A Recap of the ASLA Conference from the Children’s Outdoors Environments PPN

by Ilisa Goldman, ASLA, Missy Benson, ASLA, and Amy Wagenfeld, Affil. ASLA

The Living Laboratories: Exploring San Diego’s Nature-Based Outdoor Learning field session during the 2019 ASLA Conference on Landscape Architecture.
Attendees enjoying a stop on the Living Laboratories: Exploring San Diego’s Nature-Based Outdoor Learning field session / image: Ilisa Goldman

With the recent release of the film A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood, let’s give homage to the iconic late Fred Rogers and his thoughts about play. He said, “Play is often talked about as if it were a relief from serious learning. But for children, play is serious learning. Play is really the work of childhood.” Our Children’s Outdoor Environments Professional Practice Network (COE PPN) presence at the 2019 ASLA Conference on Landscape Architecture in San Diego fully aligned with Mr. Roger’s sentiments. Here’s how.

It began with a field session, Living Laboratories: Exploring San Diego’s Nature-Based Outdoor Learning, led by COE PPN Co-Chair Ilisa Goldman, ASLA, Park Landscape Architect with the City of San Diego, and Andrew Spurlock, FASLA, of Spurlock Landscape Architects. The excitement and sense of wonder filled the double-decker bus as the this sold out session got started. The first stop was the CDA Hilltop Child Development Center (CDC) in Chula Vista, designed by Ilisa in 2012. Program Director at Child Development Associates (CDA), Susan Holley, and Ilisa led a tour through the Outdoor Learning Environment (OLE), discussing the concepts behind the design, site layout, installation, maintenance, and lessons learned. Highlights included the Habitat gARTen, the mud kitchen, and vegetable garden.

From the Hilltop CDC, the field session headed to the community of Encanto in South East San Diego to visit the EarthLab, run by Groundwork San Diego/Chollas Creek. Education Director Joanna Proctor led the group through the project site, which included a native garden/pocket park, outdoor learning amphitheater, educational creek bed, production gardens, and newly installed accessible pathways. An engaging discussion about partnerships with the school district and community, and curricular connections, took place.

Next, we headed to Balboa Park to enjoy a picnic style lunch while watching several preschool groups enjoy the City of San Diego’s first nature exploration area (NEA). Shamli Tarbell, Park Landscape Architect, and Kathy Castello, Area Manager with the City of San Diego Parks and Recreation, facilitated an excellent presentation on the project. Topics included: design guidelines for nature play, obstacles in the process, and what it took to get the first NEA installed in San Diego.

For the last stop of the tour, the bus headed to the Ocean Discovery Institute (ODI) in City Heights. Landscape Architect Andrew Spurlock, community leader Linda Pennington, and Anne Correia, Facilities Operations Manager of ODI, gave a wonderful tour of the site, addressing the philosophy behind and impact of ODI in the community. Attendees experienced the integration between the indoor and outdoor components of the project and its relation to the urban canyon system in City Heights. It was a great day—with highest-mark post-session evaluations!

Attendees ask questions at the CDA Hilltop Child Development Center, Chula Vista, CA / image: Ilisa Goldman
Shamli Tarbell, PLA, and Kathy Castello of San Diego Parks and Recreation discuss the City’s first nature exploration area / image: Ilisa Goldman
Landscape architect Andrew Spurlock, FASLA, discusses the design and implementation of the Ocean Discovery Institute in City Heights, San Diego / image: Ilisa Goldman
Field session participants in the Habitat gARTen at the CDA Hilltop Child Development Center, Chula Vista, CA / image: Ilisa Goldman

In the EXPO hall the following day, COE PPN officer Missy Benson, ASLA, and Co-Communications Director Amy Wagenfeld, Affil. ASLA, hosted the Explore the Floor session Saturday afternoon. We visited Earthscape Play Inc., Berliner, and Freenotes Harmony Park, Inc., with approximately 65 attendees. Participants learned about unique features of play components and custom solutions, including imaginary and pretend play, rope play, and the benefits of music in play areas.

About 65 attendees participated in the COE PPN-hosted Explore the Floor session. / image: Missy Benson

Chad Kennedy, ASLA, PPN Council Chair and Co-Communications Director for the COE PPN, Greg Miller, FASLA, Immediate Past President of ASLA, and Amy Wagenfeld facilitated a Kickstart the Conversation session in the EXPO hall on Sunday that focused on inclusive play. Ilisa, Missy, as well as COE PPN officer John McConkey helped to champion a great discussion, including thoughts about what we can (and should be thinking about) to do better in providing children with play spaces that balance inclusion with the providing the ‘just right challenge’ and inclusive best practices for all ages and abilities.

The Kickstart the Conversation session resulted in a very engaging discussion about inclusive play practices.

Chad, Greg, and Amy presented PPN education session The Transformation of Inclusive Design: Evidence-based Research Supporting Holistic Playground Design on Sunday afternoon. Despite a picture-perfect weather day, the session was well attended and received. We spent time talking about the important PhD dissertation research that COE PPN Co-Chair Ken Hurst, PhD, ASLA, conducted on the “Attractiveness of Universal Design in Public Play Environments For People Of All Abilities.” Perhaps most meaningful in our talk was an artful blending of practical evidence-based outcomes with moving examples of the value of inclusive play that Chad and Greg have encountered in their practice.

As the United Nations High Commission for Human Rights (1983) states, “play is the right of every child.” Coupled with the expansive body of research supporting the developmental value of outdoor play, there is great need for landscape architects to provide all children regardless of disability or socio-economic status with developmentally appropriate inclusive play opportunities. This is an important part of practice and a call to action for the profession to rise to the challenge of providing every child with meaningful opportunities to play, OUTSIDE.

Greg, Amy, and Chad’s session on inclusive play was well attended and received. / image: Missy Benson

As we wrap this article up, there is a favor to ask of you. We want to know what you want to read about here on The Field from the Children’s Outdoor Environments PPN. What matters to you? While we would love to have you write an article about a topic of interest, the next best thing is to find out what you want to know so we can make sure this information is disseminated via a Field article. Please take a moment to either add a comment to this post, share ideas via the COE PPN LinkedIn group, or send Amy and Chad an email. Thanks in advance.

Before we end by saying, next year in Miami…please consider submitting a proposal to present at the 2020 ASLA Conference on Landscape Architecture about a topic related to children’s outdoor environments. The last day to submit proposals is January 23, 2020.

Ilisa Goldman, ASLA, Park Landscape Architect for the City of San Diego, Parks and Recreation, founded Rooted In Place Landscape Architecture + Consulting in 2012 with a focus on creating dynamic outdoor environments for children of all ages to play, learn, and develop a relationship with the natural world. Through a strategic design process, she works with communities to transform underutilized spaces into thriving places. Through cross-sector collaboration, Ilisa designs projects and programs that support public health, provide access to the nature and help to build social capacity. With nearly 20 years of practice, Ilisa is a leader in the ‘Children and Nature’ movement and co-chair of the ASLA’s Children’s Outdoor Environments Professional Practice Network (PPN).

Missy Benson, ASLA, is an Officer of the Children’s Outdoor Environments PPN and a past president of the Virginia Chapter of ASLA. She provides research for pop up and inclusive play design and is a co-author of Design & Play: Imagination Needs Places to Thrive, published by the Design Museum Foundation.

Amy Wagenfeld, PhD, OTR/L, SCEM, FAOTA, Affil. ASLA, is Co-Communications Director for ASLA’s Children’s Outdoor Environments PPN. She is principal of design+cOnsulTation, whose mission is to enhance life experiences through collaborative design, programming, and evidence-based research of universally designed environments. Amy is co-author of Therapeutic Gardens: Design for Healing Spaces, published by Timber Press.

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