Nature Play & Learning Places: Creating and Managing Places Where Children Engage with Nature touches on nearly every topic at the forefront of the children and nature movement. As the primary author, Robin Moore, Hon. ASLA, a professor at NC State University and internationally recognized expert on outdoor children’s environments, led a team of specialists. The extensive list of project staff, project steering committee, and five subcommittees is a who’s who of influential individuals and organizations in the movement. The guidelines were underwritten by a grant from the US Forest Service and supported by the National Wildlife Federation and the Natural Learning Initiative at NC State College of Design.
The audience is broad. The guidelines are for “professionals responsible for outdoor spaces used by families and children” (10). Many fit within this category: policy makers, advocates, system managers, site managers, program developers, educators, and design professionals. Landscape architects are in the final category.
The first two chapters define key concepts and give the rationale for supporting nature play and learning. The next two chapters have the greatest design value, with input on locating play and learning places and selecting design elements. The guidelines conclude with information on management, risk assessment, implementation, and eleven case studies.
One concern is the overt agenda touched on in the opening pages and suggested throughout the remainder of the guidelines. For such a diverse movement, it may be unnecessary to isolate a single motivation. The foreword by Howard Frumkin says that “[a]t the risk of bloviating, I would call it a book about saving the world,” as it will connect children to nature, who will be better stewards of the environment (1). The opening chapter similarly notes that children exposed to nature will grow up with a conservation mindset that will equip them to protect the planet. Although most readers will completely agree, is it best practice to link the relatively unifying issue of children and nature to a more controversial idea of how to best save the world? For instance, caregivers, educators, and medical practitioners may consider health factors to be the primary driver.
One standout piece is Allen Cooper’s discourse on risk management with its review of standards, terms and approach. Although it is not legal advice and local requirements should be checked, the chapter lays out a working framework for nature play risk management. The basis of standard of care can come from recreational use statutes, which generally favor providers. The duty is more to remove hidden dangers and inspect periodically. The debate on this topic is likely to reoccur in years to come, so Cooper’s work provides a solid foundation. The topic was of such interest within our PPN that we hosted Allen Cooper to discuss this issue in more detail with an ASLA Online Learning webinar this past September.
Designers will appreciate the clarity of the categories for the diverse types of children’s spaces. The summary of nature play precedents from summer camps to forest kindergartens is authoritative, with excellent statistics. For the eleven case studies, I noticed that a number of projects were done in-house or included a designer affiliated with a research unit of a university instead of a practicing and licensed landscape architect. Is our profession engaged? Recently, I read a blog post by a respected co-worker, Christina Moon, discussing inclusion of nature play spaces into park projects. She concluded with a note that as professionals we need to be community role models by getting outside. And I have a hunch that many of us are doing this. So even if you are not designing a nature playscape this week, I suggest reading the guidelines as a member of your community. The book is ambitious in scope, but Robin and his team met their objective with finesse to give us a valuable reference.