Playing, Naturally – Playscape at the Finger Lakes Museum

by Natalia Kivimaki
Director of Operations, Finger Lakes Museum

When we think of playgrounds, most of us likely have a similar idea that flashes to mind, and we can probably agree that not much has changed since we were children. As an 80s kid, I vividly remember the metal slides that became scorching hot in the bright sun and the concrete under the swings that had us asking the nearest mom for a Band Aid for a skinned knee. Today, slides and swings remain playground standards, although their materials have become gentler, more flexible and a lot less prone to becoming surface-level-of-the-sun hot. 

As a stay-at-home mom for five years, I spent more hours at playgrounds than I can count. With two children who pretended the swings were their personal spaceship, I appreciated the outlet for energy and safely contained area that playgrounds offered us on sunny afternoons. While they were a fantastic way to get out of the house to “get the wiggles out,” our visits started to become repetitive. We might have been in a different spot with a different view, but the activities were all the same. Slides were for sliding, swings were for swinging and we were bored. 

There are great playgrounds at local state parks, and my children started entertaining themselves by running around on top of the boulder edge that surrounded the playground. Yes, the rocks around the playground. Why were they running on the rocks when there were all these swings and slides to enjoy? This was the physical equivalent of giving toddlers carefully chosen birthday gifts and having them squeal with delight only at the wrapping paper that accompanied it, tossing aside the gift inside. 

To me, the sharp edges and broken corners of the rocks were an emergency room trip waiting to happen. To my children, the rocks were a way to explore something new, different and exciting. I would scoop them up and place them back on the safe, wood-chipped surface, wishing there were a way to incorporate these natural kid magnets into a safe way to play. 

I wasn’t the only one thinking this. As a result, there’s a different playground that’s been gaining tremendous interest, one so unlike others that it doesn’t even call itself a playground. It’s a playscape: a natural environment that takes the wider surroundings into account to create a space for free, unstructured play. 

Imagine logs for climbing on and hiding in, forts made from tree limbs, and textures, sights and sounds that allow imaginations to go wild. There are no metal slides, no rubber surface coverings and no right or wrong ways to use the space. Children are able to take risks, build self-confidence and play in a limitless world of opportunities. 

Now, you might be thinking this sounds dangerous, and someone is going to get hurt. The brilliance of a playscape lies in the removal of danger for safe risk. Yes, children will be climbing and running, but the items have the danger removed. Rocks are smoothed of sharp edges, branches sanded of splinters, and lush, soft plants dot the boundaries of the space. Consider the items as tamed nature, perfectly selected for injury-free play that encourages creativity and fun. 

Understanding the importance of natural outdoor play, the Finger Lakes Museum in Branchport successfully rallied donors to support a playscape project through their 2021 FLXGives and ROC the Day campaigns, coupled with a grant from Yates County. Renowned playscape designer Rusty Keeler brought his magical spin to a space situated on the museum’s 29-acre campus. Incorporating the museum’s backdrop of “rolling hills, trickling water and seasonal plantings” into the playscape allowed Keeler to create “a mini version of the Finger Lakes Region itself, scaled down for child-sized fun,” he says. “The best backyard ever!” 

Thrilled to have Keeler’s guiding hand in this project, The Finger Lakes Museum announced the playscape opening in the end of June 2022, just in time for the bright sunshine of summer. 

My kids are pre-teens now (hello, middle school!), but I know they will be happy to explore the area when they come to visit the campus. That’s the beauty of the playscape: open to all ages, ready to welcome all minds and imaginations. Details on this wild and wonderful space are available on The Finger Lakes Museum’s website, Visit the museum and explore the best backyard ever! 

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