Bringing Nature Into Play

By Anne-Marie Spencer

In today's fast-paced world, it seems like everyone is looking for something more, something better, the next great thing! The world of play is the same—from site owners who want to create a destination play area, to children and families looking for something new to do, play is experiencing a renaissance of a new dimension as people recognize its value in overall development, wellbeing and the fight against obesity.

Luckily, new trends in play are accommodating these wishes with initiatives, design alternatives and ways to play that offer exciting, new options to the world of recreation, specifically in regard to nature and play. There are countless studies on nature deprivation, and how children and families today don't seem to appreciate, or take time to experience, the benefits that our natural environment offers. New initiatives designed to combine playful behavior with natural elements are creating fresh, engaging environments that invite users to explore play and nature. By bringing nature into the play environment, and conversely, introducing playful activities into nature-rich areas, a new movement to encourage participation, develop appreciation, and enrich the community is gaining ground and popularity.

Two recent programs, developed and launched by PlayCore and the Natural Learning Initiative, College of Design, NC State University, promote the popular concept and can assist communities in executing nature-infused play opportunities. The first, NatureGrounds, brings "nature to play" by providing best-practice guidelines on designing play environments that integrate manufactured play equipment with the living landscape. Rather than stripping the landscape of all natural elements (a common practice when building a place to play, which leaves a bare, exposed rectangle with only equipment and surfacing) the program creates a dramatic shift in the standard playground development process by deliberately designing nature back into the environment and children's lives, and engaging communities in working together to create a richer play experience for all users.

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.

Like NatureGrounds, the program features a suite of tools to assist site owners in incorporating the program elements into their own trails and paths. The guidebook illustrates case studies, design principles and execution strategies. A supporting Web site,, illustrates additional case studies, and features an interactive area where families can discover additional tools to enhance the trail experience, including books, activities and projects. The Web site was recently named as the 2011 "Best Website for Kids and Trails" by the American Trails organization.

Families using the site can also share their "playful path" experience with other site users, creating additional interest and participation. Said one parent, after experiencing a playful path located along Chattanooga's riverwalk in Tennessee, "We were so excited when we discovered the addition of play equipment and activities to do along the path. Our four lively children all found something to enjoy that matched their developmental levels. Riverpoint was already an amazing place, but we were wowed by these types of 'extras' that make our children so happy. What a gift that we can get them out of the house and away from the television, engaged with nature, being physically active and enjoying family time."

Across our land, great investments are being made in movement-based infrastructure to support healthy lifestyles and environmental awareness. By incorporating nature-based play opportunities into our landscape, we can create playful environments that provide recreational exercise, health benefits and an opportunity to engage with nature, and create tomorrow's environmental stewards through positive outdoor experiences and enjoyable playful activity.


Anne-Marie Spencer is vice president of Corporate Marketing and Communications for PlayCore. To receive complimentary copies of the NatureGrounds or Pathways for Play Guidebooks, contact her at

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