A Great Place to Play in Nature?

image: Chad Kennedy
image: Chad Kennedy

Traditional park and playground design philosophies are evolving and shifting as researchers and designers have begun to see the results of past trends in risk management, safety, and design. These trends have led to static playgrounds with less than stellar play value, and infrequent patron trips. Modern design philosophies are now embracing the incorporation of plant life and other natural elements into play areas. At the core of this philosophical shift is the fact that nature is intrinsically dynamic and ever changing, and that the addition of these features to playgrounds introduces variety, change, and opportunities for creativity.

Until recently, the concepts of nature-based play were founded on observation and were weakly supported by research. However, supporting research is becoming more widely available. The following is an abstract for a research project conducted at Utah State University by Jeff Hamarstrom and Keith Christensen. The study investigated what elements are found in naturalized play spaces, what adult and teacher perceptions of these playgrounds are, and how natural elements are being used by children. The full thesis is available for review as well.
–Chad Kennedy, ASLA, Children’s Outdoor Environments PPN Officer

Naturalized Playgrounds

Play is essential for children’s emotional, cognitive, social, physical, and educational development [5]. The play environment can support these diverse needs in different ways [7, 3, 1]. The growing concern of parents and outdoor play researchers over the loss of interaction between children and nature has pushed designers toward creating play environments that are based more on natural elements than manufactured equipment [9, 11, 5, 4]. These playgrounds are often referred to as “natural” or “naturalized” and typically contain elements such as water, plants, flowers, hills, tree groves, weather stations, rock outcrops, and streambeds. They might also contain some of the typical manufactured play structures such as swings, multi-level structures, or climbing structures [13]. While the elements being used might differ, all naturalized playgrounds promote the idea that natural elements are there to be a part of play and to be played with; they are not just there for aesthetic value.

Naturalized play environments attempt to create an environment that is highly stimulating and interesting to children while providing a connection to the natural world [11]. These playgrounds are gaining recognition as viable options for play and are beginning to be built with great variety across the United States and internationally. Many studies have focused on quantitative data showing how these environments are affecting children’s development including physical [4], play types [3], and social/emotional [9]. The few studies that have examined adult perceptions of natural play areas have investigated adults and the aesthetics of the playground [2], how having or not having vegetation in the playground affects adult’s perception of daycare facilities [8], a neighborhood’s perception of a naturalized playground in a park [10], or the perception of health for students in larger, more vegetated schoolyards as compared to smaller ones [12]. While these studies have examined naturalized playgrounds from several different perspectives, they have not addressed the question of how the people who interact with children and these environments on an everyday basis believe their naturalized playground is meeting its intended purpose as a viable play option.

This study investigated how teachers at educational facilities perceived their naturalized playground. Using semi-structured interviews with the playground teachers for fourteen naturalized playgrounds located at educational facilities, this study investigated:

  1. what elements are found in naturalized playgrounds and to see what participants knew about these types of playgrounds;
  2. teachers’ perceptions of the playground as a play environment; and
  3. how the teachers see the playground being used by children.

The conclusions from this study were that:

  1. while there seems to be a general agreement among designers as to what constitutes a naturalized playground, there is no consistent definition of the term among adults charged with implementation and administration of naturalized play areas;
  2. teachers and supervisors at facilities that have naturalized playgrounds are actively educating themselves about their playground and understand how it can be used in creating play opportunities for children;
  3. naturalized playgrounds do not focus on one type of play and instead promote open-ended play that allows children to interact with it in their own way; and
  4. participants see the use of natural elements creating a viable playground option that goes beyond being just a place to play.

Naturalized playgrounds share many similar characteristics. This study showed that these playgrounds do contain mostly natural elements with fewer manufactured ones. Manufactured equipment was present in some of the playgrounds, although the participants emphasized the natural elements and wanted the playground to be as natural as possible. Additionally, a key idea about naturalized playgrounds that helped to define them was that children were encouraged to explore the natural elements. Participants thought their playground was best described by the term “naturalized.” This term reflects the inclusion of some manufactured play elements. A single term, such as “interactive natural playgrounds,” to denote these more common types of playgrounds would help reduce confusion with the less common natural playgrounds which do not include manufactured elements.

image: Chad Kennedy
image: Chad Kennedy

Naturalized playgrounds are different than a traditional playground and can offer more than just a place to play. Participants in this study recognized this and showed that they were actively educating themselves. The teachers were actively increasing their knowledge of what the playground environment can offer to better facilitate their children’s play. Access to information about naturalized playgrounds seems to be available in the form of conferences as well as general and more academic articles found in a variety of publications.

Naturalized playgrounds allow the children to play the way they want. By using elements that have multiple uses, or no strictly defined use, a playground can be created that focuses on getting the children to imagine their own play. This allows the children to find the type of play that they want; whether it is functional, dramatic, or solitary as the elements provide affordances rather than dictating a certain type of play. Naturalized playgrounds also allowed the children to be more engaged in their play because they create it.

Natural elements help to create a stimulating and interesting environment that is not only more dynamic than a traditional playground but goes beyond the usual idea of a playground being just a place for play. This also led to naturalized playgrounds connecting children to nature by simply being the environment they are playing in and by providing natural ecosystems that allow various types of interactions to occur. Those interactions with nature also allow the playground to be seen as a place of education as well as an extension of the classroom. Naturalized playgrounds go beyond being a place for just physical play and provide an environment that allows for children’s developmental processes, connecting to nature, being social, and learning from the world around them.

The full study, Perceptions of Naturalized Playgrounds: A Qualitative Study, may be accessed via Utah State University’s Digital Commons.


  1. Barbour, A. (1999). The impact of playground design on the play behaviors of children with differing levels of physical competence. Early Childhood Research Quarterly, 14(1), 75-98.
  2. Brown, J., & Burger, C. (1984). Playground designs and preschool children’s behaviors. Environment and Behavior, 16(5), 599-626.
  3. Campbell, S., & Frost, J. (1985). The effects of a playground type on the cognitive and social play behaviors of grade two children. In J. Frost & S. Sunderlin (Eds.), When Children Play: Proceedings of the International Conference on Play and Play Environments (pp. 81-87). Wheaton: Association for Childhood Education International.
  4. Fjortoft, I. (2001). The natural environment as a playground for children: The impact of outdoor play activities in pre-primary school children. Early Childhood Education Journal, 29(2), 111-117.
  5. Fjortoft, I., & Sageie, J. (2000). The natural environment as a playground for children. Landscape description and analyses of a natural playscape. Landscape and Urban Planning, 48, 83-97.
  6. Frost, J., Wartham, S., & Reifel, S. (2008). Play and Child Development (3rd ed.). Upper Saddle River: Merrill Prentice Hall.
  7. Haywood, G., Rothenberg, M., & Beasley, R. (1974). Children’s play and urban playground environments. A comparison of traditional, contemporary, and adventure playground types. Environment and Behavior, 6(2), 131-168.
  8. Herrington, S. (2008). Perspectives from the ground: early childhood educators’ perceptions of outdoor play spaces at child care centers. Children, Youth and Environments, 18(2), 64-87.
  9. Herrington, S., & Studtmann, K. (1998). Landscape interventions: New directions for the design of children’s outdoor play environments. Landscape and Urban Planning, 42, 191-205.
  10. Moore, R., Cosco, N., Ringaert, L., Akinleye, S., Carrington, D., Demir, E.,… Hashas, M. (2005). Post Occupancy Evaluation of Kids Together Park. Raleigh: North Carolina State University College of Design.
  11. Moore, R., & Wong, H. (1997). The Life History of an Environmental Schoolyard: Natural Learning. Berkley: MIG Communications.
  12. Ozdemir, A., & Yilmaz, O. (2008). Assessment of outdoor school environments and physical activity in Ankara’s primary schools. Journal of Environmental Psychology, 28, 287-300.
  13. White, R. (2004). “Young Children’s Relationship with Nature: Its Importance to Children’s Development and the Earth’s Future.” Retrieved from http://www.whitehutchinson.com/children/articles/childrennature.shtml. [February 5, 2010]

by Jeff Hamarstrom and Keith Christensen

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