Vibrant culture, world-famous donuts, and a deep appreciation for nature. Portland is often praised for its focus on sustainability and easy access to outdoor activities. You can bike. You can people-watch outside a local coffee shop. And you can let the kids run wild at one of the many playgrounds around town. Speaking of playgrounds, what’s more Portland than a nature playground? Perhaps one of the city’s best hidden gems, Portland’s Westmoreland Park is home to one of the most creative and beautiful playgrounds in the country.
What is a Nature Playground?
A natural playground differs from a traditional playground in that it revolves around natural materials. No plastic here. Instead, you’ll find play structures built using tree stumps, water, sand, and rocks. The goal? Imaginative, open-ended play. The unstructured design allows kids to invent their own rules. Of course, this is only one of the many benefits.
Benefits of Nature Playgrounds
Aside from being nice to look at, a nature playground has several advantages. Here are 5 of our favorites:
- They inspire interest in nature: Playgrounds constructed using materials found in nature tend to spark curiosity. Kids naturally want to learn about the world around them. When they come across trees, water, sand, plants, etc., they may ask questions. Which in turn offers teaching opportunities.
- They are accessible and collaborative: The free-play design of these playgrounds allows kids to interact as they explore. They engage in pretend play as they stack stones, dig, hop, and climb. Natural playgrounds are designed so kids can interact by getting creative. This is also what makes them accessible. There is no right way to play. A natural playground can be used however the kiddo sees fit.
- They strengthen problem solving: Throw your expectations out the window. Instead what you’ll find is an open space where kids are free to innovate. You have a stream of water and a pile of stones. What do you do with it? Here’s where individual interpretation comes into play. Each child will come up with their own vision. When play is unstructured, kids will always find a way to problem solve.
- They keep kids engaged for longer: Because these spaces are undefined, kids can interact in different ways. They may climb the tree stumps one way, then hop another way. Or like our daughter, they may decide to time themselves and figure out how to get faster each time. Every interaction brings about a new challenge and keeps the kiddo active.
- They appeal to all ages: Another perk of the open-ended design, kids of every age can participate. This eliminates the need to separate kids by providing play spaces for older kids and younger ones. Here, everyone can play together because there are no expectations. Kids will play in a manner appropriate for their age and interests.
The Features of Westmoreland Park
Westmoreland Park is more than just a playground. The playground is certainly a major selling point if you have littles, but it’s also worth checking out the other major element.
Crystal Springs Creek
Westmoreland’s sustainability efforts extend to the creek that runs throughout the park. Here they have committed to restoration of local wildlife. What that means is you’ll find fish, river otter, heron, eagles, and frogs making this place home. One of the greatest benefits is for endangered salmon. These species migrate through Westmoreland Park to the ocean and back again. Westmoreland Park has helped the return of salmon, and protection of it, by reducing water temperatures to improve their habitat.
In addition, the goal of the creek is to create a healthier park environment not only for visitors, but also the wildlife. As well as, restoring wetland habitats for native waterfowl, amphibians, and mammals. You can read more about all the project benefits on the City of Portland’s website.
What to Expect at the Natural Playground
Obviously, you’ll find natural elements, but what can you anticipate? Especially if you are new to natural-oriented playgrounds, you may be wondering what it looks like.
There’s a stream with running water and sand
Heads up – your kids will get messy. Come prepared (you’ve been warned). Sometimes it’s nice to let kids be kids and dig around in the dirt. Yes, we all cringe at the thought of what comes next. Washing all that sand out of those little heads. But put that thought aside for a bit. It’s worth it to let them get messy from time to time. So let them dig around and explore. Just know this is one area you likely won’t keep them away from.
There are also trucks and shovels or you can bring your own. Does this take away from the natural feel? I don’t particularly think so. They are still outside, interacting with nature. They are just using a toy dump truck to aid in their play.
But, you do you.
There are logs set up in a balance beam sort of manner
Kids can climb, hop, and run across the logs. Our 7-year-old opted to challenge herself and time how long it took to run across. And then try to beat her record. Over and over again. It’s a fun area that kids of all ages can interact with however they see fit. And the logs are fairly splinter-proof. They are really smooth so so you don’t have to worry too much about bringing splinters home as a souvenir.
There is a rock climbing area
This is not your typical rock wall. There are massive boulders set up and secured. And then ropes hanging off the sides to allow kids to climb up from all angles. And then do a sort of happy dance when they make it to the top. It’s fun watching them figure out how to climb each side in a different way.
There is a slide
Funnily enough, the one non-natural element is the thing our kids used the least. They preferred all the nature-y things. But there is a slide surrounded by rocks to give your little ones more play options.
There is a tree swing
This was a bit hidden and we didn’t see it until we were about to leave, but there was a nice little tree swing that our kids loved. And this will appease kids who go to the playground and want there to be swings. We definitely have one of those kids.
There is a water spigot
Not only is there water running in the stream, but there is also a water spigot where kids can splash around and fill buckets. It’s also a great place to clean off when you’re done. And one of the coolest things to watch was how all the kids shared it. This goes back to the social aspect. We didn’t witness fighting over who got to use what like at some playgrounds. Everyone just naturally…shared.
Tips for maximizing your visit to Westmoreland Park
Bring a change of clothes
As mentioned above, your kids will get messy and you’ll be glad to have a change of clothes. It was warm when we went so some kids were in swimming attire. But I was so happy we brought backup clothes because I didn’t consider them getting quite that drenched.
There are bathrooms right by the park
Restrooms and parks can be an iffy subject. But luckily, there are restrooms right next to the playground to change. Or in the midst of potty training when your little one has to go…NOW.
Bring a blanket and maybe even a picnic
There is a lot of green space right beside the nature playground (and throughout the park) for a picnic. Bring a blanket and some snacks along. Our kids jump at the opportunity to have a picnic every chance they get. And there are some great spots, with plenty of shades.
Bring some digging supplies
If your child is a fan of digging, you’ll want to bring a bucket and shovel with you. There is so much space for digging, building, and water play. You can get by without, but having something to dig with certainly helps.
How Does the Nature Playground Compare to Other Parks in Portland?
Westmoreland Park (and the nature playground) isn’t as well known as some of the other parks in Portland: Washington Park, Mt. Tabor, Forest Park, for example. So is it worth the visit?
It depends on your goal. If you are visiting the park to go hiking, there are probably better spots. If your primary objective is the playground – this is the spot for you. It’s mostly worth the visit if you want a unique experience. The park is beautiful and there are some educational opportunities. But from my perspective, the nature playground is the main draw.
If your kids love playgrounds, they will love this place. Our kids didn’t miss the traditional experience. They figured out ways to climb and use their imaginations to interact with the space. So if you are concerned whether there is enough to keep your kids busy, know that our kids could have stayed there all day.