What is a 'natural playground'?

I've been spending a bit of time this past week reflecting on how nature-based playgrounds are different from more 'traditional' playgrounds.  

Put simply, a nature-based playground is a space that welcomes children to interact with natural materials like soil/sand, water, plants, logs, rocks, natural loose part materials like shells, pine cones, tree 'cookies' and more.  Something like a log will provide different affordances to a child depending on their stage of development. For some, it may be something to pull themselves up on and study how the bark looks and feels.  For others, it might be something to clamber onto and jump off or something to sit on, crawl across or balance on.  When we leave the equipment and materials as open as possible we let the children choose how they use it - this helps with creativity, problem solving and thinking.

Research shows that children play longer and more creatively in a nature-based playground than they do in a more traditional playground.  This recent paper is a great resource to read and share with colleagues if you're weighing up the reasons why to include more natural elements into your playground.

Often elements that make a natural playground are things people may feel challenged by, or be unsure how to manage.  Loose parts materials may be considered 'messy', logs and logs rounds, as they start to break down, may be considered dangerous or too burdensome to replace and allowing children to manipulate materials may encourage play that some view as 'too risky'.

In a previous blog, I put a link to a great short video about the importance of greening schoolyards.  I love what the woman at the end says about switching that mindset from 'maintenance' to 'stewardship'.  Often teachers/parents spend a lot of time maintaining and tidying the inside spaces but want the outside spaces to be as easy care as possible.  However, the outside spaces are often larger, are where the children naturally want to be and have the ability to be much more diverse and cater to different types of play. When we change the focus and commit to stewardship of a space there is so much to be gained.

Below are a few examples of small areas in projects I've been involved in over the past few years.   

Before, this space was rarely used - it always seemed cold, shady and damp.

Before, this space was rarely used - it always seemed cold, shady and damp.

These bottom three photos are the same area, seven years later.

These bottom three photos are the same area, seven years later.

This serves as an entrance and also a bird hide.

This serves as an entrance and also a bird hide.

This photo is from just after we finished. We added logs, rocks, driftwood, plants and lots of bark mulch to make the space more interesting and appealing for play.

This photo is from just after we finished. We added logs, rocks, driftwood, plants and lots of bark mulch to make the space more interesting and appealing for play.

Seven years on and this corner is a shaded hiding place for exploration.  It looks like a natural area you'd find in any bush - the logs are starting to break down and may need to be replaced soon and the plants have grown well.  It feels like a great space for discovery and adventure.  The bird houses we built with the children hang on one wall and are well used - each usually has a nest.

Seven years on and this corner is a shaded hiding place for exploration.  It looks like a natural area you'd find in any bush - the logs are starting to break down and may need to be replaced soon and the plants have grown well.  It feels like a great space for discovery and adventure.  The bird houses we built with the children hang on one wall and are well used - each usually has a nest.

Below is another space I worked on recently at a local preschool.  I think with the combination of the beautiful fence and some planting work we transformed this 'nothing' space into an area that would be pretty to look out to from the inside and offers variety for play.

Before, this area was really just a thoroughfare to get in and out of the centre. The ground was muddy and there was no reason to stay and play in this space.  I worked on this playground with NatureFlow - they did the building work and Woodland Escape did the planting plan and work.

Before, this area was really just a thoroughfare to get in and out of the centre. The ground was muddy and there was no reason to stay and play in this space.  I worked on this playground with NatureFlow - they did the building work and Woodland Escape did the planting plan and work.

NatureFlow built a small fence to act as a boundary - channelling people coming out of the centre onto the pathway.  We added a small paver pathway, putting plants on either side which will grow up to create a tunnel effect for young children. 

NatureFlow built a small fence to act as a boundary - channelling people coming out of the centre onto the pathway.  We added a small paver pathway, putting plants on either side which will grow up to create a tunnel effect for young children. 

A few months on and the plants have started to establish.  The area is starting to look like it's always been like that.

A few months on and the plants have started to establish.  The area is starting to look like it's always been like that.

Sandpit and water play area before

Sandpit and water play area before

As part of a larger landscape redevelopment, this centre was keen to change an area next to their sandpit into a water play space.  We added some driftwood the centre owners had found, plants, crushed shell and some larger stones to give it a 'wetland' feel - creating a link to the centre and the adjacent wetland area the centre often visits with the children.  NatureFlow built the water play area using local rock but we left scope for the children to channel the water into different pools.  I think offering children beautiful spaces for play demonstrates the importance we place on them and the value we put on play.

Sandpit and water play area after.

Sandpit and water play area after.

I feel privileged to have worked with and had the influence of two fantastic natural playground designers - John Allen and Rusty Keeler.  John is a local designer who I worked alongside for several years and continues to be a mentor to me now.  Rusty, a well-known nature-playground designer in America helped us with our first project at Linwood Playcentre years ago.  I met Rusty at the Natural Phenomenon conference in 2010 and felt honoured when he agreed to come and help us with our project - the first one I was involved with.  I was wanting to move away from a teaching career and into playground design.  I remember asking him, 'how do I do what you're doing?'  and he said, 'you already are - just keep going'.  

IMG_2299.JPG

I caught up with Rusty recently at the Children and Nature Network conference in Vancouver and it was so nice to reconnect and let him know that his comment really encouraged me to stay on the path I wanted to follow.  If you want to learn more about natural playgrounds, this is a great article and outlines  some important elements that differentiate a natural playground from a more traditional playground.  I love what Rusty has to say in this article, about the process of designing natural spaces.

“We can create extraordinary places for children to discover themselves and the world around them. We can create places for children that tickle the imagination and surprise the senses. But first we have to remember the places and spaces of our own childhood.”
— Rusty Keeler

With nature-based design you're not creating spaces that will stay the same.  As plants grow the spaces will change, pathways and tunnels will develop, fence lines will become hidden, new pockets for play will be created.  

As a playground designer, I want to be involved in creating spaces that will grow and change over the years - mimicking natural spaces and introducing children to the natural world. It's why I use materials like logs and log rounds and advocate for the use of loose parts materials like pine cones, shells, stones, pea straw bales, bark mulch etc.   These materials will break down and change over the years and will need replacing.  The children will pick the bark off the logs, they'll find slaters and other insects living in them, they'll turn over stones to see insects living underneath and through all these experiences they are connecting with the natural world, exploring and learning in their own way.  I put lots of plants into my designs, which will need some care, but I know that as children watch us look after the spaces we're connected to, they are learning about stewardship and the need to care for our local environment.

If your centre or school is interested in advice or would like some ideas to start a project, please get in touch with me - I'd love to work with your community to create something special for your children's play.