Natural playground makers will also enjoy this time-lapse video of the construction of the playscape at Turtle Rock preschool in Orange County California.

Natural Playground Construction Timelapse from Turtle Rock Preschool on Vimeo.

I love construction videos!  And do you notice how the most important piece of this project is the creation of the topography…a large central hill and some additional slopes and gullies on a small–and previously flat–site?  All the other play features are enabled by the topography.

All together now:  Playgrounds-should-not-be-flat.  Playgrounds-should-not-be-flat.  Playgrounds. Should. Not. Be. Flat.

Or, as I said in my talk on playground trends at last week’s London Open for Play event:  “hills are the new swings!”

Posted in Natural Playgrounds

One of the things I wish I could bring you more of on the blog is how much projects cost, but I often simply can’t access that information.   So I really appreciate Alexa Uhrich of Skala Design in Vancouver providing me with the expenses of their project to help those of you planning a natural playscape or classroom garden.

“Generous donations were received from the surrounding community. Douglas Fir logs were supplied and delivered by the Vancouver School Board and the boulders were sourced from an adjacent construction site and delivered free of charge to site by Ventana Construction. A special thank you was also extended to local real estate agent Paul Eviston for his contribution by means of a stone carving.”

Communities are often very willing to donate to playground projects, but we need to question why we’re asking them for $50,000-$100,000 when a space like this was developed for under $9,000?   To be fair, there was ‘equipment’ already available at the school, so this installation didn’t even require swings or slides, which should not be neglected in even the most natural of playgrounds.

Project Costs:
$6,763: School Board construction crew costs for demolition, base preparation, supply and installation of timber edging, bark mulch pathways, topsoil and composted mulch, planting, placement of Douglas-fir logs and placement of boulders using truck crane.
$935: Supply and delivery of plants from a local nursery.
$500: Stone carving to thank donor.
$500: Grant from Evergreen ( that went toward purchase of native plants.
The total project construction cost was under $9,000

“As the garden has grown over the last two years, its play value has increased. Kids play hide and seek inside mature native shrubs, dig holes to compost their recess snacks and use the boulders and logs to play games. One of the wonderful things that has been observed in the garden is that kids of all ages play together and often choose to play in this space rather than on nearby equipment.”

I love that they compost their snacks!

[all photos from Skala Design]

Posted in Natural Playgrounds

If you only have the time or budget to do one thing for play, make a hill.

A simple pile of dirt can become a bike ramp, a fort, a stage, a hiding place, a slide, a launchpad for the imagination.  When I was growing up my amazing mother asked the dump truck drivers working on our street to leave a load of dirt in our yard.  It was hands down the best play feature ever, enjoyed by not just my brothers and sisters and me but everyone in the neighborhood.  There were four swingsets, two slides, and three playhouses on our street too, but the hill was the best.

Sometimes when I recommend hills, though, people are worried about the technical details of the slopes and I never had those answers, but landscape architect Jeff Cutler of space2place in Vancouver, Canada, whose great playgrounds have featured on the blog before does!

Jeff’s work is characterized by innovative shaping of the ground to create unique spaces for play accompanied by carefully chosen plantings that enliven the landscape and are themselves full of fun.  It’s a mystery to me why so many traditional playgrounds look like play deserts….scraped flat and raw and utterly barren.  Plants are safe!  Don’t make a play desert!

space2place is generously providing Playscapes readers with guidelines and suggestions for both play hills and great playground plantings.  It’s our first DIY playground feature in honor of Aldo’s birthday and it’s free for you to download, print, and share under a Creative Commons Attribution Non-commercial license, which just means you must credit the source if you share it and you can’t sell it.

But you can use it to make your own awesome play features all you want!  All I ask is that you send me photos of what you do so I can eventually post a mash-up of reader projects, and that you leave nice thank-yous to space2place in the comments.


Watch for DIY play feature #2 on Monday.

Go make a playscape!


Posted in Natural Playgrounds, Play DIY, Resources

The playground bully is a classic villain in children’s lives and literature alike.   Playgrounds don’t create bullies, of course, but could design adjustments help prevent acts of bullying?

I recently came across a great vintage document by Gary Moore, Uriel Cohen, Jeffrey Oertel, and Lani van Ryzin of the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, entitled Designing Environments for Handicapped Children:  a design guide and case study, published by the Educational Facilities Laboratory in 1979.

Its advice on play spaces for handicapped children is likely dated now, and in any case I am no expert in that field, though it should be noted that the work is replete with remarks on the importance of natural elements and the need for loose parts, lesson we still haven’t learned.

But I was most intrigued by its discussion of “Retreats and Breakaway Points” (p. 68 of the doc, if you’re following along).

‘Retreats’ are places that individuals or small groups can be away from other groups.  As the authors note, the placement of these areas is critical; they should be located out of the flow of, but still connected to, the general space of the playground, much like a nook or window seat in an interior space.  This allows a child to withdraw without having to completely cede the playground territory.

I’ll add to the authors’ analysis the further requirement that a retreat should be an attractive designed space in its own right.  A mere bench doesn’t qualify.  In this way, a child who needs to utilize the retreat isn’t surrendering their own enjoyment or involvement.  They’re just moving to another attractive, though less active, part of the playscape.

A ‘Breakaway Point’ provides a face-saving exit from an ‘unfavorable situation’.  Though the context of the authors is that of a physical challenge that a child might not be able to master, the idea is also relevant to the unfavorable presence of a bully.   Providing breakaway points also promotes increased exploration of the playground space by reducing the fear of an upcoming challenge.

The inclusion of these design features has no downside; even if they didn’t reduce the potential for bullying they would be sensitive and attractive additions to any playscape.  As a quieter child myself, I usually hung out on the concrete steps of the school away from the vigorous play.  I would have welcomed a more inviting retreat. And having once felt trapped by a big kid on the climbing equipment, I just stayed away.

The entire document is available online; it’s definitely for the serious playgrounder but is full of vintage yet still relevant thoughts.  Highly recommended for your further reading!

Posted in Contemporary Design, Resources

Playful marginalia from the Codex Leicester of Leonardo da Vinci, now owned by Bill Gates.

Posted in Art About Playgrounds, Play History

First, Spanish firm Urbanarbolismo generated a great inexpensive design for an unusual site with a serious problem of run-off from the surrounding mountains.  To stay within a small budget of 14500 euro, they reused all existing street furniture, streetlights, benches, swings and slides, coordinating them with eye-popping orange paint that is echoed in the splashes of new safety surfacing.  To deal with the water, all of the park slopes converge towards the central zone, where soil awaited planting. And then how to plant the space?

Wanting to encourage community involvement, Urbanarbolismo staged a “Green Battle” in which about 200 people threw seed-containing mud balls at each other until the battlefield/site (and themselves) were completely covered.  Seeds included a grass to green the space quickly and native species such as thyme and heather to add permanent color and aroma to the playscape.

Playful installation…playful site!  I’m so going to make my youth group do this next time something needs planting.  Just add water.

Urbanarbolismo also has an award-winning strategy for using the ‘la batalla verde’ events to green-up public spaces, and you can send them a photo of your own tree and they will design a dream treehouse for it!

Posted in Contemporary Design
I really love hearing that I’ve encouraged/helped/inspired students.  Educating new designers about what a playground can be is one of the best means of effecting change.  So I was happy to hear from Anthony Chimbuyu, who designed this component-based sandpit as part of his final year at Carleton University in Ottawa, Canada.

His concept was to provide a facelift to existing urban sites, adding hexagonal elements fastened to a grid resting below the sand that allows for variability of layout and size as well as height customization for age-based play zones.

Interestingly, Anthony said that although he is most inspired by natural playgrounds elements, the project brief did not allow for them!  Perhaps some educating of the educators is in order.  Thanks and good luck Anthony!

Posted in Contemporary Design

How delightful is the white spoon osteospermum for a playscape!

Posted in Natural Playgrounds
The BPS 90 courtyard is featured in the inaugural newsletter of the American Society for Landscape Architecture’s recently established “Professional Practice Network devoted to Children’s Outdoor Environments” (such an unwieldy title, but join anyway if you’re an ASLA member!).
It features a curriculum-based approach, which should warm the hearts of administrators everywhere, with gathering spaces specifically designed for science, math, music, art, and geography/geology, all connected within a varying topography by a circuit walk.

A 6 inch deep, 8 inch wide water channel flows down a gentle slope through the landscape, traversed by bridges where it intersects the circuit walk and providing watery opportunities for playing Pooh sticks, damming the stream, racing rubber ducks.

Natural elements of logs, mounds and boulders are interspersed with concrete areas that allow for hard surface activities like jumping rope, riding tricycles and bouncing balls.  I especially like the way the plant materials are keyed to the curriculum elements:  the “music” area is planted with varieties that make sound in the wind, attract singing insects and birds or which can be used to make instruments, and the “art” space has plants whose petals or berries can be used to make dyes or inks.
The “math” classroom uses unit-cell pavings to show ratios and proportions and includes raised planters for counting seeds and measuring growth, and the “science” area has large mounds of earth that can be used for velocity measurements, and a wider water channel for experimentation.
Posted in Natural Playgrounds
The perfect Valentine’s Day playground…another Helle Nebelong project, this time for a garden to celebrate the Millenium. A year 3 class from Valby School won a competition held to determine the garden’s design.
“They designed a garden, which is split into 2 different areas.
One part of the garden is full of shadows and has a jungle-type character.
The other is a garden full of light and flowers.
There is a heart-shaped path and small nooks with love seats.
Here you can meet your loved-one and be romantic.
A lake separates the two halves of the garden, but the two worlds are connected by – or linked together by – a bridge over the water. The bridge, and all the life-strengthening thoughts, which lie behind this suggested garden, symbolises a fine crossing to the new millennium.
The children’s model of the garden was transformed into architectural drawings and the construction work got under way…The realized garden is very close to the children’s ideas and design.

Grown-ups may have outgrown hearts and flowers as playground themes, but they are still beloved by children. I’m glad Helle Nebelong and Co. didn’t reject them as somehow unsophisticated.
Posted in Contemporary Design

“Boring was how the majority of children described their local parks and playgrounds in a 2002 national survey (UK) by the Children’s Society and the Children’s Play Council. Further more, 45% said that they were not allowed to play with water, 36% not allowed to climb trees, 27% not allowed to play on climbing equipment and 23 % not allowed to ride bikes or use skateboards. “

from a 2002 article by Ken Worpole in the Guardian

Posted in Resources


A class of Belgian schoolchildren re-creates the Brueghel painting in their schoolyard.
What a great playground activity!
Apparently, there is a group in the former Flemish countries of Northern Europe devoted to perpetuating the games depicted in the painting, but I couldn’t find any further information on it.
Posted in Play Art, Play History


The painting depicts over 250 children involved in an estimated 80 games.
No playground equipment necessary…I could look at these for hours.
See the original at the Kunsthistorisches Museum Wien, Vienna.
Posted in Art About Playgrounds, Play Art, Play History


The paintings of Pieter Brueghel the Elder (Flemish, 1525-1569) were used as inspiration for a series of poems by by William Carlos Williams (American, 1883-1963), published in 1962, for which he was posthumously awarded the Pulitzer Prize.
This is “Children’s Games”
This is a schoolyard
with children
of all ages near a village
on a small stream
meandering by
where some boys
are swimming
or climbing a tree in leaf
is motion
elder women are looking
after the small
a play wedding a
nearby one leans
an empty hogshead
Little girls
whirling their skirts about
until they stand out flat
tops pinwheels
to run in the wind with
or a toy in 3 tiers to spin
with a piece
of twine to make it go
blindman’s-buff follow the
leader stilts
high and low tipcat jacks
bowls hanging by the knees
standing on your head
run the gauntlet
a dozen on their backs
feet together kicking
through which a boy must pass
roll the hoop or a
made of bricks
some mason has abandoned
The desperate toys
of children
imagination equilibrium
and rocks
which are to be
and games to drag
the other down
to make use of
a swinging
with which
at random
to bash in the
heads about
Brueghel saw it all
and with his grim
humor faithfully
Posted in Art About Playgrounds, Play Art, Play History


The Marquand Park sandpit reminds me of this one, at Green Park in London.
Posted in Design