A New Design Guide for Nature Exploration Areas

by Lisa Howard, ASLA, and Willa Caughey

A child simultaneously developing fine and gross motor skills, executive function, and creative skills at Evergreen Brick Works. / image: Lisa Howard

For those with access, nature has been a healing salve throughout the pandemic—a safe space to interact with the outside world, stimulate the senses, and explore freely. But for the many without ready access to pockets of nature, the crisis served to amplify existing inequities and brought urgency to the already pressing need for more equal access to natural outdoor spaces, particularly for children.

Dedicated natural areas for children don’t need to be expansive or pristine to offer benefits, but access is key. Small pockets set aside for nature exploration that are within 15 minutes walking distance from children’s residences or schools can provide children daily or weekly access to experiences that regularly support their cognitive, physical, and social development in ways a traditional playground can’t.

Historically, children generally had more freedom to roam and explore their surrounding landscapes. From streets to backyards, vacant lots to forests, these unofficial spaces offered opportunities for children to learn, grow, and challenge themselves in an unstructured environment. Today, opportunities to play and explore in these types of landscapes have been significantly diminished by children’s increasingly structured lives, urban/suburban development, and the absence of “eyes on the street.” Nature Exploration Areas (NEAs) offer a model for reintroducing such landscapes—and their associated benefits—into children’s daily lives.

Beneficial risks can be challenging and rewarding. / image: Maria Durana | SF Children & Nature

Natural settings such as NEAs provide a range of learning and play opportunities that can be experienced individually or in groups including imaginative play, multisensory experiences, gross and fine motor skill development, social emotional development, and creative constructive play. They invite open-ended play, meaning they don’t tell children how to play or explore, allowing children to cultivate independence. And, in contrast to traditional play equipment, they are constantly changing with the weather and the seasons, regularly opening new avenues of exploration.

NEAs are site-specific natural areas for children that can fit into a wide array of contexts and that highlight existing ecological features of a site, no matter the size. To guide and encourage the creation of these beneficial spaces and building on years of experience in design of the children’s realm, Lisa Howard wrote the San Francisco Nature Exploration Area Playbook Design Guide in partnership with San Francisco Children & Nature and a focus group of passionate local leaders (San Francisco Recreation and Parks, Green Schoolyards America, Presidio Trust, San Francisco Botanical Garden, SF Environment, SF Parks Alliance, San Francisco Water Power Sewer, San Francisco Planning, San Francisco Public Works, Zach Pine Create with Nature).

Excerpt from the NEA Playbook Design Guide / image: BAY TREE DESIGN

The Design Guide identifies the necessary and beneficial features that characterize NEAs and provides clear strategies for how to integrate them into landscapes. These features include:

  • Loose natural elements – Loose parts encourage open-ended opportunities that foster creativity, critical thinking, sensory enrichment, action, collaboration, and exploration.
  • Beneficial risk elements – Engaging in beneficial risk helps children understand their abilities and ultimately decreases the severity of accidents.
Heron’s Head NEA / image: Maria Durana | SF Children & Nature
  • Ecological elements – Ecological elements not only support local ecosystems but offer important ecological literacy learning opportunities and can foster a long-term connection to and affinity for nature.
  • Sensory and immersive experiences – Exposure to a variety of alerting and calming sensory experiences is essential for well-rounded development.
Sticks from plants create immersive spaces. / image: Maria Durana | SF Children & Nature
  • Site boundaries – Well-designed site boundaries define the space and signal to children that this is a safe space to be themselves without distracting from the immersive experience of the space.
  • Welcoming signage – Signage helps inform the public of the intent of the site and can be a way to share a variety of messages. Ideally, multi-language options should be provided.
  • Public involvement – Involving the public helps inform the design of the site and its program while strengthening community ties and empowering stakeholders.
  • Management plan – For the long-term success of the project, the management plan must be considered.
  • Climbable trees (optional) – Tree climbing offers an opportunity to engage in beneficial risky play and builds problem-solving skills, self-confidence, dexterity, physical strength, risk negotiation, and spatial awareness.
  • Gardening area (optional) – Working in vegetable gardens offers a variety of health, learning, motor, sensory, and psychological benefits to children.
  • Place-based interpretation (optional) – Place-based interpretation provides further learning opportunities specific to a site’s ecology, cultural history, and sustainability.
Heron’s Head NEA / image: Maria Durana | SF Children & Nature

It is our hope that the San Francisco Nature Exploration Area Playbook Design Guide will provide enriched access to nature by giving designers an understanding of children’s developmental needs with an open approach to providing for those necessities. Dr. Nooshin Razani of UCSF says, “Nature belongs to us as an essential part of our self and our survival.” This Design Guide aims to provide this essential element to all children of San Francisco from Bayview to the Presidio and all the nooks and crannies in between.

Lisa Howard, ASLA, is a landscape architect, CPSI, and Principal of the design firm BAY TREE DESIGN. Her work focuses on creating ecological and community spaces that explicitly value the people who need them from children to the aging. She is also an ASLA Children’s Outdoor Environments Professional Practice Network (PPN) leader.

Willa Caughey is an associate at BAY TREE DESIGN. Drawing on experience from the US and Denmark, she seeks to create harmonious and functional landscapes that benefit users and ecological systems.

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