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Holly D. Ben-Joseph, principal of the eponymous Concord, Massachusetts-based landscape design firm, shares a workspace in The Bradford Mill with a brain trust of artists, interior designers, and engineers. It’s a wellspring of creative energy and it keeps her open to new ideas. She founded the practice in January 2005 after leaving Johansson Design Collaborative, also based in Massachusetts, whose founder, Sonya Johansson, she credits as a formative influence.

With more than 40 years’ experience in the field, including work with prominent firms in Israel and Japan, Ben-Joseph draws from a deep well. But whether designing a nursery school play yard, urban park, or bucolic private residence, her approach is rooted in a deep appreciation for nature and plants. We caught up with her recently to learn more about her approach to designing play spaces.

Beacon Hill Nursery School play yard | photo courtesy of Holly D. Ben Joseph

When and why did you decide to go into landscape design?

I spent a lot of time outdoors during my formative years, camping and golfing in and around San Diego. I spent many hours exploring the canyons around my house, and also in manicured landscapes of golf courses. I didn’t yet clearly know I would go into to design until college. I happened to have an art major as a roommate. While I was struggling in physics and chemistry classes, and not happy with biology program I was pursuing, I joined my roommate to a School of Environmental Design exhibition at U.C. Berkeley and saw students creating beautiful drawings and designing spaces. That is what really gelled for me and pointed me in the direction of landscape architecture. Landscape design combined biology, math, science, art —everything of interest to me.

How would you describe your design approach?

Over the years, I have developed a collaborative approach. It starts with studying the physical aspects of the site, and, since I work with many schools, has a large component of canvassing the staff and students for what they hope to get out of their space. I always try to maximize play experiences that provide both quiet spaces for study and reflection, and spaces that are physically challenging. Plus, in my plantings, I try to add as much color, variety, and fragrance as possible.

Advent School play yard | photo courtesy of Holly D. Ben Joseph

Can you tell us about a favorite project?

Sure, The Advent School, a K-6 school in the Beacon Hill neighborhood of Boston. The play yard faces the Charles River. It is the most recent project and opened in 2017. The school occupies two converted brownstone residences and is tucked within a residential neighborhood. The play space comprises two backyards. The challenge of this projects was to provide an interesting play area for a wide range of students in a tight footprint. The design had to not only pass the approval of the neighbors, but also get the approval of the Beacon Hill Historic Commission which protects the historic nature of the area.

Because there were no vistas beyond the site, I incorporated the concept of a Japanese garden, using layers of elements, and curving paths to create different views within the space and to convey the sense of a journey. The finished project has a central sculptural log and ropes structure that anchors the yard and appeals to all age groups; it is the meeting area of the yard. The left side was allocated to highly active games such as a sport court and climbing wall and the right side focuses on the arts and manipulative play. In addition, there is a raised bed and compost area for gardening, and vertical elements on the surrounding fence: oversized magnetic chalkboards and a stage for performances and art projects.

Advent School play yard | photo courtesy of Holly D. Ben Joseph

How does your knowledge of natural materials inform your work with play spaces?

There is a national trend, which started around 2010, to move away from strictly manufactured play spaces to more nature-based spaces which incorporate natural materials. Over time, I have learned of the best materials to use with small children. Any plants have to be located in raised planters, otherwise they are too fragile to survive the constant heavy use. Groundcovers generally don’t work. Children delight in hiding under and walking through tunnels, so, in many projects, I’ve incorporated willow or other planting type tunnels. Also, I have come to the conclusion that lawns suffer and cannot survive in a tight play setting. As with sport fields, the trend for play spaces is to use artificial turf in the open play spaces, especially in dense urban settings.

Do you use any Goric play equipment? What is your favorite?

Yes, I often use Goric products in my designs, particularly the sand and water play elements. The Farm Pump is just a wonderful tool for kids; they love being in charge of the water flow. When it comes to sand and water play, the ability to use loose parts and manipulate the elements with carefully designed and manufactured equipment is key. Goric’s sand and water conveyor systems (another favorite) help children create imaginative scenarios and work toward common goals—all of which, we know, supports their learning.

Goric Farm Pump

Can you tell us more about the influences behind your playground and schoolyard designs?

When I moved to the Boston area, I began a project focused on public playgrounds in city parks and elementary schoolyards. We used standard metal and plastic play equipment and a lot of concrete seating with large code-required voids between elements. Not long after, my design focus shifted . I spent a lot of time observing my three boys at play, both in playgrounds (In Israel and in several states in the US) and also in our backyard and around the neighborhood. I noticed how quickly they got bored from the play structures. Often, to find excitement, they would climb the outside of the structure and then down the top of a tube slide. At the same time, they could spend hours digging tunnels and channels in the ground, fascinated by ants and other natural elements. Adding loose parts, such as boats and tractors, added another layer to their games. Many times, I would find nearly the whole neighborhood in our backyard developing an elaborate landscape of water channels they called “waterworks.” They worked cooperatively, and the game lasted for several summers. I realized that I wanted to incorporate some of this nature play into the spaces I was designing.

Before locating in Boston, you worked at firms in Japan and Israel. Do you think these different settings have influenced your style?

Absolutely. When I was living in Japan I spent every weekend touring gardens. I gleaned a lot of design principles from those gardens, not necessarily applicable directly to play, but to the aesthetics of space: how to organize a space to increase the perception of depth; how to use different materials to create more enriched environments. In Israel, when my children were very young, I spent time in play gardens. They were much less regulated than in the United States. Most only had dirt, a sandbox, and a couple wild pieces of play equipment. How well the children played together, and how successfully those elements kept my children busy, influenced my design approach. It’s important to give children autonomy in how they engage with space.

Beacon Hill Nursery School play yard | photo courtesy Holly D. Ben Joseph

You’ve done quite a bit of work with natural and schoolyard playgrounds. What is important when blending natural and play elements?

Almost every project I’ve completed blends together natural materials and smaller manufactured elements. The Beacon Hill Nursery School play yard is a good example. Once again, the central space, which is a large sand and water play area, is naturally defined with logs and stones. On either side of the sand play area, the grade has been raised to make natural climbing opportunities. Manufactured slides are incorporated into the hillsides, but the children have to climb up logs to get to the top. Many of the other play elements are manufactured, but they are tucked into a natural space. For more variety in play, there are talk tubes, a magnetic wall, a small kitchen with pots and pans, a chalk board and musical instruments and other manipulatives that can be brought out from onsite storage. Everything is carefully designed to meet all playground and accessibility codes.

You own your own design practice. What advice would you give to those looking to venture out on their own?

When you’re feeling there is a certain direction you want to pursue, that’s the signal to go out on your own. For me, it was nature-based play. I am able to design play spaces that I fully can stand behind, and it is a pleasure to observe how much the children engage and enjoy the spaces. It takes considerable energy to start a firm, and it can be scary. But once you establish good relationships with contractors, civil and structural engineers, and artists, the work becomes more fulfilling, and you know you can provide the best spaces for your clients.