Designing a Natural Playspace

(Derived from an article "Creating a playground kids love" Vicki L. Stoecklin is the Education and Child Development Director with White Hutchinson Leisure & Learning Group, Kansas City)

Designing Outdoor Spaces Children Love
The goal of designing children's outdoor environments is to use the landscape and vegetation as the play setting and nature as much as possible as the play materials.The natural environment needs to read as a children's place, a world separate from adults that responds to a child's own sense of place and time.

We call places like this discovery play gardens to distinguish them from traditional playgrounds. While traditional playgrounds use manufactured and tightly designed play equipment, adventure play gardens - which may include some traditional play equipment - also has spaces that are informal and naturalistic. Again, it's important to take our lead from children and to recognize how the adult point of view is different.

Adults prefer manicured lawns and tidy, neat, uncluttered landscapes. Children, on the other hand, find beauty in wildness, so discovery play gardens should provide that, along with openness, diversity and opportunities for manipulation, exploration and experimentation. Children value unmanicured places and the adventure and mystery of hiding places and wild, spacious, uneven areas. They also appreciate animals, creatures in ponds, and other living things, as well as different levels and nooks and crannies, and places that provide shelter, shade, privacy and views.

A discovery play garden requires a lot of gear to make it work. This doesn't mean designed gear like swings or slides, but elements like sand, water, props and naturally found objects that allow children to control and manipulate the environment. The structures in play gardens, as much as possible, should be made of natural materials such as logs, stumps and boulders, and should use the landscape in natural ways with berms and mounds.

Good use of plants is also vital to a discovery play garden. Vegetation can create a special feel that separates one play area from another, like putting interactive water play in a bog or stream habitat. And incorporating local vegetation and settings help children appreciate their community's environment. 

Outdoor play areas should flow from one area to the next, be as open-ended and simple as possible, encourage children to use their imaginations, have continuity and be perceived by the children as their own, rather than adult, spaces. It is also important to integrate the outdoors with the indoor classroom with one sense of place and identity, so the transition between the two will be almost seamless and so that the outdoor space becomes part of the classroom rather than a retreat from it.

A new way of designing outdoor play areas

Discovery play gardens don't cost any more to build than the old-style, pave-it-and-plop-it playgrounds. Where the money is spent is very different, however. Rather than spend most of the budget on conventional manufactured playground equipment, moneys are shifted to landscaping and creating play areas using natural materials. And, because they require specialized design skills, a higher percentage of the budget should be spent for professional design services than with an old-style playground.

New kinds of outdoor play, while they don't require more money, do require more involvement from the people who will play in and care for the discovery play garden. Having children, teachers, parents and maintenance staff participate in the design process is essential.

Involving children will assure that they feel the garden is their special place. Involving teachers assures they'll feel ownership and use the discovery play garden as an outdoor classroom. Involving parents assures their support and shows them how the natural space and often messy play supports their child's development. Involving maintenance staff assures that they will provide the support and assistance needed.

Discovery play gardens offer children chances to manipulate the environment and explore, to feel wonder and to pretend, to interact with nature, animals and insects, and other children. They are environments that encourage children's rich and complex play and greatly expand the learning opportunities of old-style playgrounds. Children's discovery play gardens are places where children can reclaim the magic that is their birthright - the ability to learn in a natural environment through exploration, discovery, and the power of their own imaginations.

Guiding Principles of Playground Design

Respond to the Surrounding Context: Create a reciprocal relationship between the building facilities and the outdoor learning environment. The layout and age groupings of play spaces should compliment and enhance the schools internal circulation and organization.

Create a Strong Frame with Trees: In addition to spatially enclosing the play area and creating a pleasing park like aesthetic trees are critically important in addressing the serious safety issue of sun protection. Establish a logical and functional tree planting strategy.

Multi-Use: Avoid single use features: Play equipment, surfaces, spaces and layout should facilitate a variety of programmed and un-programmed activities.

Enhance the Natural Environment: Children learn from and enjoy natural places. Create an environment where children can participate in the growth and development of ‘their’ play space. Reflect and enhance the forest character of the site, play areas should be integrated with the natural context of any surrounding forest areas.

Reshape the Ground: Establish a strategy to reshape the site topography to create non-programmed spaces of varying scales and types that will encourage children to exercise their imagination. Berms, hills and other playful ground configurations create a powerful invitation to play.

Maximize Space: Consider unused or underutilized spaces within and around the existing play area. Free-up space or join underutilized spaces together to better optimize the site.

Equipment and Props: Provide opportunities for the use and storage of equipment, toys and tools.

Accessibility and Active Play: Ensure accessibility to all major play spaces for children with different physical abilities. Make accessibility an active play opportunity for all children.

Full Season Play: Develop strategies for year round use and enjoyment of the playground. Create opportunities that highlight the seasonal change.

Safety and Security: Ensure all proposed changes and developments meet the latest safety codes and guides. Maintain and enhance opportunities for observation and supervision. Minimize hard surface areas.

Cost Effective Design: Employ simple and modest means to affect significant change.