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Eight years ago, on a five-day cycling tour of Berlin, Michelle Mathis stumbled upon her first bonafide adventure playground. What she saw caught her off guard: along several hundred linear feet of boardwalk, children unaccompanied by parents were using hammers, hand saws, and pieces of scrap wood to build forts, some as high as twenty feet. In speaking with one of the adult employees at the Telux Adventure Playground, she learned that ten-by-ten foot sections of the building deck were available for rent, and that twice a year the park hosted a “sleep in your hand-built fort” event. At the same park, was a petting zoo and a large open sports field: all of this situated in a dense Berlin neighborhood.

For Mathis, the principal designer at the Oregon-based firm Learning Landscapes Design, the experience was formative. “I saw so many different types of play and activities, and I wanted to find a way for us to incorporate things like that in the United States,” Mathis said.

Telux Adventure Playground, Berlin, photo courtesy Learning Landscapes Design

Due to more stringent safety guidelines and a generally more litigious culture in the United States, translating the ideas of German adventure playgrounds to the states has been a challenge, Mathis says. Still, Learning Landscapes Design encompasses many of the same philosophies—room for imaginative, open-ended play; the use of loose parts to encourage self-regulation and problem-solving, and the incorporation of timber, water and sand to foster a tactile connection to nature. The firm’s softly toned, well-camouflaged playscapes are found at schools, parks, education centers, and museums across the country. Two projects, in particular, stand out as examples of how nature can be used as both a canvas and medium for play.

Clatskanie Elementary School, photo courtesy Learning Landscapes Design

One is the $300,000 update and expansion of a playground at Clatskanie Elementary School, completed in fall 2016. The revamped playscape features an imaginative play area and nature lab, a climbing and slide hill, swings, quiet spaces, chess, and a play swale. Prior to construction, Mathis says, the school was experiencing behavior and bullying problems, in part because the play area consisted of a single paved athletic court without room for non-competitive recess activities. Since the new playscape opened, however, school administrators have seen a dramatic decrease in bullying incidents. “The playground is helping students with problem solving, creativity, negotiating—those executive functioning and self-regulation skills are hard to learn from a book,” Mathis said.

Champoeg State Park, photo courtesy Learning Landscapes Design

A second project that has us salivating is a $175,000 nature play area at Champoeg State Park, where Oak Savannah and riparian zones converge on the south bank of the Willamette River, the historic site of Oregon’s first provisional government. Situated within the park’s campgrounds, the play area recreates the landscape of a bygone era, with natural materials that recall early Native American settlement and reflect existing wildlife habitat. There is a summer house of woven reed walls; a hand pump that discharges water to a grid of hollow logs; a creekbed that feeds into a sandpit, and a loose parts area with tools for grinding acorns. On display in both designs is the improvisational influence of the adventure playgrounds Mathis became enamored with in Germany.

She is a licensed landscape architect, founder of the Oregon Natural Play Initiative, Certified Playground Safety Inspector, and a steering committee member of the National Wildlife Federation’s National Guidelines for Play and Learning. But her Masters of Education degree from Portland State University is just as informative to her firm’s work. Two STEM-based learning projects are now underway, at Oregon Episcopal School and Holy Cross Catholic School. Each involve students directly in the design process. In initial project phases, the students devise research questions and host in-school workshops to gather input from peers. Later, they develop concept plans, measure and configure spaces, draft base maps, perform slope calculations for accessibility ramps, and produce 3D models. “It is real-life, project-based learning and it gives them a deep ownership of the space,” Mathis said.

In addition to interpreting the legally murky areas of ASTM and U.S. Consumer Protection Safety Commission play safety guidelines, which Mathis says are designed with more traditional post-and-beam playgrounds in mind, a key challenge in developing natural playscapes is making adequate plans to maintain them. “A log was a living thing and will start to degrade in a play area. We have to conduct regular audits to make sure they are performing well.” Plus, with a strong “leave no trace” ethic in progressive communities such as Portland, signage and wayfinding are important to indicate to parents that these areas, unlike managed woodlands and wetlands, are intended to tolerate human wear and tear. Finally, to ensure fall safety, natural playscapes need to be clear in how they distinguish climbing areas from spaces for creative, sensory activity.

Cleveland Zoo Nature Playscape, photo courtesy Learning Landscapes Design

But, to Mathis, the benefits of natural playscapes are well worth the investment of time and energy. At the nature playscape at the Cleveland Zoo, not far from the Ohio-native’s hometown, she says she watched contentedly as her nephew and a pair of complete strangers built a fort with loose wooden parts, playing together without interruption, for 45 minutes. It is this kind of unscripted, creative problem-solving experience she believes playground designers should aspire to create.

“Learning Landscapes Design strives to find a way to offer kids open ended play where they can test their boundaries and get lost in the work of childhood, ‘play’. But we also understand there are safety guidelines and we want to protect children from hazards. Some days balancing these elements feels like walking a tight rope, but in the end, seeing how they benefit from this type of play makes it all worth it,” Mathis said.