From the Seed of an Idea, Nature Play Blossoms in Austin

group celebrating
Community residents celebrate grand opening of Island Oasis. Photo by Saverio Truglia.

Remember days of fun-filled outdoor play and exploration? Neighborhood socializing?

Recognizing the value of unstructured, imaginative, and outdoor play, the Christopher Family Foundation sought to increase access to nature for youth living on Chicago’s West Side (defined as Austin, East and West Garfield Park, and North Lawndale). In 2018, we began a fourteen-month long research process. With varied input—from youth, guardians and caretakers, community leaders and organizers, and area residents—we learned of desires, challenges, and barriers to expanding access to outdoor play.

From these conversations, a Request for Proposals was issued, and ultimately, West Side Nature Play Network was awarded a $100,000 grant, renewable for up to five years. The network is a collaboration between Garfield Park Community Council, a community-building organization, and NeighborSpace , the only nonprofit urban land trust in Chicago that preserves and sustains gardens on behalf of dedicated community groups. By shouldering the responsibilities of property ownership—such as providing basic insurance, access to water, and links to support networks— NeighborSpace allows neighbors and leaders to focus on growing food, flowers, and community.

Despite pandemic-related delays, two of five nature play spaces have opened, both in the Austin neighborhood: The Island Oasis Nature Play Garden in 2021 and, most recently, Harambee Community Garden in 2022. At the most recent opening, attendees enjoyed free activities, music, and food. The space, designed with community gardeners and early childhood leaders’ input, gave children the opportunity to engage in pretend play, use their creative and reasoning skills, explore, and see the animals of nearby Glenn Art Farm. Parents and residents happily looked on in appreciation of the simplicity and benefits of enjoying outdoors. Many attendees commented on the peacefulness of the surroundings, how it draws generations of the area, the importance of fresh food (from the adjoining vegetable garden), and, overwhelmingly, the importance of this land to children.

Children at play. Island Oasis grand opening. 9/19/21. Photo by Saverio Truglia.


Nature play at work. Photo by Saverio Truglia

Today proved not only how vital creating spaces for children to play together in the outdoors is, but also how full of joy it can be for everyone. We saw so many big smiles today, the kind of smiles that come from deep spontaneous unstructured play with friends that you just met. And it wasn’t just the children that were beaming, we all were. We all need opportunities, young and old, to come together and make something, to be motivated and excited together. That’s what this is all about, people coming together.” – Robin Cline, Assistant Director, NeighborSpace

The Christopher Family Foundation champions the idea of using nature to spark imaginations, develop critical thinking, reduce stress, and enhance community. In the words of our Trustee, Kelley Christopher Schueler,

Increased screen time, busy family schedules, and other factors have contributed to a lack of healthy developmental opportunities for modern children. For children in communities experiencing disproportionate violence, there are additional barriers to playing outside and experiencing the natural world. That is why the Christopher Family Foundation went in search of new ideas to help children explore nature. We wanted to foster experiences of being fully alive in a living world.”

—Contributed by Monica Thorns, Grants Manager