Supplement Feature - April 2010
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A Natural Trend

Natural Environment Enhances Playground Designs

By Dawn Klingensmith

newspaper reporter visited Beaver Meadow Elementary in Concord, N.H., a few days before the school tore down its cookie-cutter playground, consisting of a slide, a firefighter pole and a zip glider. The teardown was newsworthy because the school built in its place a barrier-free play area, the first of its kind in Concord. But the real newsflash was just how badly changes were needed in playground design and philosophy. Kids told the reporter that the doomed circa-1995 playground was boring. A second-grader said she didn't play on the equipment as much as she played under it, digging in the wood chips for bugs. The equipment did not factor into one third-grader's playtime at all. Instead, she and her friends pretended to ride horses to the store and guarded what they called "the rock of life," which could heal anyone injured on the playground.

In words and actions, those students two years ago sent a loud and clear message about what they want in a playground, and what changes need to happen in the industry to engage and stimulate them. That message still applies. Playgrounds must provide opportunities for dramatic and imaginative play. Playgrounds should allow for and encourage interaction with the natural world. And they should include little nooks where kids can tuck themselves away for solitary or small-group play.

Additionally, involving kids in the design process shows that playgrounds with a single, all-in-one piece of equipment surrounded by wood chips don't really float their boat—but water does. Water and sand features rank high on the list when planners ask children what they want in a playground. Slides and swings are perennial kid-pleasers, but child participants in the design process also envision such playground features as gardens, nature trails and ponds, said Gina Kooiman McLellan, co-author of Designing Outdoor Environments for Children: Landscaping School Yards, Gardens and Playgrounds (McGraw-Hill Professional, 2006). "They are asking us for opportunities to interact with nature."