Feature Article - November 2010
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Play Date

What's New on the Playground?

By Deborah Vence

Back to Nature

While the world of playgrounds has evolved into colorful configurations of curvy slides, tunnels, climbers and more, playground manufacturers now are trying to incorporate nature into their works of wonder.

"We've seen an increasing interest in products that are focused on nature in several regards," said Anne-Marie Spencer, director of marketing for a Fort Payne, Ala.-based commercial playground manufacturer. "Color, for instance ... many facilities are looking for play spaces that blend more harmoniously with the surroundings, in tones of browns, greens and beige punctuated with reds, oranges and yellow as accents that are still natural, but add a bright and interesting pop of color to attract children."

Additionally, the parent company of Spencer's firm—in partnership with the Natural Learning Initiative at North Carolina State University—developed a comprehensive program that offers best practice guidelines for designing play environments that integrate the built environment with the living landscape.

"Research shows that naturalized playgrounds provide more play value, increase physical activity and support environmental sustainability efforts," Spencer said.

"Trees and other child-friendly plant vegetation become part of the play experience providing multi-sensory opportunities, outdoor learning, natural shade, socio-dramatic play with loose parts, and enhance the overall aesthetic quality of the outdoor play environment for children, families and communities across our nation," she added.

Furthermore, to boost children's imagination, Spencer's company recently came up with a new product line of playhouses that encourages preschool-aged children to explore imagination and creativity, one of which features more nature-inspired elements, such as a planter window with cup holders for seedlings, as well as a real telescope, spinning flowers and a potting shelf.

"All are designed to offer dramatic, imaginative sensory play opportunities through exploration and game facilitation," she said.

Incorporating nature in with playground settings has landscape architects and designers—who specialize in designing and building play spaces that look and feel like a natural environment—using the term, "playscape." A playscape space should be as natural as possible, with as few manmade components as possible; instead, using native plants and trees to enhance the environment. Playscapes are designed with the goal of bringing children and people back to nature—with rolling hills and fallen logs as opposed to a central play structure with monkey bars.

"The playscape would be a microcosm of their community—a community's landscape—a lot of education about rainforests, protecting those areas," Beach said. "And, there are so many natural things in a community's own microcosm that really [bodes well for] hands-on learning. That should be more utilized."

"The playscape should be designed to allow many different types of experiences, such as wild natural areas, quiet secret places, water, sand and dirt play, building/construction spaces, secret paths, music, sculpture and art, gardening space, social gathering, and all kids love hiding places ... all these places invite children to use their imagination and learn from the natural world," she said.