Guest Column - September 2010
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The Best of Both Worlds
Incorporating Nature Into the Built Playground Environment

By Anne-Marie Spencer

If you are old enough, you will remember a time in childhood when playing among natural elements like woods, ponds and grassy fields felt as natural as playing on the neighborhood playground. We imagined ourselves as pirates, adventurers and explorers as we invented timeless games that made the real world blur and our imaginary worlds flourish. Walking through the woods as an adult (though I have to drive farther now to get there) brings back cherished memories and an appreciation that there are still places to go to experience the wonders of nature.

Health research recognizes outdoor play in nature as a powerful preventive strategy for healthy childhood development, including protection against childhood obesity. But in today's urban and suburban environments, natural spaces are often too remotely located for visiting on a regular basis. The combined effect of lack of access, traffic danger, parental apprehension and busy schedules often prevent visits by car. In addition, an expansive selection of electronic entertainment seems to have had an effect on children's ability to appreciate something as simple as natural surroundings.

It is therefore our responsibility to find ways to deliberately design nature back into children's lives. In addition to encouraging imagination, and discouraging obesity, it will allow us to reacquaint children with nature and pass on the baton of environmental stewardship to the younger generation, so they will appreciate and fight to protect natural spaces as we adults do today.

A recent study published by the Natural Learning Initiative (NLI), a research and design assistance program of the College of Design, North Carolina State University, demonstrated just how important the combination of the natural and built environment is for children and families. At Kids Together Park (KTP) in Cary, N.C., a powerful example of this combination has emerged. By integrating manufactured play equipment and natural components, KTP facilitates recreational and developmental needs, including gross and fine motor development, sensory stimulation, resting, social interaction and gathering, and appreciation of nature, in a beautiful and friendly environment for children and adults of all abilities.

The research at KTP also indicated that child users found the playground equipment particularly attractive. In a mapping study of the park, the traditional play equipment was the most widely used amenity, followed by primary pathways and gathering spots. The familiarity with built play spaces may certainly contribute, but it is obvious to those who watch usage patterns at KTP that the inclusion of both natural and built components encourages family exploration and gathering, while creating enough interest to keep children engaged for longer periods.

Program guides like "NatureGrounds: Creating and Retrofitting Play Environments" help facility owners discover best practice guidelines for designing play environments that integrate manufactured play equipment and the living landscape, to give children both the play environment they recognize and the natural surroundings we want them to appreciate. Embracing programs like this can assist us in creating harmonious play spaces that will appeal to family members of all ages, while helping children develop an appreciation of nature as they play. NatureGrounds helps us to rethink the design parameters of a playground and shift from the traditional model (strip the land, erect the playground, build the border) by deliberately designing nature back into children's lives, which will benefit children's play and engage communities in working together to create richer play experiences for all users.