Six Ways To Put Nature Back Into Play
The commercial playground industry is in the midst of a paradigm shift that involves returning play to its roots in order to create the play spaces of the future. The playgrounds of the future are outdoor play spaces where children can play freely with and among natural elements such as sand, stones, water and living plants. Commonly referred to as natural playgrounds, many childhood development experts believe returning to nature-based play is essential for the health and well-being of children.
According to Cheryl Charles, former President and CEO of the Children & Nature Network, the movement to reconnect children with the outdoors has steadily gained momentum for years because children today are far less likely than past generations to spend time playing outdoors.
The Children & Nature Network was created in 2006 to encourage and support the people and organizations working to reconnect children with nature. According to Charles, changes in children’s lives and how they play have occurred in the last 30 years and have accelerated in the last 10 years to the point where child development experts are concerned about their well-being. Charles attributes this acceleration to the ubiquitous use of technology, which has changed the way children interact and are entertained and, as a consequence, created an imbalance in the way they learn.
“Having access to nature is a fundamental part of people’s health and well-being, certainly in the developmental health of children,” Charles said. She added that children aren’t getting the access they need to thrive.
Incorporating Natural Elements
Over the last few years, leaders in childhood development have become increasingly aware of the necessity and benefit of incorporating natural elements into their programs.
In January 2009, Progressive Design Playgrounds, which designs and manufactures environmentally friendly commercial playgrounds and recreation site furnishings, launched a line of natural playgrounds called Outdoor Learning Environments in direct response to feedback from child development experts. Outdoor Learning Environments are play spaces that allow children to explore their surroundings with sight, hearing, touch and smell. They come in many different configurations depending upon the school, the community, the climate and resources available.
They range from vegetable gardens, to slides built into grass hills, to stages where pretend play capitalizes on natural surroundings to stimulate young minds. More elaborate natural playgrounds include science labs, greenhouses, ponds, dirt trails, trike trails and mazes and reading amphitheaters. They often include local plants and boulders, contributing to the authenticity of the natural environment. These outdoor classrooms function as play areas on their own or as additions to traditional physically challenging stand-alone play structures such as overhead ladders, ring mazes and climbing walls.
John Ogden, former President of Progressive Design Playgrounds, says he has seen steady growth and increased demand in the past year with more and more customers requesting natural elements to be incorporated into their new or existing playgrounds.
“We designed our line of Outdoor Learning Environments because our customers told us they want play spaces that engage children’s minds and their bodies,” he said. “As a designer of commercial play structures and natural playgrounds we are in the unique position to offer our customers play spaces that are dually mentally and physically challenging.”
In June 2009, KaBOOM! worked with Progressive Design Playgrounds to include the company’s Interactive Grass Hill Slide in the national nonprofit’s inaugural natural playground located in Waialua, HI. Designed by kids and built by volunteers, the 29,000-square-foot play space uses natural elements as the foundation for endless play opportunities including a fort made using previously cut down trees, a maze consisting of Hawaiian vegetation, a boulder garden created with local “found parts” and Progressive Design Playgrounds’ Interactive Grass Hill Slide embedded into the natural topography of a hill.
According to David Flanigan, past Director of Operations for KaBOOM!, adding natural playgrounds to its repertoire is an extension of the nonprofit’s mission of creating a great place to play for all children. KaBOOM! is a recognized pioneer in play using an innovative community-build model to construct more than 1,700 new play spaces across North America.
“KaBOOM! is always looking for unique and innovative ways to create play spaces that engage children, make them come back or stay longer,” Flanigan said. He added that the goal of the Hawaii project was to work with the local community to create a natural environment where there was a “lesson in everything that happens.”
Designing a natural playground is a collaborative process between the company and client. According to Ogden, no two Outdoor Learning Environments are alike. He said, “Clients want custom spaces that are authentic to their environment. This ranges from a seated area under the shade of a tree suitable for all ages, a trail lined with plants and boulders for toddlers or a science lab filled with plants for the older kids.”
Ask The Kids
In KaBOOM!’s case, the design process begins with the end user. Flanigan recommends, “Ask the kids ‘What are the things you like to do in nature? and What do you like to do when you go outside?’” Armed with this intelligence, KaBOOM! works to create a whole “play experience” that may include a structure but also sand, water, plants, and other natural elements.
It is critical to be thoughtful about the community and ensure that it has the resources to maintain the playground over the long run before building a natural playground, Flanigan advises. Choosing drought or weather-resistant plants or installing sprinkler systems helps limit maintenance.
Ogden offers the following six suggestions to help parks and recreation professionals, schools and communities plan, design and build natural playgrounds from the ground up or incorporate natural playground features into an existing play space.
- Work with natural surroundings. The first step to designing a natural playground is to take a detailed inventory of existing natural play elements. What do you have to work with? For example, trees, tree roots, and slopes, once considered roadblocks to a successful play space, can become a cornerstone of a great natural playground. Strategic seating and a stage can convert a tree into a reading amphitheater. Interior planting areas can solve root-tripping hazards. Rather than leveling the slope, it can be used to create mounds, water play features, planting areas or a hill slide.
- Start from what you want for the children and work backwards. What do you want for the children who will use the space? Options include physically challenging play, dramatic play, social interactive play, cause and effect stations, motor skill development, art areas, botanical planting areas, etc. In most cases, a natural playground should involve a combination of the above. This may include stand-alone physically challenging structures like monkey bars, balance beams, and climbing walls, play stages, seated gathering places, sand pits, and water play systems.
- Design a place where children will want to stay. The best play spaces have the right mix of natural and physical play elements to attract and engage children. A play space that dually offers children physical and mental challenges holds the most play value. Play value is measured by a play element’s ability to hold a child’s attention. Creating multi-age family gathering areas with picnic tables and seating under a shaded tree also increases the overall play value of the play space because it influences how often a child visits and the duration.
- Incorporate one natural element in a way that adds maximum impact. Water play, for example, is one of the greatest play elements (natural or otherwise) for children. There are a number of ways to incorporate water play into a playground from misting arbors to interactive water play streams where kids can change the flow, build dams, create a whirlpool, or just splash and play. A hill slide is perhaps the easiest way to incorporate natural elements into a playground and it offers great play value.
- Allow the kids and the community to contribute. When it comes to creating natural play spaces the journey is part of the reward. Kids love to watch the earthmovers and dirt trucks at work, but even more than that, they like to dig their hands in and get dirty. Invite them to be part of the construction process through planting, watering and digging.
- Keep it simple. Often the temptation is to overdesign a play space and incorporate a massive structure with “curb appeal” simply because there is funding or a large enough space to support it. The reality is that the simple things are often what children find fun and interesting. Therein lies the power and potential of natural playgrounds.