Natural Learning at Play


By Lynn Pinoniemi

If you were lucky enough to grow up in an area where you had easy access to a nearby stream, pond, woods or prairie, chances are that your fondness for nature persists to this day. As a kid you explored this environment with your friends, never tiring of the urge to spend time in its refuge. It was how you "played." You got to know the trees, plants, insects and animals that shared this world with you, and even now you feel at ease when you find yourself in a similar setting.

Now, think for a moment about many of today's children—especially those in your own community. How do they spend their time? Where do they spend their time? Do they have a stream or woods nearby that draws them outdoors and keeps them active, or are they doing their exploring online or within the world of television and video games? What does the play area at their childcare centers, schools or neighborhood parks look like? Is nature present in their everyday world, or is their outdoors a quilt of sidewalks, asphalt and lawns?

Over the past few years the idea of creating playgrounds for kids of all abilities has become mainstream with many playground planners going far beyond basic accessibility guidelines to create playgrounds that are truly inclusive. But there is another trend afoot—the integration of nature into the play environment—and it, too, may have a dramatic impact on the way kids play and how active they are in their day-to-day lives.

Kids Together Park in Cary, N.C., is probably unlike any other playground you've seen. It has four distinct age-appropriate play areas nestled in what at first glance appears to be an arboretum. Play structures are enveloped by inviting displays of native grasses and trees, and winding flower-lined paths invite exploration and lead to new discoveries. Manufactured play equipment and nature co-exist with little demarcation between the two. The message is clear: Play is natural; nature is play. And not only is the setting infinitely rich and ever-changing, but it is also fully inclusive—a combination that proves to be a powerful draw to children and their families.

It is altogether natural that Kids Together Park was initially conceived by kids. In 1994 Kristy Holcombe and Helen Rittenmeyer, two 7-year-old girls from Cary, decided that the city needed a playground that would be accessible to children with special needs. Not ones to simply sit on a good idea and wait for adults to make it happen, Kristy and Helen organized a neighborhood craft sale that raised almost $1,300 for the playground.

About the same time a representative from the city's parks and recreation department contacted Robin Moore, a professor of landscape architecture at North Carolina State University and head of the university's Natural Learning Initiative, a program focused on making the natural environment part of the daily experiences of all children. Moore's work in designing natural play environments had caught the attention of city officials, and they were interested in hearing his thoughts on what this new playground might look like. In short order, they decided that not only would this playground be inclusive and accessible, but it would also bring the richness of nature into the very heart of the play environment.

"It was my belief that children learn best in a natural environment through the process of self-directed exploration and discovery," Moore says. "I thought that a playground could have a strong natural component of trees, vegetation, flowers, butterflies, birds and animals that would encourage children to play and learn according to their own personalities, without the direction of adults. As a result, kids would play longer and enjoy a more active and less sedentary way of life. The city of Cary thought the idea had merit, and we started to work together on a plan for Cary Park."

Later that same year, Moore invited the landscape architecture firm of Little & Little to join the team, and together they hosted a community design workshop where children and their families were invited to offer their visions of what the park might look like and what types of play it might offer. Moore worked with this community vision and the design objectives it embodied to produce a schematic design for the playground settings of the park.

"In 1995 we developed the park master plan from workshop ideas and the schematic playground design that Robin had developed the previous year," says Susan Little, a partner in the firm. "This master plan included the overall topographical plan, program development and budget. Although everyone knew that the initial cost of the park and its ongoing maintenance costs would be higher than for a typical playground, this did not seem to slow them down. They even formed a nonprofit organization called Kids Together Inc. to raise funds for the playground."

All successful, large-scale community projects require two key elements: a visionary and a champion. Marla Dorrell, president of Kids Together Inc., became the champion. Inspired by the vision of Robin Moore and the selfless ambition of Kristy and Helen, Dorrell became president of the all-volunteer nonprofit organization that would pursue fund-raising for the playground.

"I have a degree in special education," Dorrell says, "so when the city approached me about getting involved, it seemed to be a perfect match to my interests. We had these two little girls who took it upon themselves to get this project moving, and the entire community got behind it."

Dorrell tackled a few key tasks.

"My jobs were to spearhead the private fund-raising and build public awareness of the project," she says. "When I went out to sell this to the public, there were two points: One was the accessibility through universal design, and the second was putting a playground in a more natural environment. That was a harder sell. The concept was foreign to people. When you say 'playground' people picture equipment sitting on a flat lot, so when we started talking about integrating plants and rolling hills into the environment, people drew a blank. They wanted to know where they could go to see one of these, and the answer was 'you can't.' And that was all the more reason to create it."

When Dorrell had raised enough funds to begin construction, the city chose the play equipment for one of the three main play areas and selected colors that complemented the lush environment—deep maroon, forest green and tan. Graceful arches were selected for the play structure posts to mimic the look of the surrounding natural grasses, and an elevated central deck was chosen to provide a commanding view of the park. To encourage imaginative play, a periscope panel was added over one of the main entrances to the structure. The overall impression is one of a tree house complete with numerous climbing paths and cool shaded areas down below.

In February 2000, Dorrell helped organize volunteer days to build the play components and install the playground. Later that spring, more volunteers, including dozens of kids, showed up for community planting days to work the soil and plant hundreds of shrubs, grasses and perennials throughout the site.

Now, four years later, those plantings have matured, and the entire playground is in full bloom. As you drive the broad, curving entrance of the park through woodlands and across a stream, you reach the parking area for Kids Together Park. Large stone bollards ring the entrance, and granite pavers bearing the names of those who donated funds for the playground lay testament to the hard work that made this gem possible. The first thing you notice is how different this park feels. You don't feel as if you've arrived, but rather that you have just begun your journey. Beautiful natural grasses—which top out at seven to eight feet when they flower in late summer—soften the edges of walkways and add architectural feeling to open spaces dotted with boulders, daylilies and flowering shrubs. Walkways proceed in sweeping curves, drawing visitors to explore the preschool and school-age play structures and the climb and slide area.

"You might think that children playing in and around this vegetation would destroy it," Moore says. "But that doesn't happen. Playing with and in the vegetation presents another universe of alternatives that is very appealing to children. The ambiance of the place is different than any other playground they have been to, and what we hear from the kids and the parents is how the place feels. They say it feels comfortable, shady, colorful and alive.

Hopefully, more communities will embrace the principles of natural learning in the play environment.

Mary Henderson, director of parks, recreation and cultural resources for the city of Cary, says many other cities have shown an interest in Kids Together Park.

"We take representatives from other cities through the park on a regular basis," Henderson says. "They have not seen any other park like it. Now I don't think that it is realistic to expect every park to look like this one, but to have one or two signature parks that like this in every community certainly makes sense. Even though our ongoing maintenance costs are higher at Kids Together Park, based on the reaction of the community, it has certainly been worth it. Our parking area is always full, and we get loads of kids coming on school outings. It has become the park to visit."

  •   Natural Learning Initiative, a research and extension program of the College of Design at North Carolina State University in Raleigh,

  •   For more information about the contribution of urban parks to human development, see the briefing papers at hosted by the American Planning Association.

  • Kids not only visit, but they are playing in different ways—and staying longer.

    "When I go out to this playground, I look for certain things," Dorrell says. "I look inside the little playhouses and on the tables and within the play structures. I look for seeds, berries and twigs, and I find that the kids are incorporating these things into their play. What's on the little shelves inside playhouses? Are they mixing the sand with berries from the trees? I watch the children and see how are they relating to the weeping willow trees, which I think are marvelous. You can see the evidence everywhere that kids are incorporating the natural environment into their play. Robin Moore's vision for this playground as a prototype for the principles of Natural Learning has been fully realized. The playground is beautiful, and it has been a roaring success in the community. I am so happy to have been a part of it."

    Lynn Pinoniemi is communications manager for Landscape Structures Inc. She can be reached at

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