Usually, parents ask their children to change out of their church clothes before they go outside to play.

That rule was suspended June 3 at First Community Church's south campus in Marble Cliff.

That day, the church held a ribbon-cutting and dedication ceremony for its new Donice Wooster Natural Playscape.

The playground located north of the sanctuary offers preschool-age children a variety of activities designed to immerse them in nature.

The space is named for Donice Wooster, an Upper Arlington resident who served 23 years as early childhood director at First Community before retiring four years ago.

"When we lost part of our playground when we built the new welcome center at the church, we wanted to create additional space where kids could play," Wooster said. "Creating a natural play area allows children to come out and engage in imaginative and open-ended play."

Urban Wild, an Ostrander-based company that specializes in sustainable and ecological landscape design and planning, designed the space.

The site the company designed at First Community includes a mud kitchen, logs and other wood pieces that youngsters can manipulate and climb on, as well as a slide built into a small hill, a tunnel with a bridge, and a digging area with gravel.

"There's been quite a movement in recent years regarding free play for children," said Amy Dutt, owner and designer with Urban Wild.

The concept is to give children less-structured play opportunities in a natural outdoor setting, she said.

"Playing in nature encourages healthiness, happiness and smartness," Dutt said. "It allows children to use their imaginations to create their own play situations."

The elements in First Community's new playscape will help youngsters develop both large- and small-motor skills and enhance their social interaction, she said.

Dutt, who grew up in Clintonville, said she spent much of her childhood playing outside in the neighborhood's ravines and other natural areas.

"I'm a child of the ravines -- a child of nature," she said. "You could call me a free-range kid."

That idea "is being lost today because children spend so much time indoors or involved in play that's been structured for them," she said.

"Children aren't being exposed to true nature anymore, and that's a shame," First Community preschool teacher Holly Cavallaro said.

"There's not as much free activity for kids these days, where they can play in the dirt, be in the grass and pick up rocks and logs.

"My husband and I love to walk in the woods, and I know how being in nature is good for your soul," she said.

Humans evolved "by being outside, trial and error, and seeing how they reacted to things in nature," Dutt said. "A child can't go through that kind of experience when they are only allowed to participate in prescribed activities on prescribed equipment."

Though it was dedicated this week, the playscape has been in use since October, said Alayna Pierce, director of the First Community Church preschool program.

"We bring them out here every day, weather permitting," she said.

The playscape's components encourage cooperative play, Pierce said.

"You'll see them coming together and creating their own scenarios for what they are doing," she said. "They get to create their play together. They are in charge of their play in this space."

Unless safety is a concern, the preschool staff does not intervene in the children's activities at the playscape, Cavallaro said.

"We're letting kids be kids," she said.

The playscape's design includes habitat plants that provide screening for neighboring residents, Dutt said. A spicebush will attract swallowtail caterpillars, and a weeping mulberry tree will, once it's grown, provide a secluded space for children to sit.

A wet-wash area allows youngsters to clean up after their play and also provides an area teachers can use for activities such as storytimes, she said.

After the dedication ceremony, 6-year-old Anna Montgomery of Upper Arlington was playing in the mud kitchen, creating dirt pies and placing them into a metal bowl.

"I love it," she said when asked about the playscape. "There's so many cool things to do.

"I like how I can play with the dirt and put it into the bowls," Anna said. "When I was in preschool and we'd go out to the playground, that's what I wanted to do: just play in the dirt."

Their play may be considered unstructured, but youngsters will create their own structure during free play because they come up with their own scenarios for what they are doing, Wooster said.

"When I was teaching preschool, the children would always say, 'we're going to work,' when they headed out to the playground," she said.

"And that's what play is: It's preschoolers' work. It's their job to play."

Working at First Community Church "was one of the real gifts of my life," Wooster said.

"First Community's preschool program was one of the first in the Grandview area and it's always had a philosophy of honoring children as they are," she said. "Providing them with a natural playscape is another example of that.

"It's a gift for the children and it's a gift for me to be able to watch them enjoying themselves so much," Wooster said.