Guest Column - May 2011
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Bringing Nature Into Play

By Anne-Marie Spencer

In today's fast-paced world, it seems like everyone is looking for something more, something better, the next great thing! The world of play is the same—from site owners who want to create a destination play area, to children and families looking for something new to do, play is experiencing a renaissance of a new dimension as people recognize its value in overall development, wellbeing and the fight against obesity.

Luckily, new trends in play are accommodating these wishes with initiatives, design alternatives and ways to play that offer exciting, new options to the world of recreation, specifically in regard to nature and play. There are countless studies on nature deprivation, and how children and families today don't seem to appreciate, or take time to experience, the benefits that our natural environment offers. New initiatives designed to combine playful behavior with natural elements are creating fresh, engaging environments that invite users to explore play and nature. By bringing nature into the play environment, and conversely, introducing playful activities into nature-rich areas, a new movement to encourage participation, develop appreciation, and enrich the community is gaining ground and popularity.

Two recent programs, developed and launched by PlayCore and the Natural Learning Initiative, College of Design, NC State University, promote the popular concept and can assist communities in executing nature-infused play opportunities. The first, NatureGrounds, brings "nature to play" by providing best-practice guidelines on designing play environments that integrate manufactured play equipment with the living landscape. Rather than stripping the landscape of all natural elements (a common practice when building a place to play, which leaves a bare, exposed rectangle with only equipment and surfacing) the program creates a dramatic shift in the standard playground development process by deliberately designing nature back into the environment and children's lives, and engaging communities in working together to create a richer play experience for all users.