A Natural Trend

Natural Environment Enhances Playground Designs

By Dawn Klingensmith

newspaper reporter visited Beaver Meadow Elementary in Concord, N.H., a few days before the school tore down its cookie-cutter playground, consisting of a slide, a firefighter pole and a zip glider. The teardown was newsworthy because the school built in its place a barrier-free play area, the first of its kind in Concord. But the real newsflash was just how badly changes were needed in playground design and philosophy. Kids told the reporter that the doomed circa-1995 playground was boring. A second-grader said she didn't play on the equipment as much as she played under it, digging in the wood chips for bugs. The equipment did not factor into one third-grader's playtime at all. Instead, she and her friends pretended to ride horses to the store and guarded what they called "the rock of life," which could heal anyone injured on the playground.

In words and actions, those students two years ago sent a loud and clear message about what they want in a playground, and what changes need to happen in the industry to engage and stimulate them. That message still applies. Playgrounds must provide opportunities for dramatic and imaginative play. Playgrounds should allow for and encourage interaction with the natural world. And they should include little nooks where kids can tuck themselves away for solitary or small-group play.

Additionally, involving kids in the design process shows that playgrounds with a single, all-in-one piece of equipment surrounded by wood chips don't really float their boat—but water does. Water and sand features rank high on the list when planners ask children what they want in a playground. Slides and swings are perennial kid-pleasers, but child participants in the design process also envision such playground features as gardens, nature trails and ponds, said Gina Kooiman McLellan, co-author of Designing Outdoor Environments for Children: Landscaping School Yards, Gardens and Playgrounds (McGraw-Hill Professional, 2006). "They are asking us for opportunities to interact with nature."

Give 'em Some Green Space

Overall, "There's been a shift in the industry toward more naturalized playgrounds. About three years ago, the focus shifted on being sustainable and healthier, more naturalized, heavier on shade, heavier on loose parts for children to manipulate," said Vicki L. Stoecklin, director of education and child development, White Hutchinson Leisure & Learning Group, Kansas City, Mo.

This shift coincides with a growing number of nonprofit groups aimed at getting children outdoors and in action, and playing in a way that involves imagination as opposed to electronics. To varying degrees, these groups "are trying to encourage a more natural approach in outdoor environments for children, with more hands-on, changeable things, more creative play and more opportunities to explore on their own," said McLellan, a retired professor of parks, recreation and tourism management at Clemson University in South Carolina.

Research shows that children who have opportunities to play in nature typically are healthier, happier, better adjusted, more cooperative, and more likely to appreciate and care for the natural world. And surveys suggest that children prefer to play in natural environments. Architect Ron King, president of The Natural Playgrounds Co. in Concord, N.H., has interviewed more than 5,000 children and consistently hears that they would rather dig, climb trees, make forts and explore nature. And when kids get bored with equipment, King pointed out, they start using it in ways for which it was not designed, which leads to injuries and property damage.

One manufacturer interviewed for this article conceded that "sterile, post-and-platform playground equipment" neither satisfies kids' desires nor addresses critical aspects of their development. In fact, according to that manufacturer's Web site, "Nothing draws kids to play like nature."

So how does manufactured equipment fit into that?

At One With Nature

"My perspective is that there has not so much been a shift in manufactured playground equipment as there is in how the equipment should fit in an outdoor design in an area for children," McLellan said. "When building a traditional playground, people typically go to one of the big equipment manufacturers and pick something from the catalog that fits their site and budget. Often, they'll spend $50,000 on one piece of equipment. There is some wonderful equipment that manufacturers put a lot of research and design into, but when you do that, it becomes the focus of the entire area. Designers are now deliberately looking beyond that one element. You can put a big piece of equipment in one area, and then have a little garden area, maybe with a little goldfish pond, which creates another play opportunity and addresses another aspect of children's development."

McLellan no longer peruses playground catalogs like she did while researching her book. But in fact, manufactured playground equipment is evolving as the back-to-nature movement gains steam. Color palettes that blend in with nature have been available for years. The manufacturer referred to earlier goes a few steps further with products that emulate nature. Along with shipwreck, barn and airport play structures, the company offers a tree fort structure with a fallen-log slide, and prides itself on creating products that look and feel like their natural counterparts, including rough tree bark and smooth or craggy stone. Nature-themed products include rock climbers, a hollow log crawl and a log balance beam.

"We don't want to make tree forts and things that look like they came off an assembly line," said Todd Lehman, a designer with the Golden Valley, Minn.-based company. "We match things to specific sites. Depending on what part of the country you're in, we can match the rock color and tree species so they look indigenous."

The company also is on board with the concepts of site-specific design, wide-open green spaces and placing equipment in larger areas or even off to the side, Lehman said. "The more that children, instead of just playing on the play structures, have an opportunity to play and immerse themselves in the surrounding environment, their senses will be so heightened that they will play longer and gain more out of the experience."

And playing longer and covering more ground could help counteract childhood obesity. Physically challenging equipment like climbers and circuit play systems certainly make sense in today's playgrounds; but though manufacturers several years ago began making equipment specifically designed to promote strength building and aerobic activity, it may be the case that simply by offering an expanded environment, kids naturally will increase their activity levels.

Unplugged and Active

Combating childhood obesity and getting kids off the couch and into the great outdoors is a top priority for parks and recreation departments, and many have thought of some creative ways to achieve those goals. For example, when the Conejo Recreation and Park District in Thousand Oaks, Calif., recently renovated one of its parks, finding a way to lure teens away from videogames was a primary objective. To that end, the district installed an electronic play system designed for playground use and billed by its manufacturer as "an electronic game for the heart and lungs—not just the thumbs."

"With the music and the lights—it's like bringing videogames outside but adding a pretty intense aerobic workout," said Conejo's parks and planning administrator, Tom Hare.

Kids can play alone or in teams, racing each other and the clock in an effort to keep up with a sequence of lights and sounds.

"Do you remember Simon?" asked Hare, referring to the classic electronic memory game. "I loved that little flying saucer, and this is sort of like that," only players run, dodge one another and jump to press buttons on a large panel. There are also elements reminiscent of the videogame, "Dance Dance Revolution."

Not only does the electronic play system develop players' agility, coordination, strength and stamina, Hare said, but it also builds teamwork. "It attracts all ages and brings out kids' social interaction skills. Kids who don't even know each other will spontaneously team up to devise game strategies."

Meanwhile, in Parr Park in Grapevine, Texas, kids work up a sweat on a huge play system designed so it's possible to explore the entire structure without ever touching the ground. The design was inspired by kids' tendency to play games with an objective to not touch the ground, lest alligators or quicksand swallow them alive, according to the manufacturer.

"To give you a visual, it kind of looks like a big geodome with a bunch of spider webs in the middle of it," said Assistant Parks Director Kevin Mitchell. "My vision was to get kids climbing horizontally as well as vertically, which works a different set of muscles. They're using their legs, balance and upper body, engaging in exercise without really knowing they're exercising. There was a conscious decision to try to have them use different muscles than just climbing a ladder and sliding down a slide. And that's all part of a deliberate effort to address childhood obesity, and a very deliberate effort to make sure what we put in is fun."

Cook, whose company designed both the electronic and the climbing devices featured here, said their popularity points to a playground imperative: "The greatest, overshadowing need facing the industry is to create products that get people moving. We have to address health and wellness issues with our young people."

Exercising the Imagination

In addition to physical activities, playgrounds should promote fantasy and dramatic play, as research suggests that the latter types of play aid in cognitive development and peer relations. "Typically, over the years the focus has been on gross motor play," Stoecklin said. "Manufacturers realize now that children can do more than gross motor play outside."

Inside, "kids do dramatic play, with the little fridge and the little fruits, vegetables and plates, but none of those things are available to them in most outside play areas," she said. "Loose parts should be a part of any playground, along with lots of storage. Much of what children learn is through manipulating loose parts. They learn about gravity, movement, fine motor skills and how objects occupy space."

As for storage, "The problem with a traditional storage shed is that people junk it up," Stoecklin said. "A lot of manufacturers are coming out with smaller storage options closer to an actual event. So, for example, near a sand area you have a small storage space for shovels and sifters and other tools for kids to use."

Loose parts need not be actual tools or toys. Non-literal objects like those found in nature have unlimited potential as playthings. For example, using a plain old stick, kids can make believe they're anyone from a fairy godmother waving a magic wand to an equestrian feeding a carrot to a horse.

Add a little nook or shelter, "and if the right parts are there, it might be a pizza shop or a grocery store or a beauty salon," Stoecklin said.

Ideally, structures should be "open-ended," she added, to encourage free-thinking and creativity, which fuel dramatic play. And while custom-themed playgrounds have been hailed as a way to create a unique experience, celebrate a community's culture or complement the surroundings (by tying in with a beach, for example), Stoecklin warns against making play components so thematic that kids can't transform them into something else by using their imaginations.

Often, though, "manufactured pieces are too sculpted. A lot of manufacturers will make a post office, and it looks just like a post office, down to every last detail. The problem is, then it's always a post office. It can never become a pet store."

Perhaps even better, playgrounds could incorporate natural "escapes," such as foxholes or intimate enclosures created by low hedges. The concept of kid-sized crannies may be slow to catch on due to widespread safety standards calling for unimpeded sightlines. However, "children need boundaries at times and a sense of enclosure," Stoecklin said. Additionally, "For me, the most important things are shade, loose parts and storage."

A playground designed by her firm for a childhood development center has all those elements and more. Opening this summer, the play space will feature a "dinosaur dig" (a sandbox with fossils embedded in concrete at the bottom), a re-circulating stream, a bush maze, climbing rocks, a riding trail for tricycles, art areas, musical instruments able to withstand the elements, a pretend market for dramatic play, a garden and compost pile, and two sport courts. What's absent is a conventional piece of playground equipment with slides and ladders.

However, that doesn't mean manufactured playground equipment doesn't figure into the latest philosophies about playground design. "Playground equipment companies are now designing playgrounds with a lot more emphasis on nature," said Fran Mainella, a visiting scholar at Clemson University who sits on the board of the national Children & Nature Network, a national network of regional efforts that aim to support and accelerate the growth of a children and nature movement. "And I definitely feel that when you look at some of the playground equipment, they have really worked to have some artistic flair. There's the visual stimulation of the structure itself, plus some include vistas that create a sense of awe and an appreciation for the surroundings."

It's possible, she concludes, to have the best of both worlds.

A Few Natural Ingredients

Playgrounds that incorporate nature as an integral design aspect and play element are here to stay, according to architect Ron King.

"The way our business is growing, it is without question the future of playgrounds," said King, president of The Natural Playgrounds Co. in Concord, N.H. "It captures a number of things that are going on in our culture—the green movement, sustainability, back to nature, No Child Left Inside."

There's a difference, though, between natural playgrounds and playgrounds that merely accommodate nature. Natural play areas use natural landscapes as their model, King said, and are topographically "sculptured" to include such features as berms, sand pits, water and mud areas, and grassy amphitheaters. Landscaping includes boulders and hillside tiers for climbing, rain gardens, paths, bush mazes and open green space. Structures include gazebos, arbors, murals, game tables and climbing walls. Bridges that children can cross as well as play beneath are common in King's designs, along with plastic slides built right into hillsides. Because in-ground slides have no height from which to fall, if space permits, extremely long ones can be made, and wheelchair-accessible trails can zigzag up to the top.

Natural playgrounds may also include learning tools such as sundials, rain gauges and educational signage that describes plant species or sends kids on nature-themed treasure hunts to identify different types of insects, for example.

Natural playscapes are a wise solution in a tight economy, King said. For one thing, conventional playground equipment needs to be periodically replaced to meet the latest safety standards, he points out.

Conventional equipment also takes a toll on the environment, given the impact of manufacturing, shipping and then disposing of playground equipment when it wears out or fails to meet new safety standards, he added.

The Bernheim Arboretum and Research Forest in Clermont, Ky., began experimenting with natural playscapes because they align with its mission to connect people with nature; however, the cost savings has turned out to be a huge bonus, said the Bernheim Arboretum's Education Director Claude Stephens.

"If something doesn't work, the types of things we're doing are so low-cost we can just take it out and try something else," said Stephens, adding that locally sourced and donated materials are used when necessary.

For example, the arboretum's "dragon mound" has raised earth to form the body and a series of limestone cylinders for its tail. The limestone parts are donated cores that were removed after drilling a foundation.

"We've experimentally added things a little bit at a time," Stephens said. "We watch how children use each addition and let them inform the next step."

Indeed, it was observing children at play that inspired the arboretum to start exploring natural playscapes and to organize the inaugural Children at Play conference in November, focusing on free play in natural environments. One of the arboretum's play areas has a gravel path traversing it. "Adults see it as just a mechanism for moving people through the environment," Stephens said, but children drop on their knees and play there, building roads and drawing in the gravel with sticks.

The arboretum then added an "art circle," which is a gravel play area with natural objects such as driftwood in the center, with which kids can dig, draw and build.

While Bernheim Arboretum has for the most part worked with the existing landscape, keep in mind that any time you introduce topography, involving a landscape architect is a must to ensure proper drainage, said Vicki Stoecklin of White Hutchinson Leisure & Learning Group in Kansas City, Mo. And such professional services don't necessarily come cheap.

The proliferation of nature-based playgrounds is very much a back-to-basics movement, advancing the theory that kids don't need pricy equipment to have fun outdoors. "Children love climbing a hill and rolling down on the grass," Stephens said. "I would argue they love it more than climbing up a ladder and going down a slide."

While that may be the case, and though King has proclaimed natural playgrounds the way of the future, they are far from the norm.

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