Parks are developing nature play areas to improve children's health and “connect” them with nature. However, these play areas are often located in protected natural areas where managers must balance recreation with associated environmental impacts. In this exploratory study, we sought to describe these impacts. We also investigated which ages, gender, and play group sizes most frequently caused impact and where impacts most frequently occur.
We measured the lineal and aerial extent and severity of impacts at three play areas in the eastern United States. Methods included soil and vegetation loss calculations, qualitative searches and tree and shrub damage classifications. Additionally, we observed 12 h of play at five play areas. Results showed that measurable negative impacts were caused during 33% of the time children play. On average, 76% of groundcover vegetation was lost at recreation sites and 100% was lost at informal trails. In addition, approximately half of all trees and shrubs at sites were damaged. Meanwhile, soil exposure was 25% greater on sites and trails than at controls. Boys and small group sizes more frequently caused impact, and informal recreation sites were most commonly used for play. No statistically significant correlations were found between age or location and impact frequency.
Managers interested in developing nature play areas should be aware of, but not deterred by these impacts. The societal benefits of unstructured play in nature may outweigh the environmental costs. Recommended management strategies include selecting impact-resistant sites, improving site resistance, promoting low impact practices, and managing adaptively.