Playing with Topography

One way we can avoid the effect of a cookie-cutter playground and invite children into the landscape is to integrate the play space with the contours of the site, whether by taking advantage of existing grade changes or by introducing topography to an otherwise flat space. However, the technical challenges and safety concerns associated with hillside play have, in recent years, been a barrier to the design and installation of embankment slides and other play features that integrate with topography. Bridget Muck and Tracey Adams of Miracle Play Systems share knowledge and expertise gained by working on several successful hillside play installations.
-Brenna Castro, ASLA, Children’s Outdoor Environments PPN Officer

There are all sorts of new and exciting playground equipment on the market these days, but one familiar piece from decades ago has made a major comeback—the embankment slide.

Joe DiMaggio Park, San Francisco image: Miracle Play Systems

Joe DiMaggio Park, San Francisco
image: Miracle Play Systems

The embankment slide is not a new concept. However, with safety codes and regulations such as ASTM, CPSC, ADA, and CBC, they are a little trickier than they were for the designers of the past. In this article, we will define embankment slides versus elevated hillslides, provide design methods and approaches, offer material recommendations, and share a few success stories along the way. We will also show other play features that can be incorporated into a site with topography.

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Designing for All Children

Ramp and steps located together provide equitable access to the play structure. image: Amy Wagenfeld

Ramp and steps located together provide equitable access to the play structure.
image: Amy Wagenfeld

The International Classification of Functioning, Disability and Health (ICF) suggests that disability is contextual. Environmental contexts can reduce or exacerbate disability. If an environment enables a young girl with a left leg amputation who uses a wheelchair to access spaces the same ways everyone else does, she is not disabled in this context. In accordance with the ICF, if she has to gain access to an environment via a steep ramp, be carried because the only access is steps, or be unable to enter at all, she is disabled. If she cannot participate or engage in the space, she is disabled in this environmental context. In the exemplar above, the ramp and steps are adjacent. The surface is crushed stone and the ramp slope is barely discernible. Both wheeled mobility users and those ambulating can equitably gain access to the Zen garden beyond the shelter. There is no backdoor entrance; all are equal and welcomed through the front door.

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How Play Environments Assist Mother–Infant Interactive Behavior

Expression swing image: Gametime

Expression swing
image: Gametime

The process by which a child enters the world is a truly fathomless miracle. On three occasions I have personally witnessed this amazing process as a child gasps for its first breath, declares its first cry of dissatisfaction, and opens its eyes for the first time to gaze into its mother’s eyes. Of all the crazy things that happen during the whirlwind of childbirth, the moments just mentioned create the most vivid and resonant memories. I stood by as an apparent bystander and watched as mother and child formed unique bonds through mutual gazing that perhaps none of us can truly understand or comprehend. As I watch my three children continue to grow and develop, I often notice this same mesmerizing gaze occur with their mother during moments of quiet calm, active play, and even when miserable, cuddled close trying to fight off a cold. This interactive relationship, referred to as “affect attunement,” developed between a mother and child, is real and seemingly palpable. This article will discuss the science behind this mother-child connection and offer examples of how the play environment can be altered to facilitate important mother-child interaction.

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Small Site, Big Impact

Barrio Logan Child Development Center image: Alex Calegari

Barrio Logan Child Development Center
image: Alex Calegari

The Barrio Logan Child Development Center

When my client, Child Development Associates, first approached me about designing an Outdoor Learning Environment (OLE) for the Barrio Logan Child Development Center, he warned me it would be one of my most challenging projects. I saw these challenges as opportunities! Together we had an opportunity to maximize space, to transform lives, and to make a statement that all children could have access to a quality OLE.

The Barrio Logan Child Development Center (CDC) is located in the urban neighborhood of Barrio Logan just south of downtown San Diego. This publicly funded program serves approximately 85 children (3-5 years of age), with the majority from low-income families in the community. The small 1,513 sf play yard (17’ wide x 89’ long), with little shade and no vegetation, sits directly adjacent to the I-5 Freeway, the heavy traffic generating a constant background noise for the students and staff at the Center. Most of the children spend 40-50 hours a week at the Center with little access to nature and open space in their community.

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Make-Believe: Inspiring Imaginative Play in Public Play Spaces

Concessions climber at McClatchy Park in Sacramento, CA, designed by Callander Associates image: Billy Hustace

Concessions climber at McClatchy Park in Sacramento, CA, designed by Callander Associates
image: Billy Hustace

In the hands of a child, a cardboard box can transcend its humble origins to become a racecar, a fort, a cave, a classroom…anything the child can imagine. Similarly, the landscapes that we design for children are the stage on which innumerable dramas, comedies, games, and interactions can unfold, and designing spaces that promote imaginative play can help to support children’s physical, emotional, and social growth. Play that benefits physical health has been a particular focus in the face of increasing levels of childhood obesity—and for good reason, since the importance of movement and activity is so well-documented as to be irrefutable.

While few would argue against the importance of these efforts, we would do children a disservice if we designed spaces meant only to develop their strength and balance at the expense of the emotional and social skills such as creativity, empathy, and cooperation. So while traditional active play is still the default mode for most publicly-funded projects, a thoughtfully designed active play space can also serve to promote imaginative or dramatic play. Moreover, play spaces that stimulate the imagination produce a sense of wonder and possibility, allowing children to create experiences that are different every time and encouraging repeat visits.

Imaginative Play

Imaginative play—a term used here to include pretend play, sociodramatic play, and other forms of symbolic or “make-believe” play [1, 2, 3]—is when children imagine a situation, take on a role, and act out the situation (either alone or in groups) through words or actions [4]. By acting outside the constraints of reality, children are able to deal with problems and fears, develop problem-solving and critical thinking skills, and experiment with if-then situations.

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Play as Panacea, Part 2

Dell Children’s Medical Center of Central Texas image: Jody Horton

Dell Children’s Medical Center of Central Texas
image: Jody Horton

Part 2: Transforming Lives & Communities

Healthcare Environments

The importance and effectiveness of outdoor therapy, play, and immersion in nature has been widely embraced in recent years and continues to gain prominence in the healthcare industry. As noted nearly 20 years ago, patients are less likely to exhibit signs of depression especially where access to natural light and opportunities for physical exercise are present [1].

One hospital network in Central Texas, Seton Healthcare Family, has eight major facilities in the region and all include some form of healing garden [2]. The 3-acre healing garden at Dell Children’s Medical Center of Central Texas—a leading pediatric hospital that was the world’s first LEED Platinum for Healthcare project—is by far the largest of those eight and is integrally intertwined with the institution’s success. The healing garden provides patients, families, and caregivers a literal and figurative escape from the rigors of hospital life that has proven to be restorative and cherished by all. Indeed, probable outcomes from the appropriate use of nature are benefits that will more than likely be experienced in the reduction of anxiety/stress or a buffering of subsequent stressful episodes by the patients, staff, and visitors alike [3].

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Play as Panacea, Part 1

Riverstone’s Big Adventure Park image: Jody Horton

Riverstone’s Big Adventure Park
image: Jody Horton

An Associate in the Houston office of TBG Partners, Jeff Lindstrom is a landscape designer and project manager with in-depth experience in the areas of nature-based play and environments emphasizing education and childhood development. He has a strong interest in designing spaces that elicit full engagement—physical, cognitive, social, and emotional—and support whole child development. He maintains involvement in many organizations—including the Children & Nature Network, Texas Children in Nature – Houston Collaborative, World Forum Foundation, and Big Brothers Big Sisters of America—and has attended a variety of conferences focused on play, childhood development, and related issues. Jeff is a University of Wisconsin – Madison alumnus.
–Meade Mitchell, PLA, and Brenna Castro, ASLA, Children’s Outdoor Environments PPN Officer

Part 1: Transforming Lives & Communities

Researchers and experts in childhood development have long recognized the tremendous impact outdoor play and interaction with nature can have on health and well-being. As this appreciation for the power of play continues to be more widely embraced by mainstream audiences, beneficial impacts far beyond physical health have risen to the fore—with multifaceted outcomes and unique applications demonstrating the power of play in distinctly different environmental contexts. Play is increasingly becoming an integral component, and frequently a key driver, of development projects, and while characteristics of play environments often vary dramatically from one realm to another, the efficacy of prioritizing play is serving to transform the design and development of physical spaces—as well as longstanding attitudes by development decision-makers. Play environments were for many years viewed as a nonessential, a line-item consideration fulfilled by uninspired, off-the-shelf, manufactured play equipment lacking creativity. But fortunately, as Bob Dylan would say, the times they are a-changin’.

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