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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.