Guest Column - May 2011
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Bringing Nature Into Play

By Anne-Marie Spencer

A play environment that incorporates nature into the plan can encourage natural shade, bird song, loose parts for play, as well as opportunities for quiet contemplation. The guidebook offers research case studies, discusses the benefits of playground naturalization, offers best practice design elements, and includes planting principles for long-term success and sustainability of the project. Interested parties can also log on to to review additional case studies, and access an extensive, searchable plant database, which lists child-friendly plants by zone, region, requirements, type, and, for the first time, play value. By using tools, guidelines and best practices, site owners can create, or retrofit, a harmonious play environment that encourages appreciation for nature.

Where NatureGrounds brings nature to play, a brand new program, Pathways for Play, reverses the model and brings play to nature. Developed by the same team of experts, Pathways for Play was created as a best-practice program to assist in the creation of greenways, trails and pathway systems that increase family use and promote healthy activity by infusing play into pathway networks. The idea was launched after input from trail and pathways owners, including the American Trails association, whose Executive Director Pam Gluck noted "Children and families just don't use trails. There are plenty of active adult joggers, cyclists, walkers, etc., but we need to find a way to bring families out to experience the beauty of trails." An advisory committee including trail planners, builders, operators and organizations assisted in the overall program development.

Pathways for Play is designed to get the entire family involved in the play experience, so they interact together and exercise their potential to activate, stimulate and develop their creative abilities, supported by the rich diversity of the outdoors. The program highlights ways to develop sinuous trails and infuse them with playful pockets of activity along the way. The play "pockets" may include nature-themed interactive exhibits, natural materials or both, and the curving nature of the path creates a mystery of discovery as family members wonder what waits around the next corner. They engage in a linear adventure, stop to play at each pocket of activity, and then spend quality time walking the path and appreciating all that the natural surroundings have to offer, while anticipating the next discovery. Pathways designed with this philosophy have a temporal dimension, and are "played" in much the same way as a musical score. With the curving pathway, anticipatory perception keeps the mind alert, integrates continuity and scale, and provides a choice of distance over time Users have a choice in the way they experience the path, as well as the order in which they encounter the events.