Creating Playgrounds Kids Love

By Vicki L. Stoecklin, M.Ed

© 2000 White Hutchinson Leisure & Learning Group

How to Select a Designer

Unlike traditional playgrounds, where one slab of asphalt is pretty much the same as the next, discovery play gardens take specialized knowledge to design. The designer must take into consideration the people and terrain, the plant and animal life, and the types of play that are to be located in the space.

Designers of discovery play gardens need a broad knowledge base and experience in several disciplines. These include: child growth and development; construction and materials; universal design (making areas accessible to those with different abilities); budget management; landscaping for children; play facilitation; safety; and early childhood education. A good designer will be able to really understand how children perceive and use the environment.

The people involved in designing traditional playgrounds may not be the best for designing discovery play gardens. General architects generally lack the specialized expertise needed, especially the knowledge of child development. Equipment manufacturers usually are not trained to design an outdoor play space, and it may be difficult for them to design a space that will use less of their traditional equipment.

Good design, however, is vital. It will make the environment comfortable and friendly to children and will encourage complex play. Good design will support the teacher's and children's needs so well that they will feel entirely at home, ready to teach and learn and, best of all, play.

If anyone knows about giving kids what they really want, it's Head Start. After all, Head Start has been a leader in the field of early childhood education in identifying what's appropriate for a child's age, and paying attention to the different needs, interests, and developmental levels of individual children. Head Start programs serve the whole child, including providing for rich outdoor play experiences.

When adults are outdoors, they admire a healthy lawn and a nicely tended vegetable garden and beds of beautiful flowers. When children are outdoors, they're crawling under bushes, digging in dirt, damming streams, and climbing anywhere their legs and sense of adventure will take them. This is why outdoor areas designed by adults often fail to delight their intended audience. When we give children what they want, as opposed to what adults think they want, those outdoor play areas look entirely different than the traditional playground. Children want areas filled with nature, from plants, trees, flowers, and water, to animals and insects. They want different things to do, and developmentally appropriate learning environments that hold their attention for hours.

Getting Beyond Traditional Design

Most of today's adults spent recess on playgrounds that were covered with asphalt and studded with play equipment like swings, jungle gyms and slides that built their gross motor skills. When it comes to designing playgrounds for today's children, well, that's what we automatically picture. So we pull out a catalogue, pick out a couple of pieces of playground equipment, and feel pretty good about it.

The good news is that most of that equipment is much safer and more accessible to all children than it used to be. The bad news is that it doesn't come close to giving children what they want and need.

Early childhood experts know that children learn best through free play and discovery. Children's free play typically is pleasurable, self-motivated, imaginative, non-goal directed, spontaneous, active, and free of rules imposed by adults. Quality play involves the whole child: gross motor, fine motor, senses, emotion, intellect, individual growth and social interaction. The traditional school or neighborhood playground can meet only a fraction of those needs.

Childhood of Imprisonment

The world once offered thousands of kinds of free play to children. They once had access to the world at large, whether it was the sidewalks, streets, alleys, vacant lots and parks of the inner city or the fields, forest, streams and yards of suburbia and the rural countryside. Children could play, explore and interact with the natural world with little or no restrictions or supervision.

Today, the lives of children are more structured and supervised, and their physical boundaries have shrunk. Concerns for safety, an increase in latchkey children, and an overabundance of scheduled classes and activities keep children from the joys of free play.

When children do have free time, it's often spent inside in front of the television or computers. For some children, that's because their neighborhood, apartment complex or house has no outdoor play spaces. With budgets for city and state governments slashed, public parks and outdoor playgrounds have deteriorated and been abandoned. Childhood and outdoor play are no longer synonymous.

Today, many children lead what one play expert calls a childhood of imprisonment. This makes playgrounds at schools and child care facilities especially important, as they are often the only outdoor activities that children experience.

Nurturing a love of nature

Psychologists have found that humans are genetically programmed by evolution with an affinity for the natural outdoors. They call this love of the outdoors biophilia. It makes sense, considering that for more than 99 percent of human history, people lived in hunter-gatherer bands totally involved in nature. Today's urban societies, in relative terms, have been around scarcely more than the blink of an eye.

Numerous studies of outdoor experiences have shown that natural outdoor environments have an impact on humans. They reduce stress and create a feeling of well-being. And small children consistently prefer the natural landscape over built environments.

But not all small children have the chance to explore the natural world, and they risk developing an aversion to nature. This impulse, called biophobia, can make them uncomfortable in natural places and likely to regard nature as nothing more than a disposable resource.

There is much evidence that concern for the environment is based on an affection for nature that only develops when children have unsupervised, unregulated contact with it. It is children's developmental tendency to empathize with the natural world. To nurture that tendency, children need free access to a natural area in which they can spend an extended amount of time.

What nature gives to children

The natural world is essential to the emotional health of children. Studies show that early experiences with the natural world are linked with the development of imagination and the sense of wonder, and wonder is an important motivator for life-long learning. And, just as children need positive adult contact and a sense of connection to the wider human community, they also need positive contact with nature and the chance for solitude and the sense of wonder that nature offers. Children, when they play in nature, are more likely to have positive feelings about each other and their surroundings.

What nature gives to children is different in quality from what they receive from indoor environments. The sensory experiences are different, and they have a freedom to run and shout and get messy - things that are frowned on indoors. Natural environments have three qualities that appeal to children when they play. They have unending diversity, they are not created by adults, and they have a feeling of timelessness in that landscapes, trees, and rivers described in fairy tales and myths still exist today.

Children experience nature differently than adults. Adults view nature as the backdrop to what they are doing. Children experience nature not as a background for events, but as a stimulator and experiential component of their activities.

It's all about sensory experiences; children judge nature by how they can interact with it rather than by how it looks. And all the manufactured equipment and all the indoor instructional materials produced by the best educators in the world can't substitute for how it feels to a child to build a trench in the sand or squish mud between her toes. And they cannot replace the sensory moment when a child's attention is captured by the sparkle of sunlight through leaves, the sight of butterflies or a colony of ants, or the infinite space in an iris flower.

Designing Outdoor Spaces Children Love

The goal of designing children's outdoor environments is to use the landscape and vegetation as the play setting and nature as much as possible as the play materials. The natural environment needs to read as a children's place, a world separate from adults that responds to a child's own sense of place and time.

We call places like this discovery play gardens to distinguish them from traditional playgrounds. While traditional playgrounds use manufactured and tightly designed play equipment, adventure play gardens - which may include some traditional play equipment - also has spaces that are informal and naturalistic.

Again, it's important to take our lead from children and to recognize how the adult point of view is different. Adults prefer manicured lawns and tidy, neat, uncluttered landscapes. Children, on the other hand, find beauty in wildness, so discovery play gardens should provide that, along with openness, diversity and opportunities for manipulation, exploration and experimentation. Children value unmanicured places and the adventure and mystery of hiding places and wild, spacious, uneven areas. They also appreciate animals, creatures in ponds, and other living things, as well as different levels and nooks and crannies, and places that provide shelter, shade, privacy and views.

A discovery play garden requires a lot of gear to make it work. This doesn't mean designed gear like swings or slides, but elements like sand, water, props and naturally found objects that allow children to control and manipulate the environment. The structures in play gardens, as much as possible, should be made of natural materials such as logs, stumps and boulders, and should use the landscape in natural ways with berms and mounds.

Good use of plants is also vital to a discovery play garden. Vegetation can create a special feel that separates one play area from another, like putting interactive water play in a bog or stream habitat. And incorporating local vegetation and settings help children appreciate their community's environment.

Outdoor play areas should flow from one area to the next, be as open-ended and simple as possible, encourage children to use their imaginations, have continuity and be perceived by the children as their own, rather than adult, spaces. It is also important to integrate the outdoors with the indoor classroom with one sense of place and identity, so the transition between the two will be almost seamless and so that the outdoor space becomes part of the classroom rather than a retreat from it.

A new way of designing outdoor play areas

Discovery play gardens don't cost any more to build than the old-style, pave-it-and-plop-it playgrounds. Where the money is spent is very different, however. Rather than spend most of the budget on conventional manufactured playground equipment, moneys are shifted to landscaping and creating play areas using natural materials. And, because they require specialized design skills, a higher percentage of the budget should be spent for professional design services than with an old-style playground.

New kinds of outdoor play, while they don't require more money, do require more involvement from the people who will play in and care for the discovery play garden. Having children, teachers, parents and maintenance staff participate in the design process is essential. Involving children will assure that they feel the garden is their special place. Involving teachers assures they'll feel ownership and use the discovery play garden as an outdoor classroom. Involving parents assures their support and shows them how the natural space and often messy play supports their child's development. Involving maintenance staff assures that they will provide the support and assistance needed.

Discovery play gardens offer children chances to manipulate the environment and explore, to feel wonder and to pretend, to interact with nature, animals and insects, and other children. They are environments that encourage children's rich and complex play and greatly expand the learning opportunities of old-style playgrounds. Children's discovery play gardens are places where children can reclaim the magic that is their birthright - the ability to learn in a natural environment through exploration, discovery, and the power of their own imaginations.

Vicki L. Stoecklin is the Education and Child Development Director with White Hutchinson Leisure & Learning Group, a Kansas City, MO firm, which specializes in design and consulting for children's environments including children's museums, children's leisure and entertainment sites, schools, child care facilities and outdoor environments which use nature. Vicki has a Master's degree and twenty-three years experience studying and working with children including children with disabilities. She can be reached at voice: +1.816.931-1040, fax 816-756-5058, Missouri relay (TTY) 800-735-2966 and e-mail.