Natural play, a commercial diversification opportunity or a social project?

Public sector budget cuts have seen investment into public green open spaces, parks and play facilities fall dramatically in recent years. Schools are ever more focused on academic methodologies and outcomes, with free play falling victim to structured lesson time. Add to this the current growing public health epidemic of childhood obesity¹, and the impact on mental health of the decreasing level of activity in children² and it is clear that access to green space, fresh air and outdoor activity is more important than ever.

Nature’s Playground

The decrease in access to free play, and the urbanisation of once green spaces is leading parents to increasingly seek adventure play as part of family leisure time, with special emphasis on the added benefits of rural settings, nature and being outdoors. This is opening the door to a commercial opportunity in the countryside, borne from social demand.

Rural landowners by their very definition have access to those sought-after, outdoor, rural settings that lend themselves to nature-based, outdoor play attractions and can have a role in providing access to the countryside that redresses some of these trends, and in doing so can realise attractive commercial opportunities.

We are seeing an increasing number of clients looking at play focused visitor attractions as means of creating sustainable rural enterprise.

By working with the natural fabric of a site – topography, woodlands, waterways and landscapes – it is possible to create cost efficient, unique, playful experiences that incorporate the natural assets along with the installation of play equipment, trails, characters and activities that enable an adventure play experience in a rural setting.

The market demand for this is robust, with visitor numbers to rural attractions more than doubling over the past 20 years³. Visitors are increasingly looking for authentic themed attractions, and our experience suggests that those connected to their defining features, heritage or identity are the most successful. These attractions are not simply ‘playgrounds’ but are curated to immerse visitors in a story and its associated set of activities.

Whilst the target market for these attractions are primarily children, family decision makers are also looking for their own experiences so including elements that offer activities and engagement for older children and adults can help to increase visitor numbers, dwell time and spend. The Cheshire Ice Cream Farm for example includes a dedicated space for teens and tweens and the Zip World adventure collection in Wales is targeted at older children and adults but has provision on some sites for children as young as 3.

Ancillary activities such as seasonal events, trails, treasure hunts, activity sheets, demonstrations, character ‘meet and greets’ can also add interest and the provision of ancillary facilities such as a food and drink offer, retail and ‘pay to play’ elements can encourage a full day out as opposed to a couple of hours entertainment which generates the potential for significant secondary spend

Play Can Pay

Not only does rural diversification into play attractions provide much needed social value, importantly it really stacks up as a business venture. A well thought-out, high quality farm diversification project into a play based day visitor attraction can yield anything from 16 – 32% gross profit. It is no wonder it is proving so popular amongst farmers and landowners, some of whom are struggling to hit breakeven from typical farming revenue streams.

Planning Considerations

From a Planning point of view, projects that induce tourism, are actually often met with greater positivity from local planning authorities and development that embraces the rural setting can offset concerns on the natural value of the place, especially in the most sensitive rural locations such as national parks and conservation areas.

The emerging trend of natural play is one that Rural Solutions are keenly embracing. The philosophy of landscape led design and utilising a client’s natural asset base to provide authentic, high value experiences in a rural setting is something that is second nature to our expert advisors, rural planners, architects and landscape designers. We have a range of projects underway to develop rural play attractions which will set a precedent for the quality of play experience and standard of rural diversification for the next generation. Here’s one in operation now, The Ice Cream Farm Cheshire.

If you would like to speak with Rural Solutions about how you could establish, or indeed grow an existing play based visitor attraction, we would love to hear from you.

¹ World Health organisation, 2018   ² Children and Nature Network, 2019   ³ Visit Britain, August 2019    Froebal Trust – Outdoor Play and Exploration