Loosening Up: Breaking Boundaries for Creative Play in Schoolyards, Part 2

by Eric Higbee, ASLA, Jason Medeiros, and Leon Smith

Hawthorne students play with loose parts during an afterschool demonstration by Portland Free Play. / image: Fahad Aldaajani

Education and Creativity at Hawthorne Elementary’s STEAM Playspace

Part 2: Making the Case

Welcome to Part 2 of “Loosening Up,” the story of transforming Hawthorne Elementary’s asphalt schoolyard into a community-curated, nature-based, loose parts playground. Our first post focused on our student and community engagement process. This second post focuses on navigating bureaucratic resistance. A third will cover the final design, implementation, and lessons learned.

The Benefits of Loose Parts and Nature Play

There is ample evidence for the academic and social benefits of enriching a play environment with loose parts and nature. Studies have shown that loose parts play supports creative problem solving (Daly & Beloglovsky, 2015); fosters imagination, creativity, and symbolic abstract thinking (Miller, 2007); and leads to greater happiness and social inclusion during recess.

Studies have also shown that natural play environments stimulate social interaction between children and reduce the incidence of bullying (Bixler et al., 2002; Malone & Tranter, 2003; Moore 1986) and that some contact with nature during the school day improves children’s concentration and self-discipline in the classroom (Grahn, et al., 1997; Taylor et al., 2002; Wells, 2000).

The Barriers to Loose Parts and Nature Play

Yet despite the benefits, school districts are typically averse to incorporating nature or loose parts into school playgrounds.

One of the primary factors is school districts’ desire to limit their legal exposure to lawsuits through playground accidents. This concern has increased in the last few decades because of legal changes that allow more latitude to sue local governments, and the adoption of national design standards (Jost & Yost, 2016). For example, Seattle School District playground designs must undergo review by veto-wielding risk-assessment attorneys, whose mandate is to limit exposure to legal liability from playground accidents.

This dynamic is capitalized upon by some playground equipment manufacturers, who use U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC) standards and large insurance policies to help shield themselves and school districts from legal liability. A few of the larger playground equipment manufacturers’ dominance has also allowed them to shape perceptions of the acceptable limits of play. For example, the typical post-and-platform play structures that dominate new playground installations practically define the term ‘playground’ in everyday reference.

While we don’t question playground manufacturers’ commitment to providing high quality products, in our opinion, most manufactured play structures do not support the full play needs of children across the age and ability spectrum. Unlike loose parts, these standardized structures have little adaptability to children’s needs.

Lastly, poor school funding means that many school districts have limited maintenance budgets. Our experience has been that schools are averse to adding complexity or scope to their landscape maintenance regimes, which typically focus on a ‘mow and blow’ approach.

Risk vs. Safety

A small but growing body of research provides evidence that adventure and loose parts playgrounds are actually safer than traditional playgrounds. One five-year quantitative study of an elementary school with both a conventional playground structure and an ‘adventure playground’ of loose parts found that the conventional playground has an injury rate more than three times that of the adventure playground (“Comparing Injury Rates on a Fixed Equipment Playground and an Adventure Playground,” Saxby & Wood, 2018).

Why would this be?

Risk is an integral part of play. Children are constantly exploring their physical and psychological boundaries while playing. This is an important aspect of childhood development and is how children learn to move through and understand the world. Research shows us that children learn to manage risk through play. If given the chance, they can develop proficiency at keeping themselves safe and finding the right level of challenge.

Additionally, children will adapt to traditional play environments by increasing the level of risk they take. The limited flexibility of manufactured playground equipment encourages children to to use them in ways that they were not intended. Climbing up slides the wrong way, or getting on top of equipment where they are not supposed to, for example, puts children in less predictable (and therefore less safe) situations not accommodated by the designers’ safety specifications.

In fact, in the United Kingdom there is a widespread movement to incorporate risk back into playgrounds.

Working with the District for Approval

The design for Hawthorne Elementary STEAM Playspace, which proposed loose parts and nature play (more on the design in Part 3), faced some steep challenges for acceptance by the Seattle School District and their safety and maintenance review teams.

Design team, parents, and District staff work together to translate community ideas into design alternatives during an open-door, two-day design charrette. / image: Fahad Aldaajani

So we began our design effort with an open-door, two-day design charrette, inviting District staff and the Hawthorne community to help develop designs from the ideas generated during the community meetings. This unconventional (and sometimes uncomfortable) approach brought stakeholders into the same room for early collaboration and idea vetting before facing the red pens of District’s safety and maintenance teams.

During the charrette and subsequent rounds of District review, teasing apart the aforementioned difference between risk and safety was a key talking point in our conversation with the Seattle School District. It was helpful that design team members were familiar with CPSC and ASTM standards, and were able to parry concerns from the District about how design proposals involving loose parts or natural play would accommodate common safety concerns like entrapment hazards, fall heights, etc.

Hawthorne’s playground erupts in a cacophony of joyous imaginative play during an afterschool demonstration by Portland Free Play. / image: Fahad Aldaajani

We also decided to give a loose parts demonstration. Portland Free Play, a project of design team member Leon Smith, brought their 12-foot trailer of loose parts and creative odds and ends to the Hawthorne Playground for an afternoon of play. Parents and teachers had a chance to witness approximately 40 students deep in social communication, problem solving, innovation, creativity, and self-organizing, all rising from the initial chaos of exploration.

One key distinction that appeased District concerns was designating the loose parts and natural play spaces as “landscape areas.” This approach allowed an easing of the usual playground safety standards applied by the District, since the ‘loose parts’ did not fall into an existing category of play equipment and therefore could not officially meet a set of existing safety standards. The loose parts were then simply part of a landscape area that students could ‘move’ and would be maintained by PTA volunteers. The PTA’s commitment to maintenance was also a significant factor in circumventing concerns about additional maintenance workload for District crews.

The vision for Hawthorne’s playspace turned underused asphalt into a playspace weaving a tapestry of loose-parts play, native plants, stormwater capture. and more. / image: Eric Higbee

Lastly, the momentum created from our robust student and community engagement simply made it harder for the District to say ‘No.’ Approximately 85% percent of the students were involved in generating the ideas for the playground, and there was a clear investment and mandate for more natural and creative play areas.

In the end, the School District said ‘Yes’ to a vision plan that incorporated loose parts and nature play, designating it as a pilot project for future evaluation. Once the District representatives were convinced that loose parts play did not present significant danger (like falls or entrapment), they were quite curious about the project and willing to give it a chance.

The Improvement Plan for Hawthorne Elementary School’s outdoor playscape integrated STEAM learning opportunities in three ways: Student-Created or Manipulated, Collection and Observation, and Interpretation. / image: Eric Higbee

The strong vision for Hawthorne’s STEAM playspace, the full weight of the community, and informed dialogue with the design team, all helped realize the project goals and convince the School District this was the right direction for Hawthorne Elementary.

Stay tuned for the next post, where we will dive into the details of this projects’ design and management, and discuss the lessons we learned. Please reach out with comments and questions!

The next post in this three-part series will be published on The Field next week, so stay tuned for more on Hawthorne Elementary’s STEAM Playspace! And, the Children’s Outdoor Environments PPN leaders who reviewed this post would love to hear from other landscape architects about their experiences with playground equipment manufacturers, and showcase more examples of innovative structures that respond to children’s developmental needs in future Field posts.


Bixler, Robert D., Floyd, Myron E. & Hammitt, William E. (2002). Environmental Socialization: Quantitative Tests of the Childhood Play Hypothesis. Environment and Behavior, 34(6), 795-818.

Daly, Lisa, and Miriam Beloglovsky. (2015). Loose Parts: Inspiring Play in Young Children. Redleaf Press.

Grahn, P., Martensson, F., Llindblad, B., Nilsson, P., & Ekman, A. (1997). UTE pa DAGIS, Stad & Land nr. 93/1991 Sveriges lantbruksuniversitet, Alnarp.

Jost, Daniel & Yost, Bambi (2016). Making Room for Risk in Play Environments and Play Standards. Landscape Research Record. 5. 245-260.

Malone, Karen & Tranter, Paul (2003). Children’s Environmental Learning and the Use, Design and Management of Schoolgrounds. Children, Youth and Environments, 13(2).

Miller, D.L. (2007). The Seeds of Learning: Young Children Develop Important Skills Through Their Gardening Activities at a Midwestern Early Education Program. Applied Environmental Education and Communication, 6, 49-66.

Moore, Robin C. (1986). The Power of Nature Orientations of Girls and Boys Toward Biotic and Abiotic Play Settings on a Reconstructed Schoolyard. Children’s Environments Quarterly, 3(3).

Saxby, Morgan and Wood, Jill (2018) Comparing Injury Rates on a Fixed Equipment Playground and an Adventure Playground.

Taylor, A.F., Kuo, F.E. & Sullivan, W.C. (2002). Views of Nature and Self-Discipline: Evidence from Inner City ChildrenJournal of Environmental Psychology, 22, 49-63.

Wells, Nancy M. (2000). At Home with Nature, Effects of “Greenness” on Children’s Cognitive Functioning. Environment and Behavior, 32(6), 775-795.

Eric Higbee, PLA, ASLA, of Convene PLLC is a landscape architect specializing in community-driven place making.

Jason Medeiros of Outdoor Classroom Design is a science teacher and landscape designer.

Leon Smith of Puddletown Playworks is a free play advocate and playscape designer.

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