Letting Play Bloom: Designing Nature-Based Risky Play for Children

by Amy Wagenfeld, PhD, OTR/L, SCEM, FAOTA, Affil. ASLA

image: book cover courtesy of Lolly Tai, FASLA

Notes from the Inaugural Children’s Outdoor Environments Professional Practice Network (PPN) Book Group Meeting

Written by Lolly Tai, PhD, RLA, FASLA, with a foreword by Teri Hendy, CPSI, Letting Play Bloom: Designing Nature-Based Risky Play for Children is magnificent. Published in 2022 by Temple University Press, it is an elegant, rich, and beautiful accounting of the need for children to experience risk in play, because as Dr. Tai eloquently states, “Children love to play in risky ways, it’s how children learn [about themselves and others and the world around them]” (p. 3). She makes clear that risky play is not a synonym for unsafe play; rather she cites Joe Frost’s idea of risky play as being “exciting, thrilling, and challenging while at the same time keeping risk to a minimum.” Children will find their way to risky play, and as the projects in the book make clear, presenting opportunities for risky play makes children happy.

The book is organized around five projects that exemplify risky play: three from the US, one from the Netherlands, and one from Australia. Each project offers risky play opportunities for children, but in different ways. The first project is Slide Hill at the Hills, a project on Governor’s Island in New York Harbor. The next is the iconic Adventure Playground in Berkeley, California. We move on the Rotterdam in the Netherlands to learn about De Speeldernis, return back to the US for WildWoods at the Fernbank Museum, and then to the Ian Potter Children’s WILD PLAY Garden in Sydney, Australia.

A perfect balance of narrative and images, the reader cannot help but be inspired by the incredible photographs that seamlessly capture the essence and joy of risky play. The book also contains planting plans and drawings generously shared by those who designed the projects that Dr. Tai painstakingly reworked for the book. It is a MUST read and was the perfect choice for the inaugural meeting of the Children’s Outdoor Environments PPN book group.

What follows is a short summary of the meeting, in which 24 attendees gathered on Zoom on January 20, 2023, for a wonderful discussion facilitated by COE PPN leader Lisa Casey, ASLA, PLA, LEED AP BD-C. Lisa asked Dr. Tai many questions including the impetus for writing the book, her favorite project (there is none for her; all of them are wonderful in their own way!), and for those of us who treasure Dr. Tai’s books, what projects lie ahead. We were encouraged to learn that there is likely something in the pipeline. Many attendees asked questions, all of which dovetailed nicely with the discussion. Here are some thoughts that Dr. Tai shared with us.

She made abundantly clear, and we wholeheartedly agree, that play supports healthy development. Today’s children and youth are increasingly leading sedentary lifestyles that tend to keep them inside rather than outside in nature. Getting outside to play is a top priority in childhood (and adulthood as well).

With regard to why five projects were featured versus more (or less), Dr. Tai felt it important to focus on what she felt are the best and most novel examples of nature-based risky play projects as a means to inspire designers to create more play spaces that provide a balance of risky, but not harmful play experiences. The number of projects was not the criteria, rather quality was. These projects were also all spearheaded by parents and other stakeholders who dared to dream big and desire something different for their children. They (and also children, for some of the projects) were part of the decision-making processes.

The title of the book, Letting Play Bloom, is metaphoric, intended to acknowledge that through play children can thrive, learn, and spark their drive for mastery; they can in essence, bloom. The book is the third that Dr. Tai has published. Her first two, Designing Outdoor Environments for Children: Landscaping Schoolyards, Gardens, and Playgrounds published in 2006 and The Magic of Children’s Gardens: Inspiring Nature through Creative Design published in 2017, were, in many ways, the precursor to writing Letting Play Bloom. A primary inspiration for Letting Play Bloom was that there is a lack of literature, particularly research-focused literature on designing risky play spaces for children. Dr. Tai’s intent was to focus on the design process, which is clearly what the book provides. We are all beneficiaries of Dr. Tai’s exquisite and eloquent books and contribution to landscape architecture.

Thank you to Dr. Tai and to all who attended our inaugural COE PPN book group meeting. If you have suggestions for our next book to discuss, please reach out to ASLA’s Professional Practice team to share the title. COE PPN members, stay tuned for an invitation to the next meeting. Until then, hoping you will obtain a copy of Letting Play Bloom and incorporate all it offers into your next children’s playspace project.

One more announcement to share: Teri Hendy, CPSI, who wrote the foreword to Letting Play Bloom, also attended the PPN book group, and shared this call to action for landscape architects:

Nature play is an important part of child development and many landscape architects are doing great work incorporating play and play equipment into the landscape environments that they are creating. The ASTM subcommittee F15. 29 is responsible for the continued development of the F1487 standard for public playground equipment. Because of the increase of playground equipment being placed on mounds and embankments along with the protective surfacing material be used as part of the landscape, this subcommittee is wrestling with how to allow/incorporate these landscape elements into the playground. There is a working group within the F15.29 subcommittee that is currently developing standards for play mounds and embankments. There are no landscape architects participating in this working group. As vice-chair of the F15.29 subcommittee, this is concerning to me. I believe your voices are greatly needed in this discussion. It would be beneficial to the continued growth of nature play to have members of ASLA join ASTM and participate in our subcommittee meetings. Travel to meetings is encouraged but not required. All meetings are now on Zoom. I would be happy answer any questions and guide you through the ASTM process. Thank you for your interest in growing natural play opportunities.
– Teri Hendy, CPSI

For more on author Lolly Tai, FASLA, see the Children’s Outdoor Environments PPN’s interview with Lolly and the webpage for ASLA’s Jot D. Carpenter Teaching Medal—Lolly was the 2021 honoree.

Amy Wagenfeld, PhD, OTR/L, SCEM, EDAC, FAOTA, Affil. ASLA, of Amy Wagenfeld | Design, serves on the leadership team for the ASLA Children’s Outdoor Environments Professional Practice Network (PPN).

Leave a Reply