Eco Parks for Learning and Play

by Chris Roberts, ASLA

This meandering Kellogg Park bioswale, engineered for infiltration and subsurface water recharge, provides accessible passive learning and play along the entire park. / image: Pacific Coast Land Design, Inc.

“Play is the highest form of research.”
– attributed to Albert Einstein

An Unfulfilled Need

In the 1950s I loved exploring nature in an unstructured setting. Nearby windrows, vacant lots, and scrambling on the boulders in nearby hills offered exploration and adventure.

The exploration and investigation of a natural setting is not available to many of today’s urban and suburban youth. This loss—often replaced by cell phones and digital gaming—creates a deficiency unique to this century: nature deficit disorder.

Exploring natural environments is fundamental to providing future adults with the appreciation and knowledge they will need to cope with environmental degradation. Local parks could offer children and families the opportunity to experience, appreciate, and learn how nature works.

Kellogg and Greenfield Community Parks

Two new Southern California community parks address learning and play in a natural setting. Although they are equipped with exciting prefabricated spinners, play forts, exercise equipment, and slides, the overall character of each park draws heavily from nearby iconic natural features. Many park activities involve unstructured investigation of the local natural environment.

Kellogg Park is in Ventura near the Ventura River. Greenfield Community Park is in the Salinas Valley, about 12 miles from Pinnacles National Park. These two California parks draw from their local natural setting to offer learning and play experiences that deepen children’s understanding of how nature works. Both parks engender children’s appreciation and understanding for the web of life. The emphasis is on observing, touching, playing with and learning about plants, animals, water, and landforms representative of each park’s unique natural setting.

Kellogg Park’s bioswale is designed for passive learning and play. It draws from the nearby Ventura River. The bioswale meanders the full length of the park. The deep sand drainage bottom is engineered to reduce local flooding, pollution, and salt water intrusion.

Swale aesthetics include curves, boulders, and edge plantings. A variety of activities and passive facilities line the edge of the drainage. Stepping stones span the swale in several locations. Sand extends up the banks for sand and water play, toy earth-moving machinery, dinosaur bones, and a dugout canoe. The overall setting invites exploration and unstructured investigation that builds self-confidence and familiarity with nature.

Pinnacles National Park is visible from Greenfield Community Park. A water play area, climbing structures, and plantings draw from the park, with the hope that, as children grow older, they will be attracted to the National Park. Greenfield’s water play area is contained by local boulders and native plants. Water basins, pumps, and a patio with a creek bed offer unstructured passive water play.

Greenfield’s water play area / image: Pacific Coast Land Design, Inc.

Imagine how many more activities the patio would support if it included programmed exhibits that challenged children to build dams, use sand to divert water, investigate infiltration, and explore soil erosion.

The park’s faux rock climbing structures emulate Pinnacles National Park rock formations. The ledges, fractures, and breccia surface are modeled after Pinnacles National Park volcanic rock.

Left: Pinnacles National Park rock formation / image: National Park Service; Right: Greenfield Community Park / image: Pacific Coast Land Design, Inc.

A telescope pointed at the National Park’s iconic rock formations and an interactive exhibit inviting exploration of the National Park’s unique geology would the link between the two parks.

Kellogg and Greenfield parks are successful community park attractions. But, they do not meet the potential of a park offering a balance between self-initiated, cognitive learning and play.

Parks That Nurture an Appreciation and Understanding of the Ecosphere

Developing quality eco-parks for learning and play will require research and coordination among landscape architects, educators, fabricators, and in some cases, programmers. Here are the roles that different professions might assume for the design of a large scale eco-park:

Landscape architects would define the ecological character of the park and organize the facilities. Projects would likely include prefabricated and custom structures. Working with the fabricator and the curriculum development specialist, the landscape architect would design facilities with a variety of interactive features that highlight appropriate learning content. The landscape architect would coordinate signage, exhibits and digital media to support park facilities and activities.

K-12 science teachers / Curriculum development specialists: If funding were available, K-12 educators and learning programmers would develop learning content and format activity programs for the use of various learning/play structures.

Play equipment manufacturers would help select, modify, and design play structures.

Programmers: Well designed sand and water play for children may not require programs. Many park features attract exploration and investigation just because they look fun. Climbing on rock walls with fractures, sedimentary layers, breccia, fossils, or other obvious features also invites self-initiated play and investigation. However, well-designed programs expand the use and deepen the understanding of natural play features.

Using the climbing wall example, a simple sign saying, “CAN YOU FIND?” that shows pictures of fossils would expand the use of the climbing wall to investigate fossils.

The facilities pictured below were developed for schools. A faux rock structure above a variety of soils, along with an exhibit or digital screen program could invite kids to investigate all the processes these pictures illustrate—and more—in a park setting without adult supervision. Activities would be self-initiated and experienced as play.

Left: Water table for stream hydraulics & erosion study. / image: Little River Research & Design; Right: Faux rock streambed / image: ID Sculpture

Today’s children are tomorrow’s environmental decision makers. Park learning and play activities that offer sensory and cognitive STEM education will strengthen the value of local and regional parks, and result in a better-informed society.

Chris Roberts, ASLA, earned a California teaching credential and an MLA at Utah State University. He founded Pacific Coast Land Design in 1983. Chris studied early childhood curriculum design at Nova University in Florida, where he taught at the University laboratory school.

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