Where Design Meets Play

Conference on the Value of Play: Where Design Meets Play image: US Play Coalition
Conference on the Value of Play: Where Design Meets Play
image: US Play Coalition

A couple of years ago I attended this conference as a speaker to discuss the developmental needs of children in play environments. I went into the conference as an instructor but quickly became the pupil. All of the attendees were professionals dedicated to play and children’s outdoor environments, who have, and are, doing great things. This three-day conference is a great experience for anyone involved with design and management of outdoor play environments.
– Chad Kennedy, ASLA, Officer and Past Co-Chair of the Children’s Outdoor Environments PPN

The US Play Coalition invites you to attend the 2017 Conference on the Value of Play: Where Design Meets Play, April 2-5 at Clemson University in Clemson, South Carolina.

The annual Conference on the Value of Play brings together leading play researchers, park and recreation professionals, educators, health scientists, landscape architects, designers, planners, business and community leaders, psychologists, physicians and parents from across the country.

The three-day event includes keynote and featured speakers, play institutes, PLAYtalks, research symposium, educational sessions, roundtables, grant opportunities, networking, and opportunities for play. LA CES credits also available!

We have already announced some incredible headliners for 2017 Conference on the Value of Play. Innovative Play Space Designer Matthew Urbanski, ASLA, will be a keynote speaker, sharing his lessons learned from designing play spaces. James Siegal, CEO of KaBOOM!, and Kimberly S. Clay, Founder & Executive Director, Play Like A Girl!®, are among our PLAYtalk presenters (our version of TED talks). There are more speaker announcements to come…not to mention the dozens of educational session and research symposium presenters!

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Children’s Outdoor Environments: Annual Meeting Highlights

The 2016 ASLA Annual Meeting in New Orleans image: Lisa Horne
The 2016 ASLA Annual Meeting in New Orleans
image: Lisa Horne

It was another great year for the Children’s Outdoor Environments Professional Practice Network (PPN) at the ASLA Annual Meeting in New Orleans with a special guest speaker as the keynote of the PPN meeting.

Professor Lolly Tai as meeting keynote image: Lisa Horne
Professor Lolly Tai as meeting keynote
image: Lisa Horne

Annual PPN Meeting

The meeting started with a short summary of the year for the PPN, including ten blog posts on The Field and four Online Learning webinars providing content on engaging youth in place making and integrating sensory processing disorders with outdoor play environments. The PPN LinkedIn group has continued to grow over the past year and now includes more than 800 members. Chad Kennedy, PLA, ASLA, CPSI, LEED AP BD+C, transitioned from current to past co-chair with the announcement that Brenna Castro, PLA, ASLA, CPSI, is the incoming co-chair and will guide the leadership team with current co-chair Amy Wagenfeld, PhD, Affiliate ASLA, OTR/L, SCEM, CAPS, FAOTA.

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Wonder for the Outdoors

The Natural World of Winnie-the-Pooh: A Walk Through the Forest that Inspired the Hundred Acre Wood, by Kathryn Aalto image: Timber Press
The Natural World of Winnie-the-Pooh: A Walk Through the Forest that Inspired the Hundred Acre Wood, by Kathryn Aalto
image: Timber Press

Book Review of The Natural World of Winnie-the-Pooh by Kathryn Aalto

Although I have read Winnie-the-Pooh and grew up watching the Disney movies, a book on the forest that inspired Winnie-the-Pooh seemed a stretch for design application, even with children’s outdoors environments. But it isn’t. Winnie-the-Pooh’s 100 Acre Forest was based on the real Ashdown Forest in East Sussex, England. Preservationists have kept it much the same as it was when A.A. Milne wrote the stories so it can be visited today. Kathryn Aalto’s approach to her subject is nuanced and thorough. It provides a perfect case study for children spending time in nature.

Divided into three parts, the book starts with a short biography of A.A. Milne and the illustrator E.H. Shepard as well as the creation of the story. The youngest and most precocious of three sons, Milne could identify words before age three. With two parents who were teachers and the nature around Hampstead in the late 1800s, he thrived. His father told the children, “Keep out of doors as much as you can, and see all you can of nature: she has the most wonderful exhibition, always open and always free.” [2] It is hard to imagine the breadth of the territory that he explored with his nine-year-old brother as they wandered through the British countryside. The text includes Milne’s essay on their three-day walking tour through the country and villages. This narrative fits well with Louise Chawla’s research that most people who care about the environment had either an adult modeling a love of nature or spent extensive time in nature as a child. [1] Milne had both.

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Sensory Gardens

Tactile nourishment for the feet image: Amy Wagenfeld
Tactile nourishment for the feet
image: Amy Wagenfeld

Mention a sensory garden and what often comes to mind is an outdoor space resplendent with aromatic plants and lush plantings abounding with splashes of color. While certainly part of the picture, it is perhaps not the complete one. In this post, we share strategies to create gardens that nurture and enrich all of the sensory systems. Our ideas to create a naturalized outdoor space for sensory exploration and enrichment are general. If you have the opportunity to create specialized sensory gardens for children with complex sensory integrative challenges, we recommend teaming up with occupational therapists with extensive training in sensory integration (it was introduced and the theory was developed by an occupational therapist, A. Jean Ayres), to make it as usable as possible. Because occupational therapists are also well versed in child development, it is a bonus for great sensory garden design.

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Children’s Outdoor Environments at the Annual Meeting

image: Gary Smith
image: Gary Smith

Children’s Outdoor Environments Professional Practice Network (COE PPN) Meeting
Sunday, October 23, 10:00 – 10:45 AM, City Park Stage in PPN Live

Join the Children’s Outdoor Environments PPN at the ASLA Annual Meeting and EXPO in New Orleans for our annual PPN meeting, this year in the new PPN Live format! Our meeting will include a keynote presentation by Lolly Tai, FASLA, Professor of Landscape Architecture at Temple University. She is the lead author of the award-winning book Designing Outdoor Environments for Children, published by McGraw-Hill. Her second book, The Magic of Children’s Gardens: Inspiring Through Creative Design, is in publication by Temple University Press and will be available in spring 2017. Lolly is the recipient of the 2004 Bradford Williams Medal. She holds a BSLA from Cornell University, a MLA from Harvard University, and a PhD from Heriot Watt University. Her keynote address at the COE PPN Meeting will cover:

Children’s Gardens: Design Features and Goals

A recent examination of twenty case studies of public children’s gardens reveals essential design features and key goals. Two case studies are selected to illustrate how key design elements are coherently integrated in creating children’s gardens.

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Playing with Topography

Lafayette Park, San Francisco image: Miller Company Landscape Architects
Lafayette Park, San Francisco
image: Miller Company Landscape Architects

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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Rory Meyers Children’s Adventure Garden

Entry with interactive fountain image: Lisa Horne
Entry with interactive fountain
image: Lisa Horne

Rory Meyers Children’s Adventure Garden: A New Design Typology

After seventeen years in the making, the Rory Meyers Children’s Adventure Garden opened in the fall of 2013. With a $63 million construction budget, the Dallas Arboretum and Botanical Gardens had transformed the eight-acre site along White Rock Lake in the northern part of the grounds into something new that merged typologies. The adventure garden fuses seventeen educational interactive displays with lush native or adapted plantings and water features. It is part botanical immersion and part outdoor curriculum.

An entry plaza, small amphitheater, and generously sized café placed adjacent to the garden entrance easily accommodates school groups. Through the whimsical metal entry gate with the state flower and butterfly is a plaza with a lively at-grade fountain surrounded by shade structures and seating.

A water narrative starts at the entry and continues throughout the site. One of the unique challenges to the site is a significant grade change. The design turns this into an advantage with generously sized water features flowing from the entry to the edge of the property by the lake. The Cascades allows a close up view of water as it falls.

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2015 Annual Meeting Highlights

Educational presentations at the Children's Outdoor Environments PPN meeting. image: Chad Kennedy
Educational presentations at the Children’s Outdoor Environments PPN meeting.
image: Chad Kennedy

If you missed the Children’s Outdoor Environments PPN meeting at the ASLA Annual Meeting in Chicago, you missed a fantastic meeting that rivaled many of the education sessions in value and content. As has been the trend in recent years, meeting attendance exceeded that of past years and presentations have never been better. This year’s meeting began with a surprise mini-birthday celebration for Nilda Cosco, PhD, Affiliate ASLA. She and Robin Moore, Hon. ASLA, were kind enough to make the trip to join us over her birthday weekend, so we took that opportunity to show our appreciation by singing happy birthday and presenting her with a cupcake and birthday crown.

Short Presentations: 

After this brief introduction, the meeting began with presentations by four fantastic speakers on a variety of children’s open space topics ranging from public engagement of youth, to research projects, and even to controversial topics like risk in the play environment. Below is a list of the speakers and the specific topics each of them addressed. The presentations used by each of the speakers can be found on our PPN Resources page for those interested in learning more about what was shared.

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Play Space Design Competition

Haverford Bright Futures School in Philadelphia image: Community Design Collaborative
Haverford Bright Futures School in Philadelphia
image: Community Design Collaborative

The Community Design Collaborative and the Delaware Valley Association for the Education of Young Children (DVAEYC) have chosen three real-life public sites in Philadelphia—a library, recreation center, and school—for their Play Space Design Competition. They’re challenging you to transform them into play spaces that will support healthy childhoods, strong communities, and family friendly cities.

The Collaborative and DVAEYC are seeking innovative ideas from interdisciplinary team of designers, educators, and more. Sign up now! The deadline to register is November 30. To register, you just need to pick your site and identify at least one licensed professional on your team. The design competition ends with a public event in Philadelphia in March 2016 with juried awards and cash prizes ($10,000 to three teams!).

The design competition is part of Infill Philadelphia: Play Space, a partnership of the Collaborative and the DVAEYC with support from the William Penn Foundation. It’s a design initiative to explore the unexpected ways that innovative play space helps both children and communities grow. Together, we can design a more playful Philadelphia!

Competition details and registration information can be found at cdesignc.org/playspace/competition.

Alexa Bosse, Associate ASLA, is a Program Associate at the Community Design Collaborative and presented at the Children’s Outdoor Environments PPN Meeting at the 2015 ASLA Annual Meeting in Chicago. The Community Design Collaborative provides pro bono design services to nonprofit organizations in greater Philadelphia, creates engaging volunteer opportunities for design professionals, and raises awareness about the importance of design in revitalizing communities.

Making Nature Play Areas That Work

image: Andrea Weber
image: Andrea Weber

Nature play has been in the news a lot in the past few years, but what does it really mean and how can you successfully introduce it into a public park setting if it is new to your organization?

Just about every type of media, from popular to professional, has covered nature play in the last few years. The benefits of nature play are well researched and the field is still growing. Those of us working on promoting nature play can thank Richard Louv and his brilliant marketing of the concept of “Nature Deficit Disorder” which, if you have read his best-selling book (Last Child in the Woods: Saving Our Children From Nature-Deficit Disorder), you will know is a made up term cleverly designed to get the attention of the public and of professionals, about how little time our children spend in nature and what developmental costs that is having on them. It worked.

So if we know that nature play is good, and we also know that children’s exposure to nature is plummeting, how do we get kids outside, exploring nature? How does a public park agency start opening up to and implementing new ideas on play areas to support this need? The following is a case study on a project which opened in 2012 in Minneapolis, the first project built by the Minneapolis Park and Recreation Board (Park Board) to re-shape the typical play area to integrate more nature play and how it has re-shaped play area design moving forward.

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Children’s Outdoor Environments at the Annual Meeting

ASLA 2009 Professional General Design Honor Award. Water Play. Within an interior circulation of play circuits, Teardrop Park creates the conditions for children's play that feels far removed from traffic and ordinary street life. Children are able to turn the water on and off. image: Elizabeth Felicella
ASLA 2009 Professional General Design Honor Award. Water Play. Within an interior circulation of play circuits, Teardrop Park creates the conditions for children’s play that feels far removed from traffic and ordinary street life. Children are able to turn the water on and off.
image: Elizabeth Felicella

Children’s Outdoor Environments Professional Practice Network (PPN) Meeting
Sunday, November 8, 9:15 – 10:45 AM in PPN Room 3 on the EXPO floor

Join us for our annual PPN meeting during the ASLA Annual Meeting and EXPO in Chicago, which will provide learning opportunities with short, lively, and inspiring presentations by speakers from throughout the country who are passionate about play environments. A keynote presentation will be given by Robin Moore, Hon. ASLA, from The Natural Learning Initiative. Topics and presenters for our PPN Meeting include:

Where Design Comes into Play: Designing Innovative Play Spaces
Alexa Bosse, Associate ASLA, Program Associate of Community Design Collaborative

Building Mounds. Building Play Diversity.
David Watts, ASLA, Associate Professor of Department of Landscape Architecture at California Polytechnic State University

Risky Play Elements in Play Design
Shannon Mikus, Associate ASLA, Family-scape Designer with Master of Landscape Architecture 2014

Engaging Youth in Creative Place Making
Ilisa Goldman, ASLA, Principal of Rooted In Place Landscape Architecture and Consulting

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Schoolyard Habitat Workshops

gARTen Hilltop, 2014 image: Alex Calegari
gARTen Hilltop, 2014
image: Alex Calegari

San Diego Children and Nature Schoolyard Habitat Workshops

There are many facets to the Children and Nature Movement, from natural playgrounds to family nature clubs, each having the goal of connecting children to the natural world. As many landscape architects have recognized, design is a key component to bringing nature into the everyday lives of children. What better place to do this than in the place our children spend most of their waking hours…the schoolyard!

Since its inception in 2009, San Diego Children and Nature (SDCaN) has offered professional learning opportunities to teachers, parents, administrators, and designers on the why’s and how-to’s for integrating nature into schoolyards. Thanks to a grant from San Diego Gas & Electric (SDGE), SDCaN, San Diego Master Gardeners, and Rooted In Place Landscape Architecture and Consulting partnered to host four training workshops in 2015 on Creating Schoolyard Habitats for Play and Learning. The 100+ attendees learned how to design and utilize schoolyard wildlife habitats.

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Our Moms Were Right!

Exploration in nature encourages socialization, creativity, and inquisition. image: Amy Wagenfeld
Exploration in nature encourages socialization, creativity, and inquisition.
image: Amy Wagenfeld


Play is a primary occupation of childhood and an important contributor to healthy development. The United Nations High Commission for Human Rights acknowledges play as being the right of every child. [1] The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends that children play or exercise outside for 30-60 minutes a day. [2] Despite this recommendation, a study of nearly 9,000 preschool children found that almost half of them don’t go outside even once per day. [3]

Outdoor play encourages physical movement and social and emotional interactions. It fosters thinking and creativity. The quality of outdoor play activities depend upon children being able to experience and to be in an environment that is safe, inclusive, engaging, fun, spontaneous, and arouses curiosity and creativity. When children play outside they can learn to enjoy their own company, take turns and listen to the perspective of others, create and follow and break rules, understand the consequences of their actions, take risks, learn, role play, challenge themselves, problem solve, move, and have fun. Arguably, what happens in outdoor play and exploration is equally as important as classroom learning. To deprive any child of opportunities to be outside and in nature is simply wrong.

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Call for Presentations

The Rory Meyers Children's Adventure Garden at the Dallas Arboretum image: Lisa Horne
The Rory Meyers Children’s Adventure Garden at the Dallas Arboretum
image: Lisa Horne

We are looking forward to the ASLA Annual Meeting and EXPO in Chicago this November. Join us for a high energy PPN meeting to spark creativity and create new connections! We are honored to have Robin Moore, Honorary ASLA, and Nilda Cosco, PhD, Affiliate ASLA, as our meeting keynotes.

Our presentations last year were a hit with record meeting attendance. We are continuing the dialogue of new ideas with another round of presentations, and we invite 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 about process, innovations, trends—whatever you want to share.

Interested in presenting? Submit a title, short summary paragraph, and brief outline for your slides (one to two words per slide) to Lisa Horne at lhorne (at) rviplanning.com by Friday, August 28.

For inspiration, check out the amazing work done by the Campus Planning and Design PPN in 2013 and 2014.

We look forward to seeing you in Chicago! The Children’s Outdoor Environments PPN meeting will take place on Sunday, November 8 at 9:15 AM.

by Lisa Horne, ASLA, a project  manager at RVi/NJB in Dallas, Texas, and co-chair of the ASLA Children’s Outdoor Environment PPN. She may be reached at lhorne (at) rviplanning.com.

Child’s Play

image: Sandra Wong
image: Sandra Wong

Designing Play Spaces that Support Healthy Cognitive Development in Children

How do you remember the playgrounds of your childhood? Do you rediscover your five-year-old self hiding under a slide, experimenting with mixtures of sand and water until your attention is captured by the sounds from a nearby game of tag? Play spaces have a strong identity that pull on our nostalgic heartstrings. Play is more than a means for children to pass the time and expend their energy. It is a realm of fantastical and cryptic adventures that cradle and nurture the child, molding them into individuals who can think, grow, and connect with others to the best of their abilities.

Play spaces can and should be designed to support emerging behaviors and developing skills in children, from infancy to adolescence. If we design landscapes in a way that is relevant to how children interact with their environments as they grow up, we can transform valuable open spaces into places that are impactful for children.

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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