Pop Up Nature Play in San Diego

image: Rooted in Place
image: Rooted in Place

This past April the San Diego Children and Nature Collaborative (SDCaN) hosted its fourth annual Pop Up Nature Play event at the San Diego Earth Fair in Balboa Park. Over one hundred children and their families from across San Diego spent the afternoon creating what can only be described as a mini village of magical structures with nature’s loose parts.

During this one-day event, children of all ages are invited to engage in unstructured outdoor play with the collection of natural materials including bamboo poles, sticks, tree cookies, pine cones, shells, and palm fronds. From teepees to fairy houses, children work together to bring their ideas to life.

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Finding Common Ground at the Children & Nature Network Conference

Richard Louv describes new directions for bringing nature to children in cities.   image: Lisa Horne, ASLA
Richard Louv describes new directions for bringing nature to children in cities.
image: Lisa Horne, ASLA

Knowing that children’s experiences in nature matter, landscape architects can look to—and get involved in—an organization that strives to advance children’s nature experiences.

The Children & Nature Network serves as a vibrant resource and advocate for improving children’s access to nature, and its April conference in Texas attracted well over 400 international and interdisciplinary participants. The ASLA Children’s Outdoor Environments Professional Practice Network (PPN) officers Lisa Horne, ASLA, and Julie Johnson, ASLA, were among them. With a conference theme of “Inspiration and Action for Healthy Communities,” several concurrent sessions offered insights on and case studies of children’s learning and play in nature. And the opportunities to informally meet and learn from other conference participants during breaks and meals enabled meaningful conversations.

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Book Review: Nature Play & Learning Places

Comprehensive Guidelines for Nature Play, by Robin Moore image: Nature Play and Learning Places
Comprehensive Guidelines for Nature Play, by Robin Moore
image: Nature Play and Learning Places

Nature Play & Learning Places: Creating and Managing Places Where Children Engage with Nature touches on nearly every topic at the forefront of the children and nature movement. As the primary author, Robin Moore, Hon. ASLA, a professor at NC State University and internationally recognized expert on outdoor children’s environments, led a team of specialists. The extensive list of project staff, project steering committee, and five subcommittees is a who’s who of influential individuals and organizations in the movement. The guidelines were underwritten by a grant from the US Forest Service and supported by the National Wildlife Federation and the Natural Learning Initiative at NC State College of Design.

The audience is broad. The guidelines are for “professionals responsible for outdoor spaces used by families and children” (10). Many fit within this category: policy makers, advocates, system managers, site managers, program developers, educators, and design professionals. Landscape architects are in the final category.

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A Need for Green Schoolyards

One of The Kitchen Community's Learning Gardens image: The Kitchen Community
One of The Kitchen Community’s Learning Gardens
image: The Kitchen Community

Scalability as Driver of Schoolyard Greening Initiatives

Childhood obesity and the widely acknowledged and worrisome trend of urban food deserts are major health concerns facing Los Angeles and other communities today. According to the Mayo Clinic, unhealthy lifestyles marked by poor food choices and inactivity are the leading cause of obesity in children. Latino youths suffer disproportionately from obesity, and Los Angeles contains 4.9 million Hispanics (9% of the nation’s Hispanic population). At the same time, there is a groundswell of professional interest and research in the topics of Children’s Outdoor Environments and provisions for opportunities for organic, spontaneous, natural play. Add to this equation the vast, underused asphalt expanses of typical urban schoolyards, and the problem-solver in each of us begins to see a window of opportunity.

The Kitchen Community (TKC) was founded in 2011 with the goal of connecting children to nutritious food by building Learning Gardens at schools and community centers across the country. TKC was established as the philanthropic arm of The Kitchen restaurants in Boulder, Colorado, and rapidly expanded to Chicago, Los Angeles, and Memphis. TKC has built over 200 Learning Gardens across the country to date.

TKC’s early goals for expansion include build-out to 100 Learning Gardens in each city. This scale will establish a presence that will enable TKC to enter into larger conversations with school district decision-makers and funders about fundamental shifts in policy that will change the way schools influence the physical and emotional health of our youth. Chicago was the first city to reach this goal, reaching scale in just one year within Chicago Public Schools. As the third-largest school district in the nation, this was an incredible milestone that exemplifies the possibilities of reaching scale in other cities. Los Angeles is now nearly midway to reaching scale, with most of those 100 Learning Gardens anticipated to be built on Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD) schoolyards. LAUSD, the second-largest school district in the country, is demonstrating its support for schoolyard garden projects with a publicly-funded bond that will provide the infrastructure for outdoor learning environments at over 160 schools within the District.

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The Role of Interoception in Play and Recreation

image: Chad Kennedy
image: Chad Kennedy

This year, my kindergarten age son is learning about the five senses. His excitement for learning is nothing short of contagious as he analyzes daily interactions with the world based on which senses he is using. He correctly notices that an interaction with a tablet requires sight and touch and that his morning cereal feast results in taste and touch sensations.

At times, however, he is confused about which sensory system to attribute certain sensations. After an epic living room floor tickle battle he can correctly note that our laughter is attributed to the auditory sense but cannot quite describe the tickling sensation or his need for water. This may be attributed, in part, to a lack of recognition by society and elementary age educational programs that there are additional sensory systems beyond the typical five.

Sensory systems which help us understand our bodies and the environment include the vestibular (balance & pressure), proprioceptive (spatial understanding) and interoceptive (internal organ) sensory systems. These systems are just as real and important as the traditional five, but receive much less attention. As past articles I have written focused on the vestibular and proprioceptive systems, this article will focus specifically on interoception and how it relates to play and recreational environments.

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Book Review: Birthright

Birthright: People and Nature in the Modern World, by Stephen R. Kellert image: Yale University Press
Birthright: People and Nature in the Modern World, by Stephen R. Kellert
image: Yale University Press

Lisa Horne, ASLA, reviews Birthright by Stephen Kellert, giving insight into how his exploration of humans’ relationship with nature is distinct from that of his predecessors and contemporaries. This analysis touches on the intricacies of Kellert’s arguments, including the role of design in this broad and complex arena, and how connections between humans and nature can be beneficial to both. Kellert’s approach is nuanced, balanced, and honest, providing sound academic reasoning as well as a human perspective on what is, after all, a fundamentally human issue.
–Brenna Castro, Associate ASLA, Children’s Outdoor Environments PPN Officer

Book Review: Birthright: People and Nature in the Modern World

As the keynote at the 2013 ASLA Annual Meeting and EXPO in Boston, Stephen Kellert gave a provocative presentation for the profession. “Biophilia” is a relatively new concept in design and Kellert’s recent work Birthright gives a heartwarming survey of ideas with relevancy to design and theory.

Birthright provides a basis for incorporating nature into our lives. Kellert leaves classifications of nature open-ended and defines biophilia as a love of life. We have an innate desire for nature, which is “a birthright that must be cultivated and earned” (Kellert xiii). This attitude neither advocates a return to an Arcadian past nor forecasts apocalyptic doom. Instead, he asserts that humans will recognize their own self-interest and benefit from investing in the environment. An audience of academics, leaders, policy makers, and professionals interested in biophilia will appreciate the pace, text, and reasoning.

To read to full review, visit the Therapeutic Landscapes Network’s blog.

by Lisa Horne, ASLA, Children’s Outdoor Environments PPN Co-Chair

Climbing in Playgrounds

image: IDS
image: IDS

A necessary requirement of children’s outdoor environments is a provision for gross motor planning and muscle development. Climbers have long been a method of providing the various movements to accomplish this development. Recent advances in technology and building materials, however, have opened up additional opportunities. Andris Zobs and Ian Glas are leaders in the industry of artificial climbing structures, having built and installed many of these structures in playground environments. They have kindly written the following article to highlight the need for climbing in play environments.
–Chad Kennedy, ASLA, Children’s Outdoor Environments PPN Co-Chair

As any parent knows, children climb anything, from the dresser drawers to the first time they awkwardly wrap themselves around a tree trunk. Teenagers scale walls and adults seek out remote mountaintops. When we are at our strongest and most confident, we climb.

The Outdoor Industry Association puts total participation in rock climbing in the United States at 4.7 million to 6.9 million people, and the Climbing Wall Association estimates that there are 600 climbing-specific gyms and thousands of climbing walls within larger facilities and camps.

While the popularity of rock climbing seems to have peaked in 2002 to 2006, there has been an explosive growth of nature-themed climbing in playgrounds and parks. With improvements in the manufacture of climbing structures and sculptures, accessibility and safety has improved, making climbing a sport with widespread appeal across age groups and skill levels.

Playground designers and manufacturers have recognized that traditional post and deck structures and climbing events don’t fully satisfy the urge to climb that we all feel. In recent years, the industry has stepped forward to meet the challenge with climbing sculptures that have added a new dimension to playground activity, with more realistic surfaces, more challenging athleticism, and creativity in forms. New technology has enabled complete creative freedom; climbers are no longer limited to walls and boulders. Playground designers can now create expressive sculptures that combine the health benefits of climbing while also providing a venue for imaginative play.

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Annual Meeting Highlights

As the keynote, Lois Brink explains strategies to locate funding for schoolyard gardens image: Lisa Horne
As the keynote, Lois Brink explains strategies to locate funding for schoolyard gardens
image: Lisa Horne

It was a noteworthy year for the Children’s Outdoor Environments PPN at the ASLA Annual Meeting in Denver, with record-breaking meeting attendance and stirring presentations. Highlights and links to session notes are below.

Annual PPN Meeting

With well over 35 participants, the annual meeting broke PPN records for attendance. The meeting started with a call for more volunteers to join the leadership team and kicked off with three PechaKucha-style presentations by Joy Kuebler, John McConkey, and Alison Kelly. Topics ranged from pop-up parks to pilot studies on play spaces addressing developmental disorders to schoolyard gardens. Lois Brink, a founder of Learning Landscapes in Denver, gave the keynote with an original perspective on funding for schoolyards.

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Trends That Give Us Hope

image: Sharon Danks
image: Sharon Danks

Environmental planner Sharon Gamson Danks is CEO of Green Schoolyards America and principal of Bay Tree Design in Berkeley, California. She is the author of Asphalt to Ecosystems: Design Ideas for Schoolyard Transformation, which was featured as a book review in the Children’s Outdoor Environments (COE) PPN section of The Field in January 2013. Her work transforms school grounds into vibrant public spaces that reflect and enhance local ecology, nurture children as they learn and play, and engage the community. The COE PPN is thrilled to have her work published here on The Field. –Chad Kennedy, ASLA, Children’s Outdoor Environments PPN Co-Chair

The Power and Potential of Green Schoolyards

Public school districts are one of the largest landowners in almost every city and town across the United States and around the world. In the United States alone, over 132,000  schools in more than 13,000 school districts serve more than 50 million pre-kindergarten to 12th grade students each year [1, 2]. Choices made by school districts about how they manage their landscapes profoundly impact their city and generations of local residents whose perspectives are shaped through daily, outdoor experiences at school.

A movement to green school grounds and connect students to nature is gaining momentum in the United States and around the globe, weaving the ideas of urban sustainability and ecological design together with academic achievement, public health, children’s wellbeing, sense of place, and community engagement. Green schoolyards bring nature back to cities and suburbs by transforming barren asphalt and ordinary grass into vibrant environments for learning and play, set within the context of the rich, local ecosystems that nurture wildlife and the natural processes that underlie and sustain our urban infrastructure. Green schoolyards foster children’s social, physical, and intellectual growth and health by providing settings for curiosity, collaboration, imagination, exploration, adventure, and wonder. Continue reading

Oasis of Resilience

The Al-Za’atari refugee camp in Jordan; the picture illustrates the living condition in the camp. January 2014. image: Malda Takieddine
The Al-Za’atari refugee camp in Jordan; the picture illustrates the living condition in the camp. January 2014.
image: Malda Takieddine

Healing and Empowering Syrian Children in the Za’atari Refugee Camp

In the midst of refugee camps and suffering from difficult journeys necessitated by war, Syrian children suffer from traumas, uncertainty and unhealthy environments for their growth. Early adversarial exposures can change the development of the brain and can lead to subsequent psychological problems that make it harder for children to effectively immerse themselves in the education process as they grow. A close look at most refugee camps around the world reveals constraints in physical environments that impose and limit the natural development of children.

This post is a summary of a thesis project titled “Oasis of Resilience.” This thesis examined the Al-Za’atari refugee camp in northern Jordan, which is home to more than 100,000 Syrian refugees, and proposed a design to better the environment for children in general.

Within this camp, children constitute over half of the population, yet there are few designated places to escape the camp’s stressful life and to provide safety. Safety and respite from harsh conditions are essential to childhood development. However, in order to support children to overcome their trauma and empower them to move forward, design thinking should be integrated to enrich the few opportunities they have.

The goal as landscape architects was to redesign Za’atari’s children’s places around experiences that enable them to develop necessary skills, which strengthen their resilience and support their natural growth needs. “Oasis of Resilience” is a project that aims to enhance design content and implications with an increased understanding of child development, psychology and pedagogy science. The project highlights  relationships between children’s health and design and identifies needed facilitator parties in creating children’s places in refugee camps.

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Combating Obesity Through Play

image: Chad Kennedy
image: Chad Kennedy

As I observe young toddlers playing in the park, at their homes, or at school, I often contemplate their seemingly innate need to run from one activity to the next. Despite the fact that they trip, fall, break and bang into things, running is the preferred method of transition, regardless of the activity or endeavor. How many knees are scraped, glasses of milk spilt, and cranial contusions occur each day because of this reckless behavior? It is almost physically draining to watch as an observer!

An attentive onlooker, however, might learn a thing or two from this unlearned drive to engage in physical vigor. If toddlers only continued to engage in similar forms of vigorous movement as they grew into adolescence and adulthood, the issues of obesity and lack of physical health that face our society today would certainly not exist. The reality is however, that most of us slow down as we age, finding it more of a burden than an advantage to exert a toddler-like level of energy, often leading to less than healthy weight and activity levels. This leads to several questions. How big of an issue is obesity in the United States? Are there ways to combat the obesity trend by keeping children interested in active behaviors as they grow older? What can parents do to help?

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The Story of Denver’s Learning Landscapes

A bird's eye view of Moore Elementary's Learning Landscape image: Designscapes
A bird’s eye view of Moore Elementary’s Learning Landscape / image: Designscapes

Lois A. Brink is a professor at the University of Colorado and principal leader of the Learning Landscapes project in Denver, a $50 million design and construction initiative that in 2012 completed 96 elementary schoolyards over a 12-year construction schedule. She is a leader in the industry examining the sustainability of schoolyard redevelopment through many programs and research projects. She will be presenting this topic in detail at the ASLA Annual Meeting this November with a field session on Denver’s Schoolyard Learning Landscapes.
–Chad Kennedy, ASLA

School in the Yard: The Story of Denver’s Learning Landscapes

In the last analysis, civilization itself is measured by the way in which children will live and what chance they will have in the world.
–Mary Heaton Vorse, 1935

Denver was at a turning point during the 1990s. The city’s schoolyards primarily consisted of asphalt and pea gravel, with few play structures and limited green space. Most did not meet ADA requirements, provided little protection from the sun, and had limited lighting. They were underutilized, and gravel-related accidents were common.

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Continuing Education, Online & in Denver

Denver's City Park image: Clint Mickel via Flickr
Denver’s City Park
image: Clint Mickel via Flickr

This post is a heads-up for educational opportunities for members of the Children’s Outdoor Environments PPN and for all ASLA members with an interest in this practice area. We would like to remind our members of an upcoming webinar and sessions that will be of interest at the Annual Meeting in Denver.

Upcoming ASLA Online Learning Presentation:

Risk Management at Nature Play and Learning Areas: A Risk Analysis Approach
Wednesday, September 17, 1:00 – 2:00pm (EDT)
Presenter: Allen Cooper, J.D., M.P.P, National Wildlife Federation

Risk management is a paramount issue in the design of nature play and learning areas. This presentation provides background on the dominant standards-based approach to risk management in children’s play areas, considers its application to nature play areas, then presents an alternative approach to risk management based on analysis of actual risk. The presenter is a coauthor of the recently released guide for the design of nature play and learning areas, Nature Play & Learning Places: Creating and Managing Places Where Children Engage with Nature.

Children’s Outdoor Environments at the Annual Meeting:

November, and the Annual Meeting in Denver, is just around the corner. There is a field session, numerous education sessions and several networking opportunities that will be of particular interest to members of the Children’s Outdoor Environments PPN.

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Call for PechaKucha-Style Presentations

image: Lisa Horne
image: Lisa Horne

The Children’s Outdoor Environments PPN is looking forward to the ASLA Annual Meeting in Denver this November. Join us for an exciting PPN meeting to jumpstart creativity and encourage new connections! Perhaps you have heard of the “PechaKucha” phenomenon, a whole new way to share talks with 20 slides at 20 seconds each. This year our meeting will include a series of PechaKucha-style presentations on children’s outdoor environments and we are inviting you to take part.

Participants can look at broad issues like universal design, safety, emerging health issues for children, etc. or focus on a specific project. A presentation can be around process, innovations, trends—whatever you want to share. We will get to learn from and know each other better, and have some fun in the process. Interested in presenting? Submit a title, short summary paragraph, and brief outline for the 20 slides (one to two words per slide) to PPN Co-Chair Lisa Horne by September 12, 2014.

For inspiration, see a PechaKucha guide on YouTube. Also, check out the amazing work done by the Campus Planning and Design PPN last year.

Thanks in advance,

Lisa Horne and Julie Johnson Co-Chairs, Children’s Outdoor Environments PPN

The full schedule of PPN meetings in Denver can be viewed on the Annual Meeting website, and don’t forget to purchase a ticket for the PPN Networking Reception.

Call for Abstracts: Child-friendly Cities

Teardrop Park, New York. 2009 General Design Honor Award Winner. The 14-foot long custom-made stainless steel slide, rested on the side of a bowled land form, and the Wooden Step Seats (foreground) create a social microcosm shared by sliders, climbers, onlookers, diggers, and New York Times readers.  image: Nilda Cosco, Natural Learning Initiative, College of Design, NC State University, Raleigh, NC
Teardrop Park, New York. 2009 General Design Honor Award Winner. The 14-foot long custom-made stainless steel slide, rested on the side of a bowled land form, and the Wooden Step Seats (foreground) create a social microcosm shared by sliders, climbers, onlookers, diggers, and New York Times readers.
image: Nilda Cosco, Natural Learning Initiative, College of Design, NC State University, Raleigh, NC

The 4th International Conference on the Geographies of Children, Youth and Families will take place January 12-15, 2015 in San Diego, CA.The conference’s theme is Young People, Borders & Wellbeing, and the call for sessions, papers, and posters will be open until October 15, 2014. Highlighted below is one proposed session of interest on Child-friendly Cities: Critical Approaches. See below for instructions on how to submit an abstract if you would like to be considered for inclusion in this session and in a special issue of the journal Children, Youth and Environments.

Many of the papers within children’s geographies end with some kind of recommendation for the building of child-friendly cities. But what do we mean by child-friendly cities? This workshop will explore different ways of conceptualizing children, cities, child-friendliness and their interrelationships.

Policies aimed at child-friendly cities presuppose that cities are not child-friendly: cities have to change in order to become child-friendly. This supposition reveals an anti-urban way of thinking. It juxtaposes the urban jungle vs. the rural idyll. These contrasting connotations are very much based on the relatively poor provision of outdoor play facilities in urban environments and their assumed abundance in rural environments. But today, enrichment activities have become more prominent in many children’s everyday life. Will this emphasis on enrichment activities change the rural into the urban idyll?

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Children’s Park at Klyde Warren Park

Entry into Children’s Park image: Lisa Horne
Entry into Children’s Park
image: Lisa Horne

On a beautiful October day, Klyde Warren Park opened to the public in 2012 after years of planning and hard work. The 5.2-acre park spans Woodall Rodgers Freeway between St. Paul Street and Pearl Street in Dallas, Texas. It effectively created new real estate over the sunken highway and reunited downtown Dallas and the burgeoning Uptown with its trendy restaurants, offices, and multifamily development.

Within the highly programmed park, the corner at St. Paul Street and the westbound access road is dedicated to the Children’s Park. Between the Botanical Garden and Reading Room and across from the Great Lawn, this space of less than half an acre is fenced. Closely aligned steel poles, which are similar to the Nasher Sculpture Center bollards less than a block away, allow visual access, but block movement. The entry is an elaborate white portal that can be locked at night. Signage provides additional guidelines for visitors entering the Children’s Park.

Circulation is in a circle to the west of the entrance with a smaller open space to the east. The playful water feature with amphitheater-style seating is the first element that draws visitors through the portal. Springy, colorful paths weave through the dramatic topography of berms covered in artificial turf. The heavily padded paths cushion any rough landings from climbing the berms. Although river birch does not always perform well in Dallas, these trees are healthy and their exfoliating bark and animated foliage contribute to the excitement of the space.

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A Great Place to Play in Nature?

image: Chad Kennedy
image: Chad Kennedy

Traditional park and playground design philosophies are evolving and shifting as researchers and designers have begun to see the results of past trends in risk management, safety, and design. These trends have led to static playgrounds with less than stellar play value, and infrequent patron trips. Modern design philosophies are now embracing the incorporation of plant life and other natural elements into play areas. At the core of this philosophical shift is the fact that nature is intrinsically dynamic and ever changing, and that the addition of these features to playgrounds introduces variety, change, and opportunities for creativity.

Until recently, the concepts of nature-based play were founded on observation and were weakly supported by research. However, supporting research is becoming more widely available. The following is an abstract for a research project conducted at Utah State University by Jeff Hamarstrom and Keith Christensen. The study investigated what elements are found in naturalized play spaces, what adult and teacher perceptions of these playgrounds are, and how natural elements are being used by children. The full thesis is available for review as well.
–Chad Kennedy, ASLA, Children’s Outdoor Environments PPN Officer

Naturalized Playgrounds

Play is essential for children’s emotional, cognitive, social, physical, and educational development [5]. The play environment can support these diverse needs in different ways [7, 3, 1]. The growing concern of parents and outdoor play researchers over the loss of interaction between children and nature has pushed designers toward creating play environments that are based more on natural elements than manufactured equipment [9, 11, 5, 4]. These playgrounds are often referred to as “natural” or “naturalized” and typically contain elements such as water, plants, flowers, hills, tree groves, weather stations, rock outcrops, and streambeds. They might also contain some of the typical manufactured play structures such as swings, multi-level structures, or climbing structures [13]. While the elements being used might differ, all naturalized playgrounds promote the idea that natural elements are there to be a part of play and to be played with; they are not just there for aesthetic value.

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Cozy Spaces & Restful Play

image: Chad Kennedy
image: Chad Kennedy

Perhaps one of the most misunderstood forms of play by society is the rest period between active play periods. Parents and teachers often misunderstand restful play and observation time as completion of the play period and force children back into cars, homes, and classrooms. As a father of three young children, I can relate to this and sometimes struggle with making a mental effort to pause and wait for just a moment to make sure that play has indeed reached an end. What adults perceive as an end to play is often a retreat from the sensory stimulation accumulated during the prior activity and a form of respite while a child self-regulates their emotions, body heat, and sensory intake. It is also often a time to take a step back and understand the environment from a cognitive and social perspective.

This past weekend, I observed a four-year-old child at his birthday party. After jumping and bouncing non-stop in a large bounce house with a large group of children, sweaty and red-faced, he quickly distanced himself from the group. Several adults watched as he sought out and found a spot away from the bouncing and flailing of other children. The spot he chose was small, enclosed and intimate. It provided a spot where he could rest from the active and social events nearby, but still allowed him the option to observe safely while resting. He was obviously still actively engaged as he observed, moving his eyes and head back and forth as other children ran around in circles. Then without warning he was up and running around as if he had never stopped. Unbeknownst to him, he had just found his own “cozy spot” where he was able to self-regulate his physical, cognitive, sensory, and social inputs.

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EarthLooms for Nature Play Spaces

Boys and girls of all ages flock to the EarthLoom at Tremont Elementary School in Tremont, Maine, June 2013 image: Cheryl Corson
Boys and girls of all ages flock to the EarthLoom at Tremont Elementary School in Tremont, Maine, June 2013
image: Cheryl Corson

Kids instinctively understand the ancient art of weaving and they love doing it. When you present them with the opportunity to weave outdoors with freely available local plant material, working collaboratively in small groups, you have a winning combination and a landscape element that can easily be integrated into most nature play spaces.

EarthLoom was developed by Maine artists Susan and Richard Merrill as an artistic expression of community building. Embedded within the practical act of weaving are elements of cooperation, collaboration, and peacemaking. Their EarthLoom Foundation helps support projects around the world.

As a landscape architect and CPSI (Certified Playground Safety Inspector) involved in nature play space design in the Mid-Atlantic region, I encourage institutions to include nature play elements in their spaces. As a longtime weaver, however, I was deeply moved following the groundbreaking of a nature play space at the Tremont Elementary School on Mount Desert Island, Maine, last June. Designer Kreg McCune created an EarthLoom, the physical and symbolic centerpiece of this new space. Within only a few hours, kids of all ages had created a work of art on it.

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Sensory Diets in Outdoor Play Environments

image: Chad Kennedy
image: Chad Kennedy

During a recent trip to the sunny beaches of San Diego, California, I watched my three children closely as they interacted with the salty ocean water and the silky smooth sand. I am constantly amazed at the differences between each of them, and their distinct individual actions at the beach were no surprise. The oldest methodically traveled the beach, fascinated with the textures and colors of the many seashells and with the spongy qualities of the sand as evidenced in the depth of her footprints. The middle child was timid and tiptoed across the sand trying, futile as it was, to avoid as much skin-to-sand contact as possible. The youngest ran across the sand to the water’s edge, jumping, tripping, rolling and splashing without reservation and continued with messy, wet play for hours.

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Community Gathering Spaces

Insert Caption image: Ilisa Goldman
The Manzanita Gathering Place in City Heights, San Diego
image: Dennis Wood

Looking Beyond the Playground to Transform the Quality of Childhood in Neighborhoods

As a Landscape Architect specializing in creating healthy outdoor play and learning environments, much of my work is focused on parks, playgrounds, and schools. This past year, as a fellow of the San Diego Gathering Space Program, I was introduced to the importance of and potential in creating community gathering spaces to increase the quality of life for both children and families, and neighborhoods as a whole. Neither parks nor playgrounds, these spaces typically involve transforming an undesirable piece of land into a place designed and built by the community itself.

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Children’s Outdoor Environments: Annual Meeting Highlights

Plaza with Native Plant Garden Links to the Pre-existing Harborwalk image: Lisa Horne
Plaza with native plant garden links to the pre-existing Harborwalk
image: Lisa Horne

The ASLA Annual Meeting in Boston had several informative presentations and exciting events on children’s outdoor environments. As always, the conference ends too soon. If you missed it this year or overlooked one or two of the presentations, see highlights below.

Field Session: Outdoor Classrooms Designed for Learning

This field session included an afternoon of touring three different schools: Harvard-Kent School, Russell School, and Perry School. The Boston Schoolyard Initiative has invested over $20 million in projects over the past 18 years with a total of 32 outdoor classrooms constructed. Over 850 teachers have been involved with the project and at least 30,000 school children are affected each year by the Boston Schoolyard Initiative’s work.

The notes for this session can still be downloaded here.

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Accessible Play Environments Pilot Study

image: Kenneth Hurst
Caruth Park in Dallas, Texas
image: Kenneth Hurst

“Play is the child’s work. The world is his laboratory, and he is the scientist.”
-M. Paul Friedberg, 1970, Play and Interplay, p. 35

Passage of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) in 1991 followed by the 2010 ADA Standards for Accessible Design has ushered in an increasing awareness of accommodating people with physical challenges and has fostered an emphasis on accessibility and play for children of all abilities. In the spring of 2012, a user count study was undertaken in a suburban North Texas community to test a hypothesis that play environments built to a higher standard of accessibility, rather than the minimum requirements of ADA, are often more popular and receive more use than playgrounds meeting basic ADA standards.

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Zoo Play

image: Kary Arimoto-Mercer
image: Kary Arimoto-Mercer

“Play is children’s work.
It is an exercise in self-definition; it reveals what we choose to do, not what we have to do.

We not only play because we are. We play the way we are. And the ways we could be.
Play is our free connection to pure possibility.”
Hara Estroff Marano, “The Power of Play”

The psychologist quoted above, Hara Estroff Marano, argues that modern attitudes to parenting mean anxious mums and dads are crowding out the unsupervised play that kids used to enjoy. As a result children don’t get much opportunity to solve their own problems, to practice co-operation and to test their leadership skills.

This is where play comes in – in one of the most naturally interesting, egalitarian and safe places that a family can spend time together … a zoo.

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The Scoop on Sand and Play

image: Chad Kennedy
image: Chad Kennedy

Day trips to the beach, a play date at the local playground, or an afternoon in the volleyball pit always seem to result in perpetual cleanup efforts. Despite efforts to avoid or contain them, sand grains spontaneously appear anywhere and everywhere. It often seems impossible to clean all the sand out of shoes, clothes, towels, hair, toes, and ears. Even the gritty texture of rogue sand grains in the mouth is proof that sand has a special way of impacting life’s routines. Despite the sometimes necessary, and often aggravating, cleanup efforts, research has shown play in sand to be very valuable for the development of young children. Sand can also benefit play areas by way of safety and user comfort. As is usually the case, however, sand is not a perfect media for all play conditions. The use of it comes with a few simple cautions. Each of these topics warrant further discussion and are addressed below.

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Nature Play and Learning Areas Guidelines

Teardrop Parkimage: Natural Learning Initiative website
Teardrop Park
image: Natural Learning Initiative website

Nature Play and Learning Areas Guidelines is a joint project conducted by the National Wildlife Federation, the Natural Learning Initiative, and North Carolina State University, with the support of national partners. The aim is to develop national design and management guidelines for nature areas in children’s outdoor play and learning environments.

The Guidelines Project has issued a Call for Participants in a registry of Nature Play and Learning Areas to support and potentially illustrate the best practice criteria specified in the Guidelines.

For more information and the links to register, visit the Nature Play and Learning Areas Guidelines website.

by Ilisa Goldman, officer of the Children’s Outdoor Environments PPN


Nature Explore | The Outdoor Classroom Project Leadership Institute

Outdoor Classroom Project Leadership Instituteimage: Chad Kennedy
Outdoor Classroom Project Leadership Institute
image: Jeff Lindstrom, Associate ASLA, Nature Explore Classroom Designer

Earn PDHs / CEUs while learning design principles for creating effective nature play spaces.

Arbor Day Farm, Nebraska City, NE, July 21-24, 2013.

With the heightened awareness of nature deficit disorder and biophobia, it is important for landscape architects and designers to connect children with nature through the design and construction of effective outdoor play spaces. Study our research-based principles for designing environments that encourage whole-child development and positive relationships to nature.

Please join us for this four-day institute, held at Lied Lodge’s world-class facility, surrounded by the natural beauty of Arbor Day Farm. The Institute will be led by experienced designers and educators from Nature Explore and The Outdoor Classroom Project.

Earn 13 Professional Development Hours for the Landscape Architecture Continuing Education System. Visit the Nature Explore website to learn more and register.

by Chad Kennedy, Officer for the Children’s Outdoor Environments PPN

The Playground Project

The Playground Projectimage: Lisa Ramos
The Playground Project
image: Liana Ramos

Creating Garden, Art, and Play Spaces for Young Children

The Playground Project was a year-long internship with Hutchison Child Development Center, the University of California Davis on-campus nursery school. The center serves children ranging from infants to pre-kindergarten of faculty and city residents. The Bright Horizons mission is “to provide innovative programs to help children, families, and employers work together to be their very best.” Originally, the goals of this project were to enhance the existing landscape by improving its color, texture, plant palette, and overall aesthetic. But after carefully analysis of the site, it was clear that other improvements were necessary, such as the need for cooling and shade. Due to the small outdoor space, it was proposed that green playground areas become multi-functional areas and also serve as outdoor classroom spaces, educational tools, and art.  The new project goal that emerged was to create natural, educational play spaces that would also improve children’s cognitive development and motor skills.

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Book Review: Asphalt to Ecosystems

Asphalt to Ecosystems book coverimage: Sharon Danks
Asphalt to Ecosystems book cover
image: Sharon Danks

Asphalt to Ecosystems: Design Ideas for Schoolyard Transformation by Sharon Danks

The amount of published work addressing the design of children’s outdoor environments is slim, which made it a delight to hear that Sharon Danks had published a book on the design of schoolyards. She establishes herself as an authority on the subject in the first few pages of the book; she has visited over 200 schools in eight countries and worked with the San Francisco Unified School District to create green schoolyard plans for sixteen schools. Her schoolyard plan for Rosa Parks Elementary School is discussed in the previous post “It Takes a Village”.  Dinks also consults on schoolyard design through her own practice, Bay Tree Design, Inc. In short, she has the expertise.

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