Natural Playgrounds – the summary

First, I have discovered that I don’t like posting in themes. So after this brief focus on the natural playground, examples will continue to be listed at random with all other examples of inspirational play spaces. I’m missing the playground art.

Second, the term ‘natural playground’, like ‘organic food’ can be difficult to pin down. Are all constructed elements eschewed in favor of a simple ground-plane of rocks, wood pieces, and earth? What about, say, a plastic slide or a metal swing? Is a play structure allowed as long as it is made mostly of wood? There are varying degrees of naturalism among the purveyors and advocates of natural playgrounds. It is probably better to think about natural ‘elements’; natural playgrounds can be said to have significantly more natural elements than the typical model.

In general, natural playground spaces tend to be custom solutions that emphasize raw materials of wood, stone, and sand in combination with shaped earth forms. They often include elements of water play, and have more emphasis on planted material than a typical playground. They may feature elements for learning about the natural world, like bat houses or bug habitats, and the boundary between ‘playground’ and ‘garden’ or ‘nature trail’ is blurred. It should be noted that some landscape architects have always worked in these elements, without designating themselves specifically as ‘natural playground’ providers.

Third, ‘natural’ is no substitute for ‘well-designed’. In assembling the examples I’ve posted I must admit that I was rather disappointed as to the overall quality of the designs I was able to find; there were many I passed over as not having enough interest or displaying enough skill for a place on the blog. While an undisturbed forest of logs and rocks may be an ideal, and a place to which we wish all children had access, the reality is that playgrounds are inherently designed spaces, and this blog advocates that they be well-composed and thoughtfully executed ones. Just using logs and rocks doesn’t automatically make that happen.

But even a simple arrangement of rocks and logs and earthworks has a high play value and can be vastly less expensive than the pipe-rail and plastic structures too common in the municipal landscape. I would very much like to see us get away from the idea that a playground has to cost alot of money.

Most playground structures get picked because they’re easy for the grown-ups. They come in a box (or on a big flat bed trailer) with all the pieces and detailed instructions and exact safety standards. Just thinking out loud here, but what if someone came up with a natural playground ‘kit’–with everything but the sand, rocks, and logs–including precise installation instructions, and appropriate safety considerations, and supplied it as an alternative? Or maybe we should just try to post DIY details on this blog. I’m open to your ideas.

6 Responses to “Natural Playgrounds – the summary”

  1. Donald and Barbara Zucker Natural Exploration Area, Prospect Park Alliance, Brooklyn New York, 2013 | Playscapes said:

    […] visited the new ‘Natural Exploration’ Area at Prospect Park in Brooklyn I kept thinking 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 […]

    November 14, 2013 at 10:12 pm

  2. Lyn Foster said:

    Loved the concept of the ball/post to make cubbies – i think this is what natural is – it is allowing the area to be used to allow 'playing with ideas' not playing with someone else's ideas

    January 28, 2012 at 5:29 am

  3. Jason Medeiros said:

    Rusty Keeler, author of 'Natural Playscapes' (prominently featured in the reading list on this blog) argues the necessity of exposing children to nature and natural materials as an essential and enriching part of their growth and development. He makes reference to Louv's 'Last Child in the Woods' and numerous studies that support the benefits of nature in the lives of young people. It seems that this may be a helpful way to define 'Natural Playgrounds' as those that encourage or even enhance childrens' experience with natural surroundings. I see no reason why a metal climbing structure or a plastic hill slide cannot be a critical component of a 'Natural Playground', if they help children gain access to powerful experiences involving other more natural elements.
    The value inherent in natural playgrounds seems to be twofold. First, as mentioned above, in developing an appreciation and connection with life, ecosystems and materials that have escaped the heavy hand of human manufacturing. Second, because natural materials lend themselves well to creative play. This is easily demonstrated by the popular water/sand combination that allows limitless opportunities to create, destroy and experiment.
    I agree with Anita's comments that the use of local materials, and tie-ins with local ecology bring such playgrounds to a higher level. I also think that it is an appropriate endeavor to identify great combinations of materials (such as sand and water, chocolate and peanut butter) that seem to heighten children's awareness of nature, or offer surprising opportunities for creative play. I'm also curious about standards for safety (or not). The advocates of natural playscapes seem to accept that a little risk is inherent to excitement and play. How can this best be provided and still put parents (or park's department's) minds at ease?

    February 07, 2011 at 9:50 pm

  4. Anita said:

    One more thought. I absolutely agree that playgrounds also need to be pieces of art. Combining functions for nature (which includes children at play) in an artful composition is what landscape architecture is all about for me. I’ll keep working towards that goal in my playground and other designs and I love this site for keeping me inspired.

    Anita Van Asperdt

    January 27, 2009 at 9:36 pm

  5. Anita said:

    I am once again enjoying much of your postings on your site. Here is my take on Natural Play Elements. For me as a landscape architect Natural Playgrounds present an opportunity not only to make a fun playscape that kids can enjoy but also an opportunity to deeply embed the playground in the local landscape and ecology. Thus in rainy Oregon where I live and work playgrounds in the Willamette valley can have puddles, wetlands that treat stormwater and nursing logs while at the coast I would want to include drift wood, sandy areas that infiltrate water, salal tunnels that form wind shelters. Of course to me this is simple good landscape architecture applied to playground design. I am a little afraid that if we start the route of natural play elements that we see the same shape hill with a slide showing up everywhere just like we now see the same pieces of playground equipment everywhere. Having said that I do think playgrounds can be inexpensive and working with local natural materials will actually help keeping the costs down. I also think that designers can draw up some standard solutions applicable to various situations while still designing unique and site specific playscapes. For example the method of how to build a slide into a slope can be standard but the form the slope or hill has can be site specific.
    Lets keep this discussion going…

    Anita Van Asperdt

    January 27, 2009 at 9:22 pm

  6. sarahsirah said:

    I think when the term “natural playground” should relate more towards how effective the design is towards letting children play naturally instead of a “pre-planned play” and it is not supposed to be just based on the material used in the playground itself…

    January 14, 2009 at 3:10 am

Leave a Reply