The Nature of Nature, by Susan Solomon

Paige’s Note:  As I’m working to close an investment deal at the moment, I’m reminded of how great it is to have Susan Solomon’s columns as a part of Playscapes.  Not just because it helps me fill in the posting gaps when my own schedule reaches its overstretched limits(!), but also because her insight into the American playground scene is erudite, historically informed, and unsurpassed.  In today’s ‘After the Deadline’ column, she touches on an issue that is a thorn in both our sides–discussions of ‘Nature Play’  and ‘Natural Playgrounds’ as if such a thing has just been invented…and by Americans of course!  No, not so.  Nature play and natural playgrounds as a formal idea began in the 19th century, and were strongly emphasized by philanthropists in the 1920s and 1930s concerned about children in cities (they didn’t call it a ‘nature deficit’, but much of the rhetoric is the same), then taken up again in the back-to-nature movement of the 1970s.   Most recently, beautiful natural playgrounds were being installed in Europe by dedicated and thoughtful practitioners like Helle Nebelong, well before the johnny-come-lately Americans began waving the ‘natural’ flag.  Europeans still exceed us in the development of the natural playground art, largely because they have avoided the death-grip of overzealous safety guidelines that restricts play here in America.   I’m glad to see the increased emphasis on nature play in the United States, but anyone who tries to lay claim to originality either doesn’t know their playground history, or is simply unwilling to acknowledge those on whose shoulders they stand.  

The Nature of Nature, by Susan G. Solomon

Taking a cue from Richard Louv, I suggest that we consider “Nature Design Deficiency.”  Nature playgrounds in the US usually have to be constructed– albeit that that is an oxymoron- or they can be naturally wild areas where the kids are left to be on their own. So far, we haven’t done a particularly good job with the former and we rarely see evidence of the latter.

While it has been hard to find exciting American areas for exploration of nature, Europe does not lack in excellent models. Two of the best, each distinguished by large expansive sites and opportunities for varied experiences, are the adventure playground in Valby Park (Copenhagen, 2001) designed by Helle Nebelong and the Environmental Education Center at Sloterpark (Amsterdam, 2012) designed by Carve.  Nebelong called for an organizing circular boardwalk built from dead trees from the site.  Nearby are multiple opportunities for scampering on other dead trees, playing in sand, hiding in dense brush, accessing a series of hillocks.  Carve’s creation is particularly noteworthy for ways in which kids can play near streams and even ford them with variously arranged logs or sail over them on a zip line; they can run on a bridge over the water while being aware that there is a railing (for wheelchair accessibility) on just one side.  Carve’s work gives children lots of chances to wander where animals nest and to get lost in deep brush or wade into thick swamps.

American nature playgrounds are often timid by comparison.  They frequently include off-the-shelf manufactured pieces, which have been embellished with some rocks or trees.   A few of our better natural play spaces are in botanical gardens, zoos, or nature preserves with significant admission fees, thereby assuring that these could not become neighborhood hubs.

Two things could accelerate the appearance of engaging nature spaces on his side of the Atlantic:  more information about safety “standards “ (there are neither national nor state guidelines for nature play), and affordable, local models. We are lucky to be seeing the emergence of both within the past few years. The National Wildlife Foundation now provides a way to think about safety precautions; the Prospect Park Alliance (Brooklyn, NY) shows us what a terrific nature playspace looks like and how it can be accomplished on a relatively slim budget; the camp at Princeton (NJ) Friends School illustrates how kids can manipulate nature themselves and create magical surroundings.

Patrons often feel uneasy about commissioning a playground with just nature and no equipment.  Their fears may be assuaged now that there is some formal guidance. Robin Moore, of the Natural Learning Initiative, has undertaken that mission by forming a partnership with the National Wildlife Foundation (NWF).  The result is National Guidelines: Nature Play & Learning Places: Creating and Managing Places Where Children Engage with Nature (http://natureplayandlearningplaces.org, 2014).    Teri Hendy, the dean of safety information, was risk management consultant for the project.   Allen Cooper, a lawyer and director of state education advocacy with the NWF wrote the chapter on “Risk Management”.  While it does not purport to be “legal advice” or a “design standard, “ Cooper’s chapter indicates that building a safe natural environment should not be complicated. He offers a well thought out approach to risk-benefit analysis, following very much the way such things are handled in England.  This is a common sense approach to make sure patrons and designers are aware of how and where children fall; recognize head entrapments and protrusions; assess the stability of objects (e.g. trees).

. The Donald and Barbara Zucker Nature Exploration Area (ZNEA) is a public venue, one at which adults can be as active as the children. It illustrates how urban areas can superbly support nature play.  Paige Johnson wrote a perceptive report about this site on this blog in November 2013, shortly after ZNEA opened.  I want to discuss something a little different: how ZNEA came about how and how its creation should resonate with anyone considering a natural play area.

ZNEA, composed entirely of trees, sand, and a single water pump, is in Brooklyn’s Prospect Park (often considered the sister park to Central Park in Manhattan since both were originally designed by Frederick Law Olmsted and Calvert Vaux in the 1850s).  The Prospect Park Alliance, the advocacy group that also funds major park projects, faced a conundrum after Super Storm Sand (2008) and the earlier hurricane, Irene.  Over 500 sizeable trees, some between 48-60,” fell in the park.  Like most of the northeast, Asian Longhorn beetles have infested the site, which means none of the trees can leave the park (interestingly, the trees and earth could not be removed at Valby Park, too).

The Alliance chose an innovative way to deal with their losses. They decided to strip some of the most interesting felled trees and arrange them into an exploratory zone.  The entire play area (the Alliance did all of the design and construction) was done in about six months and within the allotted $200,000 budget.   The are several “rooms”, including a sand room where trees stumps ring a sand pit and an upside down stripped tree stands at its center; It is an eerie reminder of the storm but also a beacon that announces something unusual is taking place at its base.

The largest trees have been arranged in a separate, nearby area. Strewn as if Sandy had happened yesterday but actually carefully constructed, these enormous bare limbs offer areas for balance, hiding, running, even quiet reflection.  Some trees have been anchored; others are so big they will never more.  The scale and variety are remarkable.

The donation from the Donald and Barbara Zucker Family Foundations, which funded this project, meant that the Alliance could develop an underutilized section of the park, turning it into a lively nature center.  Placed at the bottom of a deep grassy bowl, this exploration area does not need a fence; wayward small fry can be collected before they ascend the hill.  Without any fencing, anyone can come into this space and climb the boulders that can be challenging to adults as well as youngsters.

Right now we are in the end, and often the most difficult part, of the American hurricane season.  This is predicted to be a relatively calm year, largely because of El Niño which will be bringing different type of extreme weather to the west coast.  Even during mild seasons, there is usually tree damage on the Atlantic and Gulf coasts and possible along the Pacific edge.  The Midwest, too, has its share of intense weather, usually but not exclusively spring storms.  The message here is that tree damage, while not desirable and often dangerous and dispiriting, can also supply an important raw material. We should recognize that and take at advantage of it where it is appropriate.

The other wonderful example of nature play, at the day camp run by the Princeton (NJ) Friends School, is equally enlightened and informative.  Kids can come to the camp for a single week or as many of the eight weeks they choose. The camp occupies a deeply wooded tract, approximately one acre, on which the children can roam. This is not a nature camp, per se, but much of the daily activity focuses on constructing the “villages ” which are age specific.  Construction starts on the first day of camp and improvements/ additions continue throughout the summer (it is almost a shame that these impressive structures come down at the end of the camp season).  The materials are minimal- twigs, limbs, rope and twine- plus a bit of assistance from the counselors who also use knives.  The results are inventive and inspiring. The process would also be easy to replicate in city parks and play areas.

This is truly a kid-designed playground, one that puts to shame the sham charettes and design sessions that purport to ask kids to be designers. Here, kids stalk the environment and figure out how to use what is at hand. It is all about building with nature, in nature.  It is an ever-changing landscape that is an ideal we should all support and encourage!!

Americans no longer have an excuse for some of the lame nature playgrounds we have already built.  We have a pronouncement about safety and we have at least two outstanding American prototypes for what nature playscapes might look like.   Anyone thinking of nature play spaces should take these to heart and get to work!

One Response to “The Nature of Nature, by Susan Solomon”

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    September 11, 2015 at 5:17 am

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