It’s all over my Facebook feed these days about how children do not get enough outdoor time. One article even said “The average American child spends four to seven minutes a day playing outdoors and up to seven hours a day staring at a screen.” That seems totally crazy to me. But then I look around and realize so many of our friends rarely go outdoors, even in Southern California where we have beautiful weather year round. For many families, it is not a priority to go outside, or perhaps they don’t feel they have the time or are just not inspired by the options for outdoor play.
During our summer trip to England, we found the answer to this family dilemma with the Forest Department’s Adventure play trails located in forests across the country. During our visit, we were lucky enough to visit two of these play forests. I am obsessed and would love to find out how to get one in the US. It is exactly what children need – safe places to push their boundaries, explore and learn while using nature as their playscape.
What is an adventure play forest?
The public forest estate is the most extensive resource for outdoor recreation in England, with about 70 million visitors a year. The Forest Commission aims to make the country’s woodland areas accessible to people on bike, horseback and foot. In addition to services aimed at visitors, the commission works to ensure that the forest estates continue to host many different wildlife habitats in ancient woodlands, bogs, moors and fens. These different ecosystems are carefully managed to ensure the forests continue to thrive.
There are tons of adventure forests throughout the country. They have everything from GoApe zip lining adventures to hiking and cycling trails to family friendly “play trails” with interesting, physically engaging play structures scattered along a trail in the middle of the forest. There are plenty of off trail adventures to be had as well with piles of cut down trees for kids to build their own teepees or tree forts, there are scavenger hunt games, and more to keep families engaged and learning about their natural surroundings.
It’s an amazing play space concept that is accessible to families with kids of all ages. From the littles still obsessed with Julia Donaldson’s book The Gruffalo (if you don’t know these books or this author, go buy one now. They are amazing books!), to toddlers and school age children who need adventure and space to be wild, these are the parks for you. If you don’t have kids, there is still plenty for the adults with ropes courses, mountain biking and hiking trails. As a visitor to England, adventure play forests aren’t something that one would necessarily have on their to do list, but it should be!
More for Kids
One of the most endearing qualities of the adventure forests were the many programs geared to children of all ages. During our visit, there was a promotion of the Stick Man Trails. Purchase of a little booklet (a couple of dollars) is necessary to fully participate, but you can still enjoy the Stick Man Trail signs along the paths with different activities to do. For example, one of the activities on our trail was to play ‘pooh sticks’ where everyone picks up a stick and drops it into water on one side of a bridge to see who’s stick will make it under the bridge first. These fun little activities help connect kids to nature in ways parents may not remember to!
Another fantastic part of the adventure forests are the carved wooden statues of The Gruffalo. There are currently 15 parks with Gruffalo statues and 11 with The Gruffalo’s Child. My son loved searching for the Gruffalo and getting our photo taken with him. For fans of Julia Donaldson’s books, this is a great way to lure the kids outdoors for some fun. You can find out which parks have the statues on the forestry department’s website.
The forestry department is always adding new adventures for visitors, like the new Gruffalo Orienteering Course. This is a simple map where kids work to find twelve Gruffalo markers around the forest. These creative adventures are perfect ways to inspire the children to explore and get off the beaten path, while also learning valuable skills like map reading.
In addition to these promotions, many of the forests have a specific trail dedicated to children’s play. At the two parks we visited, this trail was about a mile long and included fantastic play structures geared towards letting children explore outside of their (or really the parents!) comfort zones. Some of our favorites were the large log swing where the whole family can ride together, the ant hill where kids can climb up inside or go the adventurous way along the outside walls to pop into a hole at the top and of course the massive spider’s webs.
Where are they located?
Adventure Forests are located throughout England, often right outside of major tourist centers. However, in order to fully access the adventure forests you will need a rental car during your visit. Adventure forests are located in nature, far from typical bus and train routes. It is a great reason to get off the beaten track a little to experience some of the best outdoor adventures in the country. During our visit, we visited one outside of Kent and one in Dorset. A wonderful way to experience the countryside as well as take in as many adventure forests as you can would be to take a road trip around England. To find out if a park is near you, go here to see all of the parks.
Having a child who loves the outdoors but lives in a big city means finding places to get out and experience the wilderness. In most places in America your only option is heading down to your local playground, but even these are often uninspiring. England does playgrounds amazingly well, but what they do even better is through the Forest Department’s adventure forests located across the country. On your next visit to England, make sure to find one to check out on your own. Your child just might leave the country in tears like mine saying “they are so spoiled for great parks”!
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