Supplement Feature - April 2010
Find a printable version here

A Natural Trend

Natural Environment Enhances Playground Designs

By Dawn Klingensmith

A Few Natural Ingredients

Playgrounds that incorporate nature as an integral design aspect and play element are here to stay, according to architect Ron King.

"The way our business is growing, it is without question the future of playgrounds," said King, president of The Natural Playgrounds Co. in Concord, N.H. "It captures a number of things that are going on in our culture—the green movement, sustainability, back to nature, No Child Left Inside."

There's a difference, though, between natural playgrounds and playgrounds that merely accommodate nature. Natural play areas use natural landscapes as their model, King said, and are topographically "sculptured" to include such features as berms, sand pits, water and mud areas, and grassy amphitheaters. Landscaping includes boulders and hillside tiers for climbing, rain gardens, paths, bush mazes and open green space. Structures include gazebos, arbors, murals, game tables and climbing walls. Bridges that children can cross as well as play beneath are common in King's designs, along with plastic slides built right into hillsides. Because in-ground slides have no height from which to fall, if space permits, extremely long ones can be made, and wheelchair-accessible trails can zigzag up to the top.

Natural playgrounds may also include learning tools such as sundials, rain gauges and educational signage that describes plant species or sends kids on nature-themed treasure hunts to identify different types of insects, for example.

Natural playscapes are a wise solution in a tight economy, King said. For one thing, conventional playground equipment needs to be periodically replaced to meet the latest safety standards, he points out.

Conventional equipment also takes a toll on the environment, given the impact of manufacturing, shipping and then disposing of playground equipment when it wears out or fails to meet new safety standards, he added.

The Bernheim Arboretum and Research Forest in Clermont, Ky., began experimenting with natural playscapes because they align with its mission to connect people with nature; however, the cost savings has turned out to be a huge bonus, said the Bernheim Arboretum's Education Director Claude Stephens.

"If something doesn't work, the types of things we're doing are so low-cost we can just take it out and try something else," said Stephens, adding that locally sourced and donated materials are used when necessary.

For example, the arboretum's "dragon mound" has raised earth to form the body and a series of limestone cylinders for its tail. The limestone parts are donated cores that were removed after drilling a foundation.

"We've experimentally added things a little bit at a time," Stephens said. "We watch how children use each addition and let them inform the next step."

Indeed, it was observing children at play that inspired the arboretum to start exploring natural playscapes and to organize the inaugural Children at Play conference in November, focusing on free play in natural environments. One of the arboretum's play areas has a gravel path traversing it. "Adults see it as just a mechanism for moving people through the environment," Stephens said, but children drop on their knees and play there, building roads and drawing in the gravel with sticks.

The arboretum then added an "art circle," which is a gravel play area with natural objects such as driftwood in the center, with which kids can dig, draw and build.

While Bernheim Arboretum has for the most part worked with the existing landscape, keep in mind that any time you introduce topography, involving a landscape architect is a must to ensure proper drainage, said Vicki Stoecklin of White Hutchinson Leisure & Learning Group in Kansas City, Mo. And such professional services don't necessarily come cheap.

The proliferation of nature-based playgrounds is very much a back-to-basics movement, advancing the theory that kids don't need pricy equipment to have fun outdoors. "Children love climbing a hill and rolling down on the grass," Stephens said. "I would argue they love it more than climbing up a ladder and going down a slide."

While that may be the case, and though King has proclaimed natural playgrounds the way of the future, they are far from the norm.