An Associate in the Houston office of TBG Partners, Jeff Lindstrom is a landscape designer and project manager with in-depth experience in the areas of nature-based play and environments emphasizing education and childhood development. He has a strong interest in designing spaces that elicit full engagement—physical, cognitive, social, and emotional—and support whole child development. He maintains involvement in many organizations—including the Children & Nature Network, Texas Children in Nature – Houston Collaborative, World Forum Foundation, and Big Brothers Big Sisters of America—and has attended a variety of conferences focused on play, childhood development, and related issues. Jeff is a University of Wisconsin – Madison alumnus.
–Meade Mitchell, PLA, and Brenna Castro, ASLA, Children’s Outdoor Environments PPN Officer
Part 1: Transforming Lives & Communities
Researchers and experts in childhood development have long recognized the tremendous impact outdoor play and interaction with nature can have on health and well-being. As this appreciation for the power of play continues to be more widely embraced by mainstream audiences, beneficial impacts far beyond physical health have risen to the fore—with multifaceted outcomes and unique applications demonstrating the power of play in distinctly different environmental contexts. Play is increasingly becoming an integral component, and frequently a key driver, of development projects, and while characteristics of play environments often vary dramatically from one realm to another, the efficacy of prioritizing play is serving to transform the design and development of physical spaces—as well as longstanding attitudes by development decision-makers. Play environments were for many years viewed as a nonessential, a line-item consideration fulfilled by uninspired, off-the-shelf, manufactured play equipment lacking creativity. But fortunately, as Bob Dylan would say, the times they are a-changin’.
Providing outdoor play opportunities of any variety is beneficial because, at a minimum, it promotes physical activity and being outside. However, when possible, creatively driven, immersive, and inclusive play environments—particularly with rich sensory experiences and varieties of natural elements—are ideal and becoming increasingly prominent. Truly distinctive and dynamic play spaces are more memorable and meaningful—and environments that pique all the senses create stronger memories—establishing richer connections to the place and, thereby, prompting return visits. The inclusion of living, organic materials is also particularly valuable in this regard, as it renders the play environment ever-changing so it evolves continuously and provides for distinctive experiences throughout the seasons and years. Moreover, there is great value in designing play environments that incorporate loose parts and open-ended features that encourage children to think for themselves and, as result, each visit provides a new experience. Simply put, facilitating experiences with nature supports childhood development in many ways:
- Children who regularly have positive personal experiences with the natural world show more advanced motor fitness, including coordination, balance, and agility [1, 2].
- Appropriate interactions with nature help children develop powers of observation and creativity .
- The development of imagination and a sense of wonder have been positively linked to children’s early, appropriate experiences with the natural world . A sense of wonder is an important motivator for life-long learning .
The key is demonstrating the value of immersive, nature- and sensory-rich play environments to the developers—corporations and individuals who engage in real estate activities ranging from renovation and re-lease of existing properties to buying raw land for new development endeavors—and decision-makers who shape our built environment, in both the public and private sectors, so that they prioritize play as a fundamental project component. Notably, in recent years many developers have embraced this paradigm shift and are seeing the benefits in a wide spectrum of realms encompassing communities, healthcare facilities, and educational environments, among others.
Communities take many forms—rural, urban, and suburban in location as well as a large variety in product type—and throughout much of the United States, master-planned communities represent a popular lifestyle choice and significant share of the residential market. In 2015, the top 50 best-selling master-planned communities represented 4.7% of all new home sales nationally . These communities predominantly exist in the Sun Belt—and in Texas more than any other state. Texas had 17 of the top 50 best-selling master-planned communities in 2015, including nine in greater Houston, the most of any metro area . These developments are carefully planned from inception and typically provide an array of amenities to accommodate an integrated lifestyle. For years the salient trend was to entice homebuyers with, among other things, first-rate recreation centers and resort-style water parks with slides and splash pads, but more recently the amenity experience emphasis has shifted to whimsical play environments and a stronger emphasis on connecting people to the natural environment.
The Riverstone community in Fort Bend County, part of the Houston metro area, was the nation’s No. 5 top-selling master-planned community by 2015 net sales . Notably, the community’s popular Big Adventure Park, a 2-acre play area regularly filled with smiling faces of all ages, opened in October 2014 to local and regional acclaim. Encircled by a meandering, bright purple path, Big Adventure Park features immersive features for all ages including benches and stools forged from on-site pecan trees as well as a meandering log-stepper element offering endless varieties of pathways and perspectives of the park, a rope bridge, varieties of non-traditional swings, interactive water features, and a 100-foot zipline.
The park’s tremendous success and popularity with residents established a new standard for Houston-area play environments—and revealed important insights. For instance, the conscious placement of these playscapes, which become multigenerational social hubs, can heavily influence the success rate of bringing community members together, providing an opportunity to meet neighbors in addition to facilitating social and emotional development for children. In an increasingly connected world, informal play of this variety serves as one of the most authentic ways people can connect with each other: organically in real time, not prescribed.
One challenge in this realm is the need to accommodate uncontrolled user groups; the number and ages of park patrons is entirely variable and the park programming must respond accordingly. The solution is to create an inclusive, multigenerational park environment that facilitates engagement on multiple levels. For example, another successful Houston-area community, Cinco Ranch, opened its own non-traditional play environment, Exploration Park, in summer 2015 to similar acclaim. The entire playground concept is based on water and includes playful, interactive educational signs throughout explaining topics like water conservation, stormwater science, native plant material, and other features, providing hands-on learning for kids and adults.
Other memorable elements include a musical bridge known as the Bridgelophone; a lawn of tall, wiggly posts in which children symbolically experience the notion of ants in the swaying grass; an entire wall of duo-colored rollers on the slide tower that kids can turn to make a pixelated image; a wall that shows the rain cycle and allows kids to use giant paintbrushes to draw on the pavement; a giant landform in the shape of water ripples; and Imagination Playground blue building blocks. The building blocks—loose parts—empower creativity and simultaneously engage parents who help children move blocks, reach higher levels, and participate, rather than just supervise. The building blocks support the Theory of Loose Parts, first articulated in 1970 by Simon Nicholson, which asserts that in any environment, both of the degree of inventiveness and creativity, and the possibility of discovery, are directly proportional to the number and kind of variables in it .
 Grahn, P., Martensson, F., Llindblad, B., Nilsson, P., & Ekman, A., (1997). UTE pa DAGIS, Stad & Land nr. 93/1991 Sveriges lantbruksuniversitet, Alnarp.
 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.
 Crain, W. (2001). How Nature Helps Children Develop. Montessori Life, Summer 2001.
 Cobb, E. (1977). The Ecology of Imagination in Childhood. New York: Columbia University Press.
 Wilson, R. (1997). The wonders of nature: Honoring children’s way of knowing. Early Childhood News, 6 (19).
 Kahn, J. 23,263 New Home Sales Last Year at Top 50 Masterplans, a 14% Increase over 2014. John Burns Real Estate Consulting. Accessed February 2, 2016.
 Bachman, D., Kahn, J. Top 50 Master-Planned Communities of 2015. John Burns Real Estate Consulting. Accessed February 2, 2016.
 Nicholson, Simon. “What do Playgrounds Teach? The Planning and Design of the Recreation Environment,” University Extension, University of California, Davis, 1970, pp. 5-1 to 5-11.
by Jeff Lindstrom