Published in September/October 1997 issue of Tourist Attractions & Parks magazine

Sometimes, You Just Gotta Make Mud Pies Children's Adventure Play Gardens

by Randy White

Jack is a 5-year-old in one really crappy mood. It's a sunny afternoon, but there was this thunderstorm yesterday and the ground's all squishy, just perfect for mixing up a monster batch of mud pies. But what's Jack doing? He's glued to the window while his mother cleans house. Oh, sure, she calls him her Little Man, but will she let him play outside, even just in the front yard? Not even. Says the Bogeyman might get him. "Bet the Bogeyman would let me make mud pies," Jack thinks. He slumps on the sofa. "Mud...mud...mud...mud...mud" runs through his head like a mantra.

Poor Jack. And the sad thing is, what looks to us adults like just getting messy is, for kids, an absolutely vital part of their development. For kids up to around age eight, play and learning are inseparable, as children learn by exploring the world and using their imaginations.

Unfortunately, today's children live in a world much more restricted than that of their parents. Adults have tried to make up for the loss of freedom by substituting structured, supervised activities, like sports and lessons. But there's something missing, and it's by filling in the missing piece that play for children comes full circle, back to a kid, a vivid imagination, and a natural world made for exploring.

The heart of child's play is freedom

Children's free play eludes precise definition, but it typically is pleasurable, self-motivated, imaginative, non-goal directed, spontaneous, active, free of imposed tasks or adult-imposed rules, and requires active participation. It's not play if it's controlled by an outside force, be it adult or machine.

Children learn through the experiences they have when they play, without being taught and while having fun. They are motivated to explore and discover their surroundings. Children express and represent their ideas, thoughts and feelings when they pretend. At the same time, they learn to deal with feelings, interact with others, resolve conflicts, and gain a sense of competence. Perhaps most important, it is through play that children develop their imaginations and creativity.

Play is not like Brussels sprouts

Nature had the good sense to make play good and good for you. By making play fun, nature made children's play-based experiential learning distinct from more structured, education-based book learning of later childhood and adulthood. This also guaranteed that children would do it without whining.

A young child's mind is a virtual reality machine that needs nothing more than the canvas - the objects and playmates - to link imagination to the real world. This is the age of imaginary friends, caves made of chairs and sheets and civilizations of cardboard and sand. The process of the fantasy is an end in itself, and must be scripted by the child from his or her imagination.

Play takes a lot of gear. Loose parts, like sand and water, blocks, and found objects, are the essential tools. Loose parts have infinite possibilities, and their total lack of structure and script allow children to make of them what their imaginations require. Through their handling and manipulation of loose parts, children learn the rules and principles of the real world.

But stuff is not enough. Children also want to have what Suransky calls "history-making power." They want play environments where they have the power to imprint themselves upon the landscape, endow the landscape with significance and experience their own activities as capable of transforming the environment.

Today's children live in a shrinking, structured world

The world once offered its delights to children. Children used to have access to the world at large, whether it was the sidewalks, streets, alleys, and parks of the city or the fields, forest, streams and yards of suburbia and the rural countryside.

The physical boundaries for children today have shrunk. Parents are afraid for their children's safety. Two-income families have led to latchkey children who must stay indoors or go to supervised after-school activities. Outdoor play spaces are being abandoned due to lack of funding or supervision. And parents have made their children's lives more structured and scheduled, in the mistaken belief that this sport or that lesson will make their children more successful adults. Childhood and play are no longer synonymous. Many children live what has been called a childhood of imprisonment.

Play gardens put the play back in children's lives

So Jack has a genetically programmed urged to explore his world, but the farthest he can get from the house is maybe two steps off the porch unless Mom's with him or he's at one dorky lesson or another. So here he sits, slumped in front of the TV again, totally bummed.

A new type of outdoor play environment, which our company calls children's adventure play gardens, can help bring play and exploration back into children's lives. Play gardens are sometimes marketed to adults as discovery or edutainment, which communicates that children learn by visiting them. But kids know the truth, that children's adventure play gardens returns to them their birthright of free, fun play.

Adventure play gardens let kids pretend and explore nature on their own

Our company first became interested in incorporating outdoor play in children's facilities in 1993, when we conducted extensive focus groups with children and parents for a for-profit children's center we were producing. Children showed a strong preference to play outdoors in natural landscapes, and parents generally supported this kind of play. We then conducted an exhaustive review of research in several fields, which underscored our findings and identified many types of children's play habitats that can't be achieved in a built indoor environment.

One of the first outdoor children's play environments in the U.S., based largely on play in a natural setting, was the conversion in the 1970s of an asphalt school playground to a natural play environment in Berkeley, California. This well-researched and well-documented project is called the Environmental Yard. In the early 1990s, interest in children's gardens grew in the botanical garden and other not-for-profit sectors. In 1994, the American Horticultural Society held a symposium and created demonstration children's gardens at its River Farm facility in Alexandria, Virginia. Children's play gardens have been created in East Lansing, Michigan, by the 4-H; at the Denver Botanical Garden; at the Davis campus of the University of California; at the Brooklyn Botanical Garden and are being developed at many other botanical gardens, institutions and children's facilities.

In botanical garden and museum settings, the gardens often included structured learning components and are called children's discovery gardens. Adventure play gardens also enable children to learn about the natural world, but are less formal and more play-focused by design. In many respects, adventure play gardens capture much of the wildness, creative and free play found in European adventure playgrounds.

Wanna feel better? Hug a shrub.

Two new disciplines, ecopsychology and evolutionary psychology, suggest that humans are genetically programmed by evolution with an affinity for vegetation and nature. Research shows that being in an outdoor, natural environment produces positive physiological and psychological responses in humans, including reduced stress and a general feeling of well-being.

It is also a clear-cut finding that people, and especially children who have not yet adapted to the man-made world, consistently prefer the natural landscape to built environments, especially when the latter lacks vegetation or water features like ponds or fountains. Children's instinctive feelings of continuity with nature are seen in their attraction to fairy tales set in nature and populated with animal characters.

Research shows, too, that children who have behavioral or learning difficulties often perform much better in an outdoor nature setting. Children are more likely to have positive feelings about each other and their surroundings when they play in nature.

Where the wild things are

The idea of children's adventure play gardens is to use the landscape and vegetation as the play setting and nature as the play element. The garden environment reads as a children's place, rather than someplace designed for adults. Children see it as a world separate from that of adults, and one that responds to their own sense of place and time.

Outdoor environments with natural things have three qualities that appeal to children: their unending diversity; the fact that they are not created by people; and their feeling of timelessness - the landscapes, trees, rivers described in fairy tales and myths still exist today.

There is a sense of wildness about a children's adventure play garden that runs counter to the design paradigm for children's outdoor playgrounds. Conventional play design focuses on manufactured and tightly designed play equipment. In an adventure play garden, however, the spaces must be informal and naturalistic if they are to stimulate free play, as children's idea of beauty is wild rather than ordered. (This is in contrast to gardens designed for adults, who prefer manicured lawns and tidy, neat, uncluttered landscapes.) An adventure play garden that plans for wildness and provides openness, diversity, manipulation, explorability, and anonymity, will allow children to become totally immersed in play.

And children want to play in unmanicured places. They want the adventure and mystery or hiding places and wild, spacious, uneven areas broken by clusters of trees and shrubs. Other things children like in the outdoors include: water; vegetation, including trees, flowers and long grasses; animals, including fish, frogs and other living things; sand; natural color; places and different features to sit in, on, under, and lean against, and provide shelter and shade; different levels and nooks and crannies, places that offer privacy; structures, equipment and materials that can be changed, actually or in their imaginations.

The adventure play gardens our company is designing for our clients' family entertainment centers, children's centers, and outdoor school playspaces use nature as the basis for much of the learning-based play. These gardens range in size from 500 square feet to more than three-quarters of an acre and are designed to include the things that children want in their play and outdoor environments.

Our gardens include a kid's wish list for play. Some elements we include are: secret hiding places; dinosaur digs; pirate shipwrecks; mud play; water play in streams, and waterfalls, ponds and bogs; infant/toddler gardens, including peek-a-boo areas; construction, including fort building; treehouses; butterfly gardens; pretend play villages; animal and critter farms; sand play; climbing equipment; musical and acoustic experiences; and interactive cooking.

Plants are vital to adventure play gardens. In fact, the identity of many of the activity areas is created through ecological theming with vegetation. A dinosaur dig, for example, would be surrounded by plants that look prehistoric. And indigenous plants help children experience and development an appreciation of their local environment.

Sensitive design ties it all together

Like the play activities, adventure play gardens offer opportunities for design that gives children what they want. And, as always when designing places also occupied by parents or caretakers, the needs and concerns of adults must also be reflected in the design. Here are some important considerations to keep in mind:

Accessibility. Universal design means play areas and events are accessible to children and staff with special needs without accessibility features being obvious.

Adjacency and zoning. Activities that are compatible with each other (messy vs. neat, noisy vs. quiet) are clustered into zones that will draw children, help them make choices, and hold their attention.

Ages and stages of play. To be developmentally appropriate, separate play areas often are needed for different ages of children, or within areas or events, design allows for more challenges for older children.

Ambiguity. Except for the youngest of children, the play events and objects should be as open-ended and simple as possible.

Child-centered design. Children are used to being dwarfed by the adult environment, where they feel intimidated and incompetent. Children prefer child-scaled environments that provide a sense of enclosure and intimacy. Small-scale environments draw children into complex play sooner and they play longer and with greater attention spans.

Duality of design. Caretakers and parents have particular needs that are often most obvious when it comes to monitoring and facilitating play. The needs of children and parents often conflict, and require creative design solutions.

Flow and coherence. Play spaces should flow from one area to the next and have a sense of continuity and connection to encourage what is known as continuous play loops.

Acoustics. Noisy, reverberant environments cause stress in adults and even more stress in children.

Integrating indoors and outdoors. Both the indoor and outdoor areas should be integrated with one sense of place and identity, creating a seamless transition between the two.

Diversity. Children require many play options that appeal to their physical, cognitive, emotional and social needs, and a diverse natural environment that appeals to their senses.

Mystery. The landscape and play events should not be obvious at first glance.

Visibility. Parents and caretakers need to be able to see the children at all times without having to interfere with the child's play.

Way finding. Children, including those who can't read yet, need a way to find exits and entrances and the boundaries of each play event.

Developmentally Appropriate Practice. Current standards should be strictly adhered to, both for physical design and facilitation of play.

Safety. The play environment should offer children challenges and safe risks. Play environments that are too safe are boring, and children will often find their own, sometimes hazardous, ways to take risks and be challenged.

Solitude. Children need semi-private nests and places out of the play action where they rest, contemplate, and observe.

Making a difference in the lives of children

Adventure play gardens are places where children can reclaim the magic that is the hallmark of child's play - the ability to learn in a natural environment through exploration, discovery and the power of their own imaginations.