Feature Article - July 2009
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Nature and Nurture

Trends in Play Design

By Emily Tipping

Making Natural Work

One crucial step when designing playgrounds to include more natural elements is to get as many stakeholders involved in the planning process up front as possible, Stoecklin said, including children. "You always need to involve the user, whether that is a teacher or a family or the child," she said. "You also need to include maintenance and the community. Maintenance can help share information about what might work with their maintenance schedule and maybe what plants have worked in other circumstances. All projects are more successful—either child care, school or park/recreation—if they can involve parents in the design process."

What happens when you don't involve the parents? Potential backlash for your beautifully beneficial new play space. Stoecklin cited as an example a center that had water play inside and added it outside. Parents got upset because of the messier play.

"Even at a childcare center or a public school, what the kids do outside affects the parents," she explained. "When you start making changes, it does affect the parents eventually. They might not have the same values you do. They need to understand that kids need outdoor play, and they need clothes that can get messy. I've watched many directors and how they implement their programs, and even the really good ones maybe haven't involved the parents and there's often a backlash."

To make nature work for you, look beyond the play equipment to the borders and other areas that can incorporate natural elements. For example, an open lawn might encourage children to get involved in a ballgame or a round of tag, while pathways and trails might funnel children toward quieter spaces or alternative activity zones. They also can provide various routes for the local community to access the play area.

Planted areas, whether informal plantings that provide texture, trees that provide shade or more formal gardens that encourage children and others to grow their own veggies and fruits, as in the Bret Harte Elementary project, are also a good idea.

Rocks—real or manufactured—expand the natural look and offer something no kid can resist—climbing!

Stoecklin said it doesn't matter if your play area is a tiny space within an urban streetscape or an expansive space in the countryside—everyone can benefit from more natural play, and everyone can have it.

"We've done little gardens for five or six infants and toddlers all the way to huge gardens for several hundred children at one time," Stoecklin said. "Play gardens can be very appropriate for small spaces, and they are easily and inexpensively done."

If you're concerned about the maintenance requirements of your new, more natural playspace, you can relax. Just remember that, as with any playground project, you should consider maintenance before your play area is built—not after.

"Everything takes maintenance, including concrete and asphalt," Stoecklin said. "In the scheme of things, plant material is fairly inexpensive. Work with local gardeners and Cooperative Extension offices to locate resources for finding native plants. We are not talking about roses and azaleas, but native plants that will only take water for the first couple of years until they are established. Then, unless there is a drought, Mother Nature can take care of it."