Feature Article - November 2012
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Finding the Way to Play

Trends on the Playground

By Dawn Klingensmith

Find the Way Back to Nature

By and large, though, the major manufacturers seem less interested today in bringing indoor pastimes to playgrounds than they do in creating "life-like products" for a "natural play experience," as one equipment maker explains on its web site. "From the rough texture of bark to the smooth feel of a boulder, (we) can re-create natural elements to look like the real thing."

The major manufacturers' catalogs "all have sections having to do with nature or nature-inspired play features made out of plastic or concrete," King said.

Myriad problems attributed to "nature deficit disorder" have sparked a back-to-nature movement in childhood development, King added, and "the industry has started to respond by manufacturing these nature-inspired things, so now instead of looking like Humpty Dumpty, you'll have what looks like a tree."

One manufacturer went so far as to create the program "NatureGrounds: Putting Nature Into Play" (www.naturegrounds.org) to provide best practice guidelines for designing and retrofitting play environments for parks and school grounds that integrate manufactured play equipment and the living landscape. The program seeks to "create a dramatic shift in the standard playground development process by deliberately designing nature back into children's lives, not only to benefit children's play but also to engage communities in working together to create richer play experience for all users," according to the web site.

Already, "The industrial playground model based solely on manufactured equipment is being reconsidered," the site claims. "A greater diversity of play opportunities is desired to extend curricular activity in schools and to meet the needs of a broader range of children and their families in parks. The integration of natural components helps fulfill these needs as well as creating richer play experiences for all users."

The program points out that "mixed" play environments are more attractive and comfortable for adults and caregivers, and that "naturalization" adds visual interest, shade, a wider range of play opportunities for users of all abilities, and nature-based outdoor education opportunities.

On board with the "back-to-nature" movement is Dan Christensen, design manager for a Redding, Calif.-based manufacturer. He takes pictures of kids engaging in "nature play" and uses it as product design inspiration. For example, the company's Rocks & Ropes line is based on observations of children playing among "giant sequoia root systems," Christensen explained.

"We're not trying to replace nature play," he clarified, "but rather to give kids the same type of play experience—elevation changes, hopping from rock to rock, swinging from tree branches, climbing. We purposely make logs with little knots on them. In some ways, it's like training for the real thing."

Most manufacturers don't go far enough to emulate nature play, Christensen said. They may offer a "cut-off tree truck," for example, but even in the woods an isolated log might not attract much attention unless it fell across a boulder or creek bed, creating a tantalizing test of balance.

Other freestanding nature-inspired elements offered by competing manufacturers include honeycombs, hatched eggs and anthills.

By contrast, Christensen's company has produced a "library of parts" that work together to simulate the sort of obstacles, challenges and play opportunities found in nature.

So-called "naturalized playgrounds" differ from "natural playgrounds" in that the former encourages a mix of manufactured and natural elements. Natural playground designers don't necessarily eschew manufactured playground equipment altogether, but play components typically consist of sculpted earth, vegetation, boulders, sand, hay bales, water features and the like.