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
Play is essential for children’s emotional, cognitive, social, physical, and educational development . 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 . 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
“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.
Fall weather is finally here and we are excited to convene in Boston for the ASLA Annual Meeting next month. This year’s Meeting features several educational sessions and networking events of particular interest to members of the Children’s Outdoor Environments PPN.
“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.
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.
Nature Play and Learning Areas Guidelinesis 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.
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
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.
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.
The following commentary, whether you agree with it or not, brings up a great challenge for Landscape Architects. How can we design spaces that promote interaction with the natural world without harming it? We know how to design trails, signage, rest areas, but how do we design to allow for the creative, open ended exploration by children in nature. We need to find the balance between conservation and discovery. The Children and Nature Movement is much more than teaching children how to identity birds and trees, it is about creating a profound connection to the natural world.
Ron Swaisgood, author of the aforementioned commentary, is a conservation biologist and ecologist. He and his wife Janice Swaisgood (along with their two boys) co-founded the Family Adventures in Nature (FAN) Club in San Diego and it has since spread internationally. For more information visit their website.
As summer comes to an end, we look forward to the ASLA Conference in Phoenix this coming September/October. This year includes several educational sessions and networking events particularly related to children’s outdoor environments:
Muddy faces, dusty jeans, water soaked shoes and paint stained t-shirts were common occurrences during my childhood. As a father now myself, I better understand the innate internal struggle my mother must have felt as she lovingly allowed my siblings and I to engage in unstructured (messy) play, knowing full well that there would be unpleasant clean-up to follow! The roles are now reversed and it is now I that must make the effort not to interfere as I watch my young children investigate and explore the “messy” world around them. The importance of this unstructured play is very well researched and is considered crucial to children’s creativity and over-all development.
It is importance to examine how a design performs over time and use, and how this may shape change, whether by the designer or the users themselves. We believe such reflection is essential, to learn what makes a place meaningful and how a designed landscape may continue to evolve to nurture those meanings and values for children
The growing interest in creating spaces for children to marvel at the taste of a perfectly ripe tomato and learn about the industrious attributes of honeybees is helping bring children back to nature. Equally important is the ability of children to experience, explore, and play in designed spaces that are imaginative, educational, and safe.
A School Community in California Collaborates to Create a Vibrant Green Schoolyard at Rosa Parks Elementary School
Schools across the United States and around the world are using their grounds to enhance hands-on teaching and learning, enrich outdoor play, improve the ecology of their neighborhoods, and develop and celebrate their own sense of place. The green schoolyard movement is flourishing in many forms and can be seen in school gardens and wildlife habitats, rainwater systems, renewable energy projects, green building efforts, material reuse programs, nature playgrounds, outdoor classrooms, art installations, and many other creative endeavors on school property. While individual projects on each of these themes are now fairly common at both public and private schools in many parts of the country, it is still rare to see a comprehensive approach being taken on a single K-12 campus.
Seven years ago, Richard Louv coined the term “nature-deficit disorder” in his book Last Child in the Woods: Saving Our Children from Nature-Deficit Disorder. He is now giving us possibilities to move beyond it in The Nature Principle: Human Restoration and the End of Nature-Deficit Disorder. While the first book looked at nature’s absence from children’s daily lives, the second recognizes that the need for nature extends to all of us. The Nature Principle, as articulated by Louv, provides that nature is crucial for humans to be healthy—physically, emotionally, and spiritually.
The importance of “natural play” has gained attention as a way to improve the cognitive, social, emotional, and physical development of children. We are often tasked with developing natural play areas for schools, communities, institutions, and private organizations. A natural play roundtable is being organized for Fall 2012 to encourage pediatricians, insurance specialists, attorneys, educational and public administrators, and landscape architects to participate and discuss how to create healthier, more effective environments for children. The program will be hosted by the Landscape Architecture Department of the College of Environmental Science and Forestry, New York State University, and will provide for web-based attendance to permit national interaction. For more information or to volunteer with coordination, contact Aris Stalis.
Landscape architects and designers are constantly faced with the challenge of designing safe and attractive play areas. One particularly important aspect is the need for shade and weather protection. The importance of adding shade to playgrounds has come to the forefront as daycare owners and playground designers realize the importance of sun protection, especially for children who are particularly susceptible to the sun’s damaging effects.
Climbing into the arms of a sweet smelling southern magnolia tree, splashing in the miniature waterfalls of a limestone lined creek, and sifting through a playground of pea gravel in search of ancient sea fossils are a few of my treasured memories of enjoying the freedom to explore the natural world that surrounded me as a child.
Due to shifting societal priorities, children today have fewer opportunities to engage in these types of open-ended activities than their parents did just a generation ago. In his 2005 book, “Last Child in the Woods”, Richard Louv draws on decades of research from various disciplines and summarizes that, due to this trend, kids in the U.S. are suffering from what he terms “nature-deficit disorder.”