Feature Article - July 2009
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Nature and Nurture

Trends in Play Design

By Emily Tipping

Don't Forget the Surface

There are a few options when it comes to safety surfacing for your playground, and it's critical that you take this critical component into account during the planning process. After all, according to the CPSC, falls to the surface make up nearly 70 percent of all playground injuries.

Loose-fill materials contained by a retaining edge are a common option. These include things like engineered wood fiber, sand, pea gravel, shredded rubber and more. They are the least expensive and are simple to install, but regular maintenance is required to maintain the proper depth of the material. For example, at the bottom of a slide or underneath swings, the loose fill will get dispersed, so you'll need a team to visit the playground regularly and rake the material back into place.

Tiles and poured-in-place rubber surfaces may be a bit more expensive, but require less maintenance. They're available in many colors, are very durable, and may offer greater accessibility to wheelchair users.

Growing Toward Nature

But play equipment alone may not be all that is needed to encourage these tots to get outdoors and get active. Sometimes a little bit of nature can go a long way toward encouraging children's growth.

"I am not opposed to using traditional equipment," said Vicki Stoecklin, education and child development director for White Hutchinson Leisure and Learning Group Inc., a Kansas City, Mo.-based firm that designs creative play spaces for children in facilities ranging from childcare centers to schools, parks and beyond. "But what you find if you study how children use the equipment is once they have run or climbed up it and slid down, what is there left to do? Nothing! Children then go on to get interested in the nearby sand pits, rock piles, climbing trees or playing in the forest where they are not only in the shade among trees, but able to better access their powers of creativity. Children use play parts from plants and natural materials as part of their play construct. They need things to move around, change and manipulate as their creativity expands. Did you make a clover necklace when you were a child? Or how about collecting a jar of lightning bugs?"

This echoes a growing grassroots movement that advocates children—and the adults who guide them—to reconnect with nature. Research supports a strong link between children being outdoors in nature and their overall development and psychological well-being. Much of this research has grown out of Richard Louv's 2005 book "Last Child in the Woods," which argued forcefully for the importance of play in nature.

"We have been doing naturalized play spaces for children for 12 years now, and since Louv wrote his book we have seen an increase in the interest level in naturalized spaces for young children," Stoecklin said. "When Richard wrote his book, he contacted us to ask if he could talk about our work since he did not know of too many companies who do what we do. His book has been able to get some national attention on the issue of children's lack of contact with the natural world, and his Children and Nature Network has been instrumental in getting a lot of public interest in the topic."