Feature Article - July 2009
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Nature and Nurture

Trends in Play Design

By Emily Tipping

Parks and recreation leaders, as well as play equipment manufacturers, have been paying attention. Connecting children with nature adds up to a major role for parks and recreation agencies, and it's a role they clearly embrace, according to a recent study conducted jointly by the National Recreation and Park Association (NRPA) and a playground manufacturer.

In the study, 96 percent of parks and recreation agencies surveyed agreed that parks and recreation programming should play a role in teaching children about the outdoors and nature, and 95 percent agreed that one role of a parks and recreation agency should be to encourage members of the community to be better environmental stewards. And registering the growing trend toward eco-friendly facilities, 80 percent agreed that in the past five years environmental stewardship has become more important to their department.

Manufacturers have been listening too, and many have adopted greener practices, including recycling and more. (See "Green Up" below to learn more about these efforts.)

But greening the playground, according to Spencer, means more than using recycled and recyclable materials. "We are approaching it from another angle as well with NatureGrounds," she said. "There's an increasing awareness about the need for children to reconnect with nature, and a large body of evidence-based research that shows children's experiences with nature are essential for healthy development, and ensure they foster an appreciation for nature, so that they may grow into the stewards of the environment as adults."

Spencer and Richardson's parent company has worked with the Natural Learning Initiative team at North Carolina State to bring more nature into the spaces where children play. "These play spaces offer the greatest benefits of both the built and living play environment, so that children, families and communities can experience the many benefits of play surrounded by nature," Spencer said.

The program aims to help site owners create more naturalized play spaces that incorporate nature with the built playground environment. "Research has proven that these 'mixed' environments offer the greatest benefits to children, and that in many urban and suburban environments, natural spaces are too remotely located to be of benefit."

Stoecklin's company has long been involved in creating such combined play spaces. She explained that traditional equipment is fine, but it's best when combined with plenty of plant material, both for sensory input and shade.

"We tell clients that if they want a playground they should hire an equipment company," she said. "Our company designs children's play gardens, whether they are located at a childcare center, school, park, children's farm or other recreational location."