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WildPlay at Whinlatter Forest

Toddler N scoops gravel along the WildPlay Trail
Toddler N scoops gravel along the WildPlay Trail


I mentioned briefly last week that Carl and I took the boys camping for two nights in the Lake District. Before our trip, I spent some time online, looking for a place to take the kids for a day out. When I came across the WildPlay trail at Whinlatter Forest, I thought it looked perfect. As an extra bonus, our campsite wasn’t too far from the forest. So, on the last day of our trip, we packed up and headed to Whinlatter.

The WildPlay Trail

The WildPlay Trail is a waymarked, mulched path through the woods near the Visitor Centre at Whinlatter Forest. The trail connects nine separate play areas, and runs in a loop, so you end where you start. The areas aren’t too far apart. This means you can usually see where you’ve been and where you will go next. Pulling into the car park at the visitor centre, WildPlay is on the left.

The play areas are:

  1. A rope bridge. This starts the trail and you can see it from the car park.
  2.  Two slides running down the hillside. They were long and exciting looking.
  3. A balance beam, stepping stones, and stilts, all made from logs. The end of the balance beam was unsupported and wobbly. Great for gross motor development!
  4. Hedley the Forwarder. Honestly, I don’t really know what this is. We didn’t stop here but it looked like a large, mulched patch with a few suggested activities set out, like hopscotch or pick-up-sticks.
  5. Rope swing, timber climbing frame, and climbing wall. The climbing frame was built of logs, with a few cargo nets. It was large and impressive.
  6. A water feature with Archimedes screws to twist the water up from a stream and into a series of trays that eventually pour the water back into a stream.
  7. A tire swing (filled with water when we passed) and a fallen tree climbing structure. This looked like they had sanded down a tree that had fallen.
  8. A gravel pit. The gravel pit had a wooden climbing frame and several chutes, pulleys, and gravel moving devices. We stayed here the longest of any of the play areas.
  9. Play huts and fairy kingdom. The huts were simple wooden structures on a wooden platform. Each hut had benches and a table inside. The fairy kingdom had some rocks painted like mushrooms and some wood carvings.
G takes a breather coming up a hill at Whinlatter Forest
G takes a breather coming up a hill at Whinlatter Forest

The Positives

There were a few parts that the boys really loved. We could have spent much longer at both the gravel pit, the water feature, and the play huts. This makes sense to me. These play areas were very open ended, tactile, and an appropriate size for the boys. The boys could access these areas the best, and so they became the spots where we had the most fun.

The setting of the trail was magical. Surrounded by tall trees and the smell of pine, I loved being out there. My boys found pine cones, rubbed mulch in their hair, and climbed hills. By the end of lunch they were covered in dirt and pizza sauce, evidence that I am a particularly fantastic mother.

I also felt that many of the areas, especially the gravel pit and the play huts encouraged open-ended play. In general, the forest is full of loose parts: sticks, mud, pine needles, rocks. If we could have stayed longer, I really think the boys would have incorporated these into their play. Even more fixed equipment, like the climbing structure, was abstract and didn’t dictate a script or an appropriate type of play. It could have been a pirate ship as easily as it could have been Rapunzel’s tower. I really appreciate the obvious thought and effort that went into the design. It’s clear that they wanted to encourage creative, exciting play.

The boys play on the water feature (emphasis on 'On')
The boys play on the water feature (emphasis on ‘On’)

The Negatives

Many of the other play areas were just too big for my little ones, ages 2.5 and 15 months. Some of the features, like the balance beam and the stilts were probably conceptually beyond them. They were too short to reach between the holds on the climbing wall, which had one row for feet, a large gap, and then several rows for hands. The timber climbing frame, which I can see becoming a hit for the boys in a few years, was overwhelmingly large to them.

I also left wondering if activity trails like this have some drawbacks. Even going in, planning to follow the boys’ lead, I felt a need to move on and see what’s next, rather than to go slowly and take my time. I wonder if older kids doing the trail have a hard time immersing themselves in play, when they are curious with what’s around the corner. I saw two other families on the trail, and both seemed concerned with going in the right order, even skipping play areas if they didn’t seem to be on the map. Play shouldn’t have to be systematic. However, this isn’t a reason to not go. I think it is a reason to go multiple times! When the novelty has worn off a bit, I imagine kids can settle into play better, and have richer experiences.

Recommended: WildPlay at Whinlatter Forest

While it is a bit far for a day trip at this point, I think it is safe to say we will be making our way back to WildPlay at Whinlatter Forest. I don’t think it will take long for the boys to ‘grow into’ some of the bigger equipment. I’d also like to see them take advantage of all the ‘loose parts’ in the woods. There are mud pies to be made in the play huts!

I also think that the WildPlay trail could make a great opportunity for parents who want to encourage their kids to play in a more natural environment. Not every kid can walk into the woods and entertain himself for hours at a time. The WildPlay trail offers something between a standard playground, and going into the forest with a blank slate.

WildPlay really made a lovely morning out with the boys. My advice would be to go slowly, follow the kids, and enjoy yourself. Day Out at Whinlatter WildPlay Trail

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