Our family recently relocated from rural Romania to urban San Diego, California, USA. The southern California climate is known for encouraging an element of indoor/outdoor living. Its outdoorsy culture cannot be overstated. I was not surprised, therefore, to discover that San Diego’s version of Central Park – Balboa Park – recently created a nature play area specifically designed for children. Urban kindern don’t often have the advantage of keeping fodder for forts in an unkept ‘natural’ yard, unlike their many country-living counterparts. Community housing agreements, zoning laws and social mores dictate the kind of yard residents curate. Fortunately, close to our own backyard, we have Balboa Park’s ‘Nature Exploration Area.’
At least once a week we come here to play. I sit on a comfortable log and the kids join other minors playing in worlds of their imagination. The park is regularly resupplied with leftovers from city landscape projects – long wooden poles, cross-sections of logs and other organic materials. Without fail, when I say it’s time to go, whether we’ve been there for 30 minutes or two hours, there is complaining. ‘Already? No! We’re still playing.’
Why, I ask myself, do they not complain as vehemently when we leave a regular playground with play structures? I imagine it is because those playgrounds don’t change. They can’t recreate the setting. Here, everything changes, day by day, moment by moment, as children come and go, leaving their mark. A pile of stones. A palm branch teepee. A hole in the ground for hiding treasure. A soft ground covering of wood chips entices even children not yet walking to come explore. With no recommended age range, which most playgrounds have for liability reasons, I’m sure children of all ages would find it a fascinating place to expand their horizons and whack sticks on rocks (my son’s favorite activity). As the fine print on the sign notes, ‘risk assumed by participant.’
With a large parking lot close by, a public bathroom and shaded areas throughout the day, this park has become our de-facto backyard. I’m beginning to recognize numerous repeat offenders, families from local neighborhoods or suburbs further afield.
The Nature Exploration Area is located on the north end of Balboa Park, just east of Florida Canyon and Florida Drive. To get there, drive to ‘2221 Morley Field Dr, San Diego, CA 92104.’ Walk through the tennis courts, past the public restroom and down a slight slope. The play area has a small sign and is surrounded by logs. Maybe I’ll see you there!