The Alexander Kemp Playground in Cambridge Common, opened last year, was built with natural materials. (Photo: Maria Burns Ortiz, from her CCTV blog.)

The first in a series of fall public outreach meetings on parks and play in Cambridge takes place 7 p.m. Thursday at the West Cambridge Youth Center, 680 Huron Ave.

The city is holding the series to talk about the benefits of outdoor play, the goals developed by a task force on play and how these goals might shape Cambridge’s park system over time. Also on the table: the formation of a Healthy Parks and Playgrounds Advisory Committee, for which the city will seek applications from members of the community.

The other meetings will be Oct. 26 at the Cambridge Rindge & Latin School’s 9th Grade Academy, 359 Broadway; Nov. 3 at the Peabody School, 70 Rindge Ave; Nov. 18 at the Moore Youth Center, 12 Gilmore St); and Dec. 1 at the Kennedy-Longfellow School, 158 Spring St. Each meeting will be from 7 to 8:30 p.m.

Background on the meetings from the city’s Community Development staff is as follows, according to the city’s public information officer, Ini Tomeu:

Free play is an idea that is integral to human nature. Unlike work, it is an activity that happens for its own sake, not to achieve a specific outcome. It happens when we ride a swing, build a sandcastle on the beach, climb a rock for a better view or invent a dance with our friends. It is enjoyed by people of all ages and backgrounds, everywhere and at all times. We think of play as being especially important to kids, and it is — kids will seek opportunities to play wherever they are, and regardless of whether they are told to do so. But adults play as well, with their children, among themselves, or alone.

Play is good for our health and our overall well-being. It allows us to get exercise, to challenge our physical abilities and our imaginations, to make ourselves feel happier and to form connections with those around us. Without opportunities to play, our physical and mental health, our creative thinking abilities and our community bonds may suffer.

Cambridge provides many public open spaces where free play occurs on a regular basis. In 2007, the city formed a Healthy Parks and Playgrounds Task Force of city staff and knowledgeable community members to discuss the nature of free play, its benefits to the health, development, learning and overall well-being of children and adults alike, and how Cambridge’s park system could better support the benefits of free play.

Supporting play has been an especially important subject in recent years, locally and nationally, as concerns are raised about issues such as childhood obesity, physical and learning disabilities, mental health problems and other developmental difficulties children today might face. There are also concerns about what has been called “nature deficit disorder,” the idea that children are not having enough exposure to the natural outdoor world.

The Healthy Parks and Playgrounds Task Force, in its report last year, encourages thinking about open spaces as integrated play environments where there are opportunities for curiosity, imagination, challenge and risk-taking. There should be opportunities for a variety of types and combinations of physical movements and a range of materials to interact with, natural and artificial. Parks should serve a full range of age groups and interests and children of all levels of ability, with the recognition that playgrounds are not always “one size fits all,” and that nearby playgrounds may have to serve different needs. See more on this report here.

Some of these goals are evident in the new Alexander Kemp Playground in Cambridge Common, which has received much positive recognition since opening last year. In place of conventional metal climbing structures and flat surfacing, it includes a landscape of hills, natural wood features and plants. Along with familiar items such as swings, it has an area dedicated to playing imaginatively with sand, water and loose wooden building blocks. It also includes a wheelchair-accessible carousel, likely the first of its kind to be installed in the United States.

For information. Call the department’s Jeff Roberts at (617) 349-4639 or send e-mail by clicking here.

This post was written from a press release.