Officials with Delaware County's park district are eschewing bright, plastic equipment in favor of sticks, stones and other "messy materials" at new natural play areas at four parks.

Officials with Delaware County's park district are eschewing bright, plastic equipment in favor of sticks, stones and other "messy materials" at new natural play areas at four parks.

Liz Neroni, a naturalist with Preservation Parks of Delaware County, said leaders have sought more ways to get children involved with the county's parks for "quite a while."

"We really just want to get kids outside and in nature and playing," she said.

Natural playgrounds already are installed at Shale Hollow Park, near the border of Liberty and Orange townships off U.S. Route 23, and Char-Mar Ridge Park, off Lewis Center Road in Genoa Township. Additional natural play areas are set to open by June 1 at Deer Haven Park, off Liberty Road south of Delaware, and Emily Traphagen Park off Seldom Seen Road west of Powell.

While some features, such as stone tic-tac-toe boards, may appear at multiple parks, many will be unique to one park.

For instance, Shale Hollow Park's playground has rock gardens and a messy materials area, while Char-Mar Ridge Park boasts a fort and a dirt-digging area.

Neroni said by establishing the playgrounds, Preservation Parks is joining a greater trend.

"Natural play areas are kind of popping up everywhere across the United States," she said.

Neroni said she did not view the play areas as any more dangerous than a typical playground. She said the opportunity to play with pine cones, sticks and stones also gives children a chance to reconnect with nature.

"The kids need to get dirty," she said. "They need to jump and maybe fall. It's just a part of being a kid."

Sue Hagan, spokeswoman for Preservation Parks, said the district paid about $800 for materials in the four play areas.

Neroni said park staff members constructed the areas in-house, largely with materials found within the parks. Installation efforts began in April.

She said workers have been striving to complete the playgrounds in time for summer.

"Our maintenance guys have been so excited about the project and working really hard to get it done," she said.

Neroni said the public reaction to the two open play areas has been positive so far. She said visitor feedback will play a big role in deciding whether more natural playgrounds will be constructed.

"If this goes well, there has been talk of adding them to other parks," she said.