Natural Elements that Include the Surrounding Area Set These Playscapes Apart
Play is a means by which we first form our understanding of the wider world. Most of our earliest interactions involve play and play-like behaviors. For example, peek-a-boo is an important milestone in cognitive development that demonstrates an emerging understanding of the concept of object permanence, and it is also a fun game to play with a young newborn. The more we play as young children, the faster we recognize and understand our immediate environment. The more we understand our immediate environment, the further we want to explore and learn about the emerging world before us. As we learn and grow, we become increasingly more likely to achieve our full potential as well-rounded adults. It all begins with play.
Playscapes and playground equipment that facilitate and enhance a child’s ability to interact with their natural environment encourages this positive progression. Children working together to explore what happens when sand is moved, water diverted, and equipment manipulated can also internalize important lessons on perseverance and sharing, while positively reinforcing the idea of experimentation as part of learning. What follows are a few examples of specific ways natural elements can be incorporated into a playground’s design to help encourage beneficial play activities.
Manipulating Objects, Sand, and Water
Designed for the city of Cambridge by Landscape Architect, Robert Steck, the Alexander Kemp Playground is an extensively hands-on playscape includes multiple types of playground equipment and objects the encourage exploratory play. Water, sand, and wooden blocks can be manipulated and moved in a variety of ways. Multiple turning wheels and similar mechanical objects encourage children to work together, or with their older parents and other caretakers. There is so much that can be moved about and manipulated that the play area can appear physically different from day-to-day, which speaks to its potential as an expansive playscape with activities only limited by the imagination. Cambridge itself describes the playscape as as a place that,
…(B)uilds on the idea that playgrounds are places where children grow and learn about themselves and the world around them.”
The approach has proven to be quite effective as the playscape is often described as the most popular playground in the area.
Incorporating Hills and Trees
When the NYC Parks Department first acquired the land to design and build Rain Park in Queens, it already had two large mounds located in the area, one at 10′ high and the other at 4′ high. Instead of leveling them both mounds were turned into creative slides that encourage children to climb their way to the top of the mounds before enjoying a swift trip back down. By incorporating the natural area, this playscape successfully encourages greater physical activity than can be normally expected from a typical slide.
Creating a fun way to “climb a tree” helps children of any age to gain a better perspective on the wider world. Incorporating existing trees into a natural playscape’s environment can increase a playground’s beauty and enhance the overall experience. A basic treehouse often serves as a natural homebase as children climb, slide and otherwise play around the trees. A variety of creative structures can be designed to make use of an area’s trees to help increase the feeling of being in as natural of an environment as possible.
Going into Nature Itself
Playscapes designed with the natural world in mind are a great way to introduce nature to young children. That early introduction often leads older kids and adults into exploring the real thing. A walk in the woods has been shown to reduce stress, lower blood pressure, and help refresh a tired mind. Whether it is a local park, a state park, or a national forest, all of us are close to the benefits that nature freely provides. The experiences enjoyed in the natural world can also be quite fun. The sliding rock of Pisgah National Forest just outside Asheville, NC is a great example of a natural waterslide that has been enjoyed by visitors and locals for decades. A millennia of rainstorms have carved the rocks smooth and shallow wading pool makes for safe splashdown at slide’s end. As we strive to include more natural elements into playscape designs, we always need to recognize that Mother Nature does more than inspire, she often creates the very best.