The Best of Both Worlds
Incorporating Nature Into the Built Playground Environment

By Anne-Marie Spencer

If you are old enough, you will remember a time in childhood when playing among natural elements like woods, ponds and grassy fields felt as natural as playing on the neighborhood playground. We imagined ourselves as pirates, adventurers and explorers as we invented timeless games that made the real world blur and our imaginary worlds flourish. Walking through the woods as an adult (though I have to drive farther now to get there) brings back cherished memories and an appreciation that there are still places to go to experience the wonders of nature.

Health research recognizes outdoor play in nature as a powerful preventive strategy for healthy childhood development, including protection against childhood obesity. But in today's urban and suburban environments, natural spaces are often too remotely located for visiting on a regular basis. The combined effect of lack of access, traffic danger, parental apprehension and busy schedules often prevent visits by car. In addition, an expansive selection of electronic entertainment seems to have had an effect on children's ability to appreciate something as simple as natural surroundings.

It is therefore our responsibility to find ways to deliberately design nature back into children's lives. In addition to encouraging imagination, and discouraging obesity, it will allow us to reacquaint children with nature and pass on the baton of environmental stewardship to the younger generation, so they will appreciate and fight to protect natural spaces as we adults do today.

A recent study published by the Natural Learning Initiative (NLI), a research and design assistance program of the College of Design, North Carolina State University, demonstrated just how important the combination of the natural and built environment is for children and families. At Kids Together Park (KTP) in Cary, N.C., a powerful example of this combination has emerged. By integrating manufactured play equipment and natural components, KTP facilitates recreational and developmental needs, including gross and fine motor development, sensory stimulation, resting, social interaction and gathering, and appreciation of nature, in a beautiful and friendly environment for children and adults of all abilities.

The research at KTP also indicated that child users found the playground equipment particularly attractive. In a mapping study of the park, the traditional play equipment was the most widely used amenity, followed by primary pathways and gathering spots. The familiarity with built play spaces may certainly contribute, but it is obvious to those who watch usage patterns at KTP that the inclusion of both natural and built components encourages family exploration and gathering, while creating enough interest to keep children engaged for longer periods.

Program guides like "NatureGrounds: Creating and Retrofitting Play Environments" help facility owners discover best practice guidelines for designing play environments that integrate manufactured play equipment and the living landscape, to give children both the play environment they recognize and the natural surroundings we want them to appreciate. Embracing programs like this can assist us in creating harmonious play spaces that will appeal to family members of all ages, while helping children develop an appreciation of nature as they play. NatureGrounds helps us to rethink the design parameters of a playground and shift from the traditional model (strip the land, erect the playground, build the border) by deliberately designing nature back into children's lives, which will benefit children's play and engage communities in working together to create richer play experiences for all users.

A wonderful example of this model can be found at Lake Winnepesaukah Park.

Located in Rossville, Ga., the park features family rides, games and events, but until recently did not feature a playground area for children and their families. The facility used NatureGrounds to create a nature-themed playground with an emphasis on natural shade using existing trees. The structure is universally designed and utilizes inclined ramps and sensory-rich ground-level activities to facilitate play for people of all abilities. The playground maintains a natural feel, thanks in part to the use of recycled materials and its unique design, which emphasizes the park planning committee's desire for a playground that blended with the natural environment rather than standing apart from it. A natural stream flows along one edge, providing a tranquil refuge and opportunity for water play. The structure sits amongst and wraps around many existing historic trees. Its natural color palette, close proximity to the natural elements, and ample sitting areas create a calm yet exciting play environment that also promotes intergenerational play. It is also a symphony of sights, sounds and textures. Children on the highest play structure deck can survey the tree canopy from a more compliant perch, while still observing birds and squirrels in the branches. The beautiful old trees, which were all evaluated by an arborist for viability before the playground build, provide natural shade, whispering sounds and colorful patterns as the sun and breeze work together to paint a changing palette of texture and shadow over the surface of the structure. The overall feeling is one of cool enjoyment, making the playground one of the most popular destinations in the park.

In Springfield, Mo., a unique partnership between Springfield-Green County Park Board and Springfield Public Schools recently resulted in another NatureGrounds-inspired play environment, which is a strategic component of the Hickory Hills K-8 new school construction project, the first LEED-certified school in southwest Missouri. The joint-use site recently celebrated its grand opening. It will be used during the school day by students and teachers as an outdoor classroom, and will also be available for families and community members to use for play and recreation. "This innovative project and partnership have been instrumental in helping us meet the needs of both Springfield's students and neighborhoods," explained Jodie Adams, Park Board director.

So next time you're planning a playground, think about how to incorporate nature, both existing and new, into the plan. Rather than cutting down trees to make room for equipment, find out how to incorporate them into the design, to give children and families both natural and built elements and the greatest variety for play and recreation. You'll discover your effort will result in sustained repeat visits, a relaxed and playful social atmosphere, and an overall growth in community social capital!


Anne-Marie Spencer is the director of marketing for GameTime. To receive a copy of NatureGrounds: Best Practice Guidelines, contact her at

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