Donald and Barbara Zucker Natural Exploration Area, Prospect Park Alliance, Brooklyn New York, 2013

So when I visited the new ‘Natural Exploration’ Area at Prospect Park in Brooklyn I kept thinking about my first posts on this  idea of a ‘natural playground’.  It was 2008 and I’d only just come across the term, and to be honest, I wasn’t too keen.  I’d started the blog because it seemed like so many playgrounds were poorly designed and not much fun,  but the play space in that old post–pretty much just a log lying in a bed of sand–also didn’t seem well designed or much fun.  As the natural playground concept began to grow dramatically over the next few years, conversations with friends in the industry confirmed that that the fad for the natural was leading to makers who would drop a few rocks like pellets or add some logs for edging and call it natural;  just one more box to check in their list of kit.

But as the idea has matured, we’ve come to see some really great examples of natural playscape design, and the Prospect Park Natural Exploration area embodies many of the potentials and delights of this type of playground.  Here’s why it’s great, and why it’s different from that ‘natural playground’ I posted five years ago.

1.  Undefined boundaries.  Except for the sandpit, which obviously needs some confinement, the elements of the playscape simply diffuse out into the surrounding, lightly tended woods.  A child feels that they are ‘discovering’ a landscape, not ‘visiting’ a playground.  Just how attractive this was to the kids was revealed by the fact that there are two similar sets of wood features in this installation; one in an open sunny space, and one tucked in the trees.  80% of the play was in the trees.   And it was a chilly day.

2.  Creative use of topography.  When will we stop looking for (or worse, making!) the flattest place in the park and putting the playground there?  Arrgh!  At Prospect Park the sand pit occupies the front of the space next the paved path, where the ground is flat and it can draw the children in by signifying to both they and their parents ‘this is a playground’.  But the best features are placed on an inclined bank down a wide clearing.  Not only does the incline make the space ‘feel-risky-play-safe’, it’s also more challenging physically.  One of the criticisms of natural playgrounds is that there is no provision for upper body development.  But put an enormous felled tree on an incline and the upper body work the kids will do to clamber over it is just as good as the monkey bars any day.

3.  Really interesting loose parts.  Happily there’s plenty of that playground essential, sand.  But the Prospect Park Alliance went for more than just the ubiquitous tree cookies in their loose parts.   A y-shaped log  with some fabric ties for handles was being happily dragged through the sand the whole time I was there.  It was a good substantial size, challenging for a bigger kid, but also enticing smaller kids to work in pairs or groups in order to manipulate it.  The prismatic angles on the wooden blocks scattered around for seating made for a nice hard-edged contrast to all the organic forms, but they were also rollable, though with difficulty, requiring lots of upper body work from the 9-year old turning one through the sandpit.   There were also bits of turf mats left around.   The younger kids in particular LOVED these, and kept picking them up and waving them around (look for the little girl in the purple coat)  Loose parts that decompose when carried off and dropped elsewhere in the park…great concept!  But the most interesting thing was how the extensive use of wood in the playscape seemed to encourage the kids to create their own wooden playpieces.  Everywhere I looked they were picking up treefalls–from twigs up to small limbs–and using them for their own imaginative games.

4.  Thoughtful use and placement of the timbers.   Not just in the woods and up the slope, but growing out of the sandpit like dinosaur bones, with nice flat surfaces for chalk drawings.  Circling the playscape as a woodland ‘track’ of log steps that kept two little girls going round for an hour:  through the wood, up the hill, past the fire circle (no fire but you could feel it) and back down to the open glade.   Den spaces cut into one of the largest tree trunks.  Providing places to sit, on carefully sited logs where parents are close but not too close.  The big felled beech (the features were formed from Hurricane Sandy’s destruction) turned so that its old arborglyphs were visible like secret writings from long-ago.  And clumps of slender upright branches with primitive markings gently defining the woodland/Neverland.

Very not-your-typical-New-York-playground.  And brilliant.  Take your kids, and tell the Prospect Park Alliance how much you love it!  New York could use some more of these playscapes.

7 Responses to “Donald and Barbara Zucker Natural Exploration Area, Prospect Park Alliance, Brooklyn New York, 2013”

  1. Bob Meihaus said:

    Great example of what could be, redefining, no rediscovering, the way we design good Play-Spaces. First off, I am not the greatest advocate for so called ” Nature Playgrounds”. There are so many issues concerning climate, maintenance, allergies, physical activity, accessibility,time commitment etc. I do not feel most people that are considering or selling this concept have a realistic grasp on what they are getting involved in. I definitely do not think that the Manufactures jumping on this movement and creating fake logs and trees, that look more like something a giant dog left at the park, is the best solution or approach. Faking nature is counter productive and costs a whole lot more than the real thing. I do not want to take time expounding on the fantastic play, educational and social values of this type of Play-Space. Let’s consider it from a fiscal point of view, considering how financially strapped most community Governments are these days. By utilizing already existing topography, natural elements for play value and a never ending and regenerating supply of play equipment, I am confident in making the assumption that Prospect Park Play-Space did not cost the city a fraction of the money it would spend to install a traditional playground anywhere near the same size. Sure there will be some yearly maintenance and replacement, mostly labor, costs but that is true of any Playground even all metal, plastic and rubber ones. The real big difference is in the longevity and it’s diversity depending on the season, whether it is summer with everything green and growing, Fall with everything covered in fallen leaves or winter covered in a blanket of snow. This play-spaces is a living, self regenerating and evolving organism and will be that until the city bulldozes it for a new office building or we kill the natural environment with pollution. The best manufactured playground on the planet, at best, has a life span of twenty years and that would be if you replaced the $100,000 worth of rubber ground cover at least two or three times. The real point here is that every community in the world has very affordable and fantastic Play-Spaces just waiting to be discovered.

    November 18, 2013 at 10:01 am

  2. Liz Campbell Kelly said:

    I agree this is an amazing playground. I am also intrigued by the undefined boundary. When we are in a traditional playground my 2 year old son usually makes a break for it and I am always slightly stressed that people seem to leave the gates open half the time. But here, with no gates, he is not running off at all. I think parents participate more in play here as well because of the lack of gates – rather than sitting on the benches and watching in the traditional playground, they are slightly more attentive and close by. There is definitely less parental iphone checking…

    So far my son has been driving his toy car through the sand pit and then bringing it over to the water pump and giving it a car wash. Over and over again! The other kids seem to like it too and it’s cute to see them figure out some cooperation – sharing the car, easier to have one kid pump the water and the other kid gets to run it through the wash. Yay learning through play!

    I also just noted the siting of the playground in my last visit on Friday – its in a little valley with the wooded landscape rising up around it – feels very good.

    As a landscape architect, I’m interested in some of the maintenance issues – how the wood stands up over time – will be interesting to see what happens. Also it could use a trash can 😉

    November 17, 2013 at 1:09 pm

  3. Ora Berman said:

    Thank you Paige (and Tim Gil who posted this on FB). Prospect Park is a gem in the City and I am so glad to see they are participating in the effort to re-think play/ parks and nature. I will definitely be checking this one out soon.

    November 15, 2013 at 8:46 am

  4. Bernie DeKoven said:

    Bravo, Paige! A welcome, beautiful analysis of why natural playgrounds are so, well, natural.

    November 15, 2013 at 8:25 am

  5. Everett said:

    I do really love this playground. How do they maintain it though? In a natural environment, those logs will rot away in just a couple years.

    November 15, 2013 at 7:00 am

  6. Tim Gill said:

    Looks lovely. Strong echoes for me of the play trail at Westonbirt Arboretum here in England, which is a fine example of what can be achieved with a clear vision and a strongly naturalistic palette – and in their case, a small budget.

    November 15, 2013 at 5:57 am

  7. Kristin B. Eno said:

    Agreed! We need more of these in NYC! Thank you Prospect Park Alliance and thank you Paige: very well described and critiqued. I agree: you can feel the fire, love sitting in carved out trees, the natural loose parts are the best loose parts, the turf mats are bizarre and wonderful, and the place encourages the best kind of play, from extensive tea parties on stumps to elaborate fort building in that seemingly endless forest area. My girls (1 and 4) and I love this playground, and I’ve been telling friends left and right that it’s “the best in the city.” I stand by that and I will soon be doing a blogpost of my own…stay tuned!

    November 14, 2013 at 10:45 pm

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