Guest Column - October 2004
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Natural Learning at Play


By Lynn Pinoniemi

When Dorrell had raised enough funds to begin construction, the city chose the play equipment for one of the three main play areas and selected colors that complemented the lush environment—deep maroon, forest green and tan. Graceful arches were selected for the play structure posts to mimic the look of the surrounding natural grasses, and an elevated central deck was chosen to provide a commanding view of the park. To encourage imaginative play, a periscope panel was added over one of the main entrances to the structure. The overall impression is one of a tree house complete with numerous climbing paths and cool shaded areas down below.

In February 2000, Dorrell helped organize volunteer days to build the play components and install the playground. Later that spring, more volunteers, including dozens of kids, showed up for community planting days to work the soil and plant hundreds of shrubs, grasses and perennials throughout the site.

Now, four years later, those plantings have matured, and the entire playground is in full bloom. As you drive the broad, curving entrance of the park through woodlands and across a stream, you reach the parking area for Kids Together Park. Large stone bollards ring the entrance, and granite pavers bearing the names of those who donated funds for the playground lay testament to the hard work that made this gem possible. The first thing you notice is how different this park feels. You don't feel as if you've arrived, but rather that you have just begun your journey. Beautiful natural grasses—which top out at seven to eight feet when they flower in late summer—soften the edges of walkways and add architectural feeling to open spaces dotted with boulders, daylilies and flowering shrubs. Walkways proceed in sweeping curves, drawing visitors to explore the preschool and school-age play structures and the climb and slide area.

"You might think that children playing in and around this vegetation would destroy it," Moore says. "But that doesn't happen. Playing with and in the vegetation presents another universe of alternatives that is very appealing to children. The ambiance of the place is different than any other playground they have been to, and what we hear from the kids and the parents is how the place feels. They say it feels comfortable, shady, colorful and alive.

Hopefully, more communities will embrace the principles of natural learning in the play environment.

Mary Henderson, director of parks, recreation and cultural resources for the city of Cary, says many other cities have shown an interest in Kids Together Park.

"We take representatives from other cities through the park on a regular basis," Henderson says. "They have not seen any other park like it. Now I don't think that it is realistic to expect every park to look like this one, but to have one or two signature parks that like this in every community certainly makes sense. Even though our ongoing maintenance costs are higher at Kids Together Park, based on the reaction of the community, it has certainly been worth it. Our parking area is always full, and we get loads of kids coming on school outings. It has become the park to visit."

  •   Natural Learning Initiative, a research and extension program of the College of Design at North Carolina State University in Raleigh,

  •   For more information about the contribution of urban parks to human development, see the briefing papers at hosted by the American Planning Association.

  • Kids not only visit, but they are playing in different ways—and staying longer.

    "When I go out to this playground, I look for certain things," Dorrell says. "I look inside the little playhouses and on the tables and within the play structures. I look for seeds, berries and twigs, and I find that the kids are incorporating these things into their play. What's on the little shelves inside playhouses? Are they mixing the sand with berries from the trees? I watch the children and see how are they relating to the weeping willow trees, which I think are marvelous. You can see the evidence everywhere that kids are incorporating the natural environment into their play. Robin Moore's vision for this playground as a prototype for the principles of Natural Learning has been fully realized. The playground is beautiful, and it has been a roaring success in the community. I am so happy to have been a part of it."

    Lynn Pinoniemi is communications manager for Landscape Structures Inc. She can be reached at