Skip to content

What happens when you animate a city park?

Children, parents and the community at large have been transformed thanks to Neighbourhood Nature Play.

Zack Stevens stands with a group of children at the park. Image: Courtesy City of Kitchener
Top image caption: Zack Stevens helps lead a group of children in Nature Play at a Kitchener park. ‐ Image: Courtesy City of Kitchener

Published on September 11, 2018

What comes to mind when you think about your local park? Perhaps it’s a baseball diamond or a swing set, maybe the perfect spot for an afternoon picnic.

What about wildflower meadows, pockets of forest, mud pits, or areas for shelter and fort building using sticks and logs? For neighbours in two Kitchener, Ont. communities, that’s exactly what they imagine.

Evergreen’s Neighbourhood Nature Play program is a partnership with the City of Kitchener and community groups. It brings Nature Play and Park Animators into Gzowski and Kingsdale Parks, encouraging children to explore the outdoors, use their imaginations and have the freedom to be the architects of their environment. They can explore, invent, and build things using their own creativity and problem-solving skills, all while developing an appreciation for the natural world.

Children at Neighbourhood Nature Play hide out in a built structure.
Courtesy City of Kitchener.

Zack Stevens, who began as Lead Animator and now is the Project Lead, has seen the transformation in children since Neighbourhood Nature Play began in spring 2017.

“It’s really obvious in the little ones. Seeing the shift in cooperation and sharing, and an increase in their resiliency,” he said. “If they built some type of obstacle course and they fell off, it used to result in tears. Now, if those same kids fall off, they’re jumping right up and getting back on. It really does develop resiliency in the kids.”

A Nature Play animator toasts marshmallows with two kids from the Nature Play program in Kitchener.

But it’s not just the children that are seeing changes. Zack says parents have found connections with one another and the program is helping to build a community in these parks.

“It’s been really great to see those connections develop and see the kids connect to the space and with one another,” he said. It has created this community hub that’s so valuable and important to these neighbourhoods.”

Zack says the hope is that these parents feel empowered to lead Nature Play with their kids outside of the programming hours in the park. Just this past summer, Nature Play animators led a workshop with parents to build their capacity to take part in this valuable type of play more often.

In August, the City of Kitchener has begun the physical revitalization of the parks, incorporating more permanent structures and features that will help encourage children and their parents to participate in the risk taking, nature-based, loose-parts play Evergreen animators have been leading.

Even Kitchener residents who don’t directly take part in the program are seeing the benefits.

Kingsdale Park is bordered by a neighbouring retirement community. A resident of this community has told Zack that it’s been amazing to see the park transformed.

“This program has brought so much life to this park, which it didn’t have before” a resident of the retirement community told Evergreen. “I, for one, appreciate the happy sound of children taking an active part in healthy outdoor activities. May their pleasant laughter continue to cheer our aging ears as you proceed to enliven and enrich our community children.”

Do you want to see what it’s all about? Stay up-to-date on when programming returns to the parks by following Neighbourhood Nature Play on Facebook and learn more about the program on its project page

Thanks to our partners at the City of Kitchener, and the Lyle S. Hallman Foundation, Hain Celestial and the Ontario Trillium Foundation for supporting Neighbourhood Nature Play.