Nature Play Space Promotes Creative Play at the Maryland State Fair for a Second Year

By Mary Beck

Tucked away from screeching roller coasters and happy screams of fair-goers, a frog fountain spits water into a small pond. Three children work together nearby packing sand onto a short log, quietly, but with purpose.

For the first time this year, Maryland EXCELS was proud to be one of the sponsors of the Nature Play Space, a 50’x 50’ area in the Maryland State Fair in Timonium, Maryland, that encourages play, creativity, and curiosity.

Families with children 12 and under entered the space free of charge to play with sand, pots, pans, slotted spoons, PVC pipes, water jugs, and other repurposed household objects. During the week, about 70 families will come through the play space each day, while about 130 families stop by per day on weekends.

Seeing the children so engaged in what they are doing is the best part of being involved with the space, said Patty Stine, the Nature Play Space’s project manager.

“I saw a one-and-a-half-year-old toting around decking materials,” she recalled. “He’s just carrying this around the space because it’s heavy, and he was proud that he could take it with him!”

The Nature Play Space is the brainchild of Don Litz, a Maryland State Fair board member. Stine became involved when a former coworker recommended her to Litz for the project.

Dean Smouse of Urban Gardens, Inc. in Reisterstown provides the landscaping needed to transform the parking lot area into a park for the kids. Stine provides the loose recycled items that the children play with, and supervises the play space every day of the State Fair.

“We invite parents into an understanding of play that maybe they didn’t have before,” Stine said.

Although financial roadblocks prevented the play space from debuting in 2015, the play space has already made an impact and grown since opening during 2016’s state fair. Ten groups of landscape architecture students from the University of Maryland participated in a design competition for the Nature Play Space; this year’s play space is based off of the winning team’s design. Stine was part of the review committee and went to two of the students’ classes to help them understand how play happens, and what kind of features are needed to help support the children’s play.

Child care providers throughout the state may also volunteer in the play space in exchange for Professional Activity Units (PAUs). These units, awarded by the Maryland Child Care Credential Program, acknowledge participation in activities that contribute to the professional growth and career development of those working in the field of child care.

Maryland EXCELS providers believe in promoting learning through play as part of a well-rounded, quality child care and early education experience. A number of Maryland EXCELS providers were happy to volunteer with the Nature Play Space this year.

But for Stine, the biggest rewards come from the children’s growth and happiness – and the opportunity to educate their parents.

One day, a young couple came into the space with their eight-month-old son and played for an hour and a half. When Stine asked them what made them want to stay for so long, the parents replied that their son was having fun, so they simply let him be.

“They didn’t understand what a gift they had given to their son by allowing him the opportunity to play in the space,” Stine said. “I told them that new neural connections were happening between the child’s hippocampus and his prefrontal cortex.” The hippocampus is a base brain structure central in the learning process, and the prefrontal cortex is the brain structure essential for emotional regulation, self-control, and thought processing.

“Those connections won’t happen unless the child is given the opportunity for all that motor planning that he was doing and all the new sensory information that he was integrating,” Stine said. She holds conversations like this with a wide range of parents multiple times a day at the Nature Play Space.

A Passion for Play

Stine’s career has long since been focused on promoting play. As a child, she delivered play structures manufactured by her family’s business. Since then, she has worked as a play environment designer, preschool teacher, and an approved child care professional trainer for the Maryland State Department of Education.

Throughout her career, Stine has learned how play positively influences the self-image and development of children. This drives her commitment to teaching adults about the simple ways that children can experience maximum benefit from their play.

Cheryl Simpson, the social media coordinator for the Nature Play Space, is one parent who learned in-depth knowledge about the benefits from play from Stine and Stine’s mother, Jean. “Our society is rush-rush. It takes time to get curious without being told ‘this is the right way or wrong way’ to do things. Patty and Jean nurtured this in me over the years,” Simpson said. “Innovation is developed through play.”

Simpson has witnessed the creative power of play in her own children as they grew up, and now sees it each day in the children who stop by the Nature Play Space.

“We’re not directing them or telling them what to do, but they’re given different opportunities to try things out,” Simpson said. “You can see their determination in their facial expression and they are in the zone, and that’s exciting to see, especially when they achieve what they set out to do.”

Ongoing Lessons in Play

Stine and Simpson said they often hear positive comments from child care providers and parents of happy children, such as “I never thought of that,” “I’m going to do this at my house,” or “Can you help design one of these in our local park?”

While the Nature Play Space team has no immediate plans to extend their outreach, Stine would love to see every play environment add in a more natural element.

“So many playgrounds are very sterile, because that’s what we’ve found is ‘safe’. By sterilizing them, we’ve actually taken out a lot of very developmentally advantageous play,” she said.

But Stine encourages parents to be creative and take a piece of the Nature Play Space with them to their local park: “Take things out of the recycle bin and bring them to the park with you, your play can be even more engaging. Detergent containers can carry water, bedsheets and clothespins can make forts.”

Patty and Cheryl are gathering data on how families spend their time to start more conversations about opportunities for active play outside the home. 

Kaplan Early Learning Company, a Maryland EXCELS partner, donated materials and support to the Nature Play Space.

View more photos here.