructured play in nature,” said Pam Otto, Manager of Nature Programs and Interpretive Services.

Compared to traditional playground equipment, nature play areas offer more of a creative, hands-on play experience. The options on a slide, for example, are to slide down or walk up. In a natural setting, on the other hand, children can stand, jump, walk and balance on a log and also explore the habitat living inside, Otto explained. “You can’t get that with molded plastic,” she said.

Now, the preschoolers look forward to exploring the Hideout each day. It’s open to the public all year-round, and enjoyed by families, summer campers and Scouts alike. It’s used during Hickory Knolls programs and events, and also is a perfect option for families looking for outdoor activities during Take A Child Outside week in September.

Intentionally Unstructured

The possibilities for fun are endless at the Hideout, with many elements for children to create a world of their own. They can become construction workers, digging, dumping and driving vehicles through the sandy digging area lined with natural stones, or step back in time playing in the log cabin, drawing water from the pumps and pretending to cook over a fire.

Or they can become explorers ascending the highest peak climbing on the boulders, or tightrope walkers with arms out, walking the tree trunks. Whether there’s lava below, jagged cliffs or crashing waves, they are testing their balance, bravery and building their confidence, like 2-year-old Michael Elia.

No matter where their imagination takes them, it’s clear they are reaping the benefits of connecting with nature, and learning and appreciating what it has to offer.

This is ever so important today, stressed Nature Programs Supervisor Laura McCoy, as screen time has replaced a lot of outdoor time. “The benefits of nature coupled with the benefits of spontaneous, self-guided play are significant,” she said.

Bodies of research on this topic cite the reduction of stress, and improved attention, problem solving skills, responsibility and social relations, to name a few ways play in nature impacts children.

Additionally, time playing outdoors fosters a healthy conservation ethic for the future.

“Children don’t realize all the benefits yet; they’re just having fun. But it also lays the foundation for an appreciation of and responsibility for taking care of our natural world,” McCoy added.

Ever Evolving

Just as nature is constantly changing, so is the Hideout. Over the past year, Eagle Scouts have added multiple elements including the digging area, the storage boxes, water table and most recently, the grassy mound in the center of the play area.

About six oak and Kentucky coffee trees also were planted last year and over time will provide shade to guests.

“As we look ahead, it’s definitely an area that will see more improvements, enhancements and growth,” Otto said.

For more information about the Hideout, visit

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