Feature Article - July/August 2006
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Play Hard

The latest in playground philosophy, design and components

By Dawn Klingensmith

Back to nature

To varying degrees, thinking about "the box" means bringing natural elements into playground design. Color is an easy starting point.

"One of the biggest trends we've seen is moving away from primary colors to a natural or neutral look to get playgrounds to blend in with the nature surrounding them; that's been going on for about two years now, but it seems to be picking up steam," says Ahern, adding that folks in woodsy suburbs "don't want things that stick out."

But color schemes are just the beginning. Most child-development experts and equipment manufacturers can agree that sensory stimuli and contact with nature are important parts of the play experience, however, incorporating these desirable aspects into playground design can be challenging.

"Even if it's as simple as putting in a little gazebo where kids can sit and play with acorns and sticks, it's critical to the learning process to have that interaction with nature," Ahern says. "There's only so many things metal and plastic can do."

Parks and recreation departments are therefore looking at landscaping as a peripheral or, in some cases, integral playground component.

Dalton says the Naperville Park District includes landscaping not just for kids but also for the enjoyment of adults who are supervising them, adding that natural elements provide an opportunity for grownups to teach children about the environment.

With those and other benefits in mind, some manufacturers profess a commitment to include "survivable natural elements" in play environments, as one equipment supplier put it.

"Our commitment stems from a growing concern that children are shut off from the world of nature due to our country's increasing urbanization and computerization," according to that supplier's Web site. "Plants and natural settings add life to sterile playgrounds, and expose children to natural science principles. Good playgrounds find a balance between the built (man-made) and the natural environment."

Epitomizing that balance is Tiger Paw Park Playground in Hillman, Mich., which along with accessible manufactured equipment boasts shade trees and gardens. But moving beyond landscaping, the site also features two sand-and-water tables and two accessible diggers (sort of like hand-operated backhoes) to get kids in touch with nature. A large amphitheater near the sand-play area provides an irresistible spot for rolling downhill. Two strategically planted rows of junipers create a secret pathway.

At the Morton Arboretum's Children's Garden, nature plays the starring role and engages all five senses. A rainbow of flowers pleases the peepers; birdsong, rustling leaves and trickling water provide a natural soundtrack; fragrant plants like roses and catnip tickle the nostrils; and lamb's ear, snapdragons and other tactile-engaging plants just beg to be manipulated. The garden also has crab apples, herbs and other edibles, although children aren't encouraged to eat the vegetation. Adjacent to the Children's Garden is an evergreen hedge maze with a half-mile of twists and turns, seven outdoor rooms showcasing seasonal plants, and a 12-foot lookout platform built around a 60-foot sycamore tree. On a recent spring day, several parents clearly relied on gleefully obliging kids to do the navigating.

Tipping the balance almost fully in nature's favor are natural playscapes, which blend natural materials and indigenous vegetation with preexisting landforms and environmentally inspired structures, such as tree-stump climbs and wooden climbing walls with branch handholds. Other play features may include sculpted earth, boulders, rock gardens, dirt and sand pits, low tree houses, gazebos, and water features, says architect Ron King, president of the Natural Playgrounds Co. in Concord, N.H. Bridges that children can cross as well as play beneath are common in his designs, which make use of existing features such as streams, shady groves and hills that, when snow-covered, are ideal for sledding. Another common feature—and bona fide kid pleaser—in King's designs are plastic slides built right into hillsides. Because in-ground slides have no height from which to fall, if space permits, extremely long ones can be made.

One elementary school slide of King's doing travels a full 35 feet. Boulder tiers built into the same hillside provide great places to climb, sit or talk with friends. In addition, a fitness course winds through the property's field and woods, along with a trail system that passes many natural and human-made features inventoried and mapped by the students.

"A quiet picnic spot in the pine forest was cleared by the students, and its log benches are now one of their favorite hangout spots," King says. Fourth graders constructed the entire natural play area with help from parents and under the supervision of Natural Playgrounds Co.