New Resources for Inviting Nature Back into Play

A play stream at the Nature Play Area and Discovery Garden at Minnesota’s Tamarack Nature Center
A play stream at the Nature Play Area and Discovery Garden at Minnesota’s Tamarack Nature Center
image: MIG, Inc

Climbing into the arms of a sweet smelling southern magnolia tree, splashing in the miniature waterfalls of a limestone lined creek, and sifting through a playground of pea gravel in search of ancient sea fossils are a few of my treasured memories of enjoying the freedom to explore the natural world that surrounded me as a child.

Due to shifting societal priorities, children today have fewer opportunities to engage in these types of open-ended activities than their parents did just a generation ago. In his 2005 book, “Last Child in the Woods”, Richard Louv draws on decades of research from various disciplines and summarizes that, due to this trend, kids in the U.S. are suffering from what he terms “nature-deficit disorder.”

In an effort to re-introduce children to the wide range of benefits that “nature play” can provide, advocacy groups including Louv’s own “Children and Nature Network” have been striving to raise awareness of this issue. The movement has gained momentum and in response, many parks and recreation districts are re-evaluating how they approach play.

Creative strategies that some districts are incorporating into their programming include: sponsoring nature exploration clubs, employing play naturalists to lead activities with families, designating formerly “off trail” areas as nature play zones, and naturalizing traditional play areas. (See the links section below for specific examples.)   

With this shifting paradigm come some new challenges for park designers and managers. Most professionals in the field are accustomed to flipping through play equipment catalogs to find composite structures that will fit neatly into the spaces set aside for children. Park staff feel assured that the manufacturers of these complex plastic and steel components are required to meet exacting safety standards and that they can easily reach product representatives who will gladly answer any pressing questions post-installation.

When it comes to incorporating natural play elements, a more holistic design and management approach is required that accounts for the dynamic factors associated with the use of organic materials. Many landscape architects may not be comfortable detailing play features like boulder climbers, log balance beams, willow dens, and dirt digging zones. Likewise, park staff may be unaware of the best ways maintain these features to ensure safe conditions. 

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The Consumer Product Safety Commission’s ”Public Playground Safety Handbook,” and the ASTM’s (American Society for Testing and Materials) technical performance standards for playground equipment provide useful parameters for the layout and design of limited types of custom nature play features like climbers and balance beams fashioned from boulders or logs. Less static elements like forts, streams and climbing trees fall outside of these standard industry definitions, but several new resources are available that provide direction for how to incorporate these features into play area designs.

PlayCore, Inc., a manufacturer of commercial play equipment brands including GameTime, has partnered with the Natural Learning Initiative to form the NatureGrounds program. The team has published a 48-page guidebook entitled “Creating & Retrofitting Play Environments: Best Practice Guidelines,” that is intended for use in parks and schools. The guidebook is available free of charge from the NatureGrounds website.

With funding from the U.S. Forest Service, the Natural Learning Initiative is collaborating with the National Wildlife Federation (NWF) to develop natural play and learning area design guidelines that are scheduled for release in draft form for public comment this summer. According to the NWF’s project website, the “guidelines will identify the core elements of a natural play and learning area and demonstrate how to address management, liability, and accessibility issues.”

A national campaign to increase nature play in the United Kingdom is also well underway. The Forestry Commission of England has produced a user-friendly catalog of idea sheets entitled, “Nature Play: Simple and Fun Ideas for All” that provides practical advice for building and maintaining dozens of different nature play elements. Play England has also published several useful resources to guide nature play development including an extensive review of international research and a practical maintenance guide that addresses the routine inspection and upkeep of various organic play materials.

To better address liability concerns over incorporating nature play into the public realm, providers in the UK are adopting a new perspective on risk management. This balanced approach known as “risk-benefit analysis” calls for a dynamic evaluation process that equally weighs both the benefits and potential risks associated with providing challenging and developmentally appropriate play opportunities for children.

According to Play England’s publication, “Managing Risk in Play Provision: Implementation Guide,” the process begins with facility providers identifying a clear play policy framework on which to base all subsequent decisions. Providers then conduct a risk-benefit assessment of a given scenario (e.g., whether or not to allow kids to climb trees in a park), drawing on industry standards and expert advice as well as other relevant information to make balanced decisions that articulate both benefits and risks. Once in place, providers perform routine inspections of play facilities to maintain their soundness, and regularly re-evaluate the safety of conditions over time.

The guide provides a detailed description of this approach and includes several examples of how to put the concepts into practice. Though the guide is intended for a British audience and references that country’s legal framework, an approach that acknowledges measured risk-taking as a healthy and necessary component of childhood could be the way forward if we are to recapture the benefits of nature play in the U.S.

by Rebecca Colbert

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