When I was growing up, we played outdoors all day long. Luring crabs into our nets with a chicken neck on a string; collecting wagons full of chestnuts to throw at each other as friendly fire; playing hide-and-seek under huge pine trees, sharing the secret space with an escapee chicken.

Today, kids mostly play inside in front of their computers, televisions, cell phones and iPads. And when they do go to a playground, there’s the same old stuff: plastic slides, fake rock-climbing walls and concrete animals with hot rubber surfacing below. (The exception being the playground at Waterfront Park that every adult probably wishes they could play in.)

Recently the city of San Diego opened a Nature Exploration Area (NEA), one of the first of its kind in a municipal park in San Diego County. Above Florida Canyon, south of the tennis courts at Morley Field in Balboa Park, this new type of play area was designed with nature in mind.

Said landscape architect Shamli Tarbell, park designer, “This is a place where kids can explore, build and play in a safe, natural environment.” It features a fort-building area with natural building materials such as branches, reeds, pinecones and tree cookies (1-inch thick log rounds), along with a large log and boulder-climbing area.

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