Supplement Feature - April 2010
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A Natural Trend

Natural Environment Enhances Playground Designs

By Dawn Klingensmith

Often, though, "manufactured pieces are too sculpted. A lot of manufacturers will make a post office, and it looks just like a post office, down to every last detail. The problem is, then it's always a post office. It can never become a pet store."

Perhaps even better, playgrounds could incorporate natural "escapes," such as foxholes or intimate enclosures created by low hedges. The concept of kid-sized crannies may be slow to catch on due to widespread safety standards calling for unimpeded sightlines. However, "children need boundaries at times and a sense of enclosure," Stoecklin said. Additionally, "For me, the most important things are shade, loose parts and storage."

A playground designed by her firm for a childhood development center has all those elements and more. Opening this summer, the play space will feature a "dinosaur dig" (a sandbox with fossils embedded in concrete at the bottom), a re-circulating stream, a bush maze, climbing rocks, a riding trail for tricycles, art areas, musical instruments able to withstand the elements, a pretend market for dramatic play, a garden and compost pile, and two sport courts. What's absent is a conventional piece of playground equipment with slides and ladders.

However, that doesn't mean manufactured playground equipment doesn't figure into the latest philosophies about playground design. "Playground equipment companies are now designing playgrounds with a lot more emphasis on nature," said Fran Mainella, a visiting scholar at Clemson University who sits on the board of the national Children & Nature Network, a national network of regional efforts that aim to support and accelerate the growth of a children and nature movement. "And I definitely feel that when you look at some of the playground equipment, they have really worked to have some artistic flair. There's the visual stimulation of the structure itself, plus some include vistas that create a sense of awe and an appreciation for the surroundings."

It's possible, she concludes, to have the best of both worlds.