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May 2015 • Online Edition

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Nature-Based Playgrounds: Steps In Authentic Direction | Print |  E-mail

by Jamie Siebrase

In 2006, writer Wendy Koch asserted: “[a] back-to-nature movement to reconnect children with the outdoors is burgeoning nationwide.”


Seven years later, as I watch my toddler’s peers opt for iPads over dirt in a town with limitless potential for outdoor engagement, I’m left wondering what actually happened to that movement. 

In Last Child in the Woods, expert Richard Louv makes a research-based case for nature play, arguing a lack of nature in today’s wired generation is to blame for troublesome trends like childhood obesity, attention disorders – even depression. Nature-based play doesn’t just combat disorders – it encourages a higher level of intellectual thinking too. 

Childhood play falls into one of three categories, according to Kerry White, principal of Urban Play Studio, 310 29th St., Boulder, 720-212-8392, urbanplaystudio.com. First, there’s the non-integrated experience of viewing nature: going to a zoo, reading books. Next, there’s structured play – children are outside being physical but, whether there’s a coach directing soccer or play equipment with known purposes, “there’s something that’s supposed to happen and the child can’t control her experience,” White says. The highest order of play happens in nature settings like wooded areas and open fields. “Children produce at a high-quality level of thinking because they’re making up games, manipulating materials, and controlling the experience.” 

White started working on her career as a landscape architect 20 years ago, at a time when “playgrounds were getting more strict and less creative.” Recently, though, she’s witnessed exciting developments as regulations are challenged and constituents demand more than “pea gravel and steel,” which, according to Troy Garner, community relations manager for facilities at Denver Public Schools, is what DPS playgrounds consisted of a decade back.

White’s gotten genuinely excited about recent playground developments, like the Lafayette Park space that opened in San Francisco this year. She might even put a few local spots on her list of natural perfection. DPS is one of the districts White has worked with, implementing unique playground concepts called learning landscapes. In 1999, DPS and the University of Colorado Denver, per the suggestion of professor Lois Brink began teaming with architects to create the premiere learning landscapes, funded through private donations, fundraisers and grants. The high cost of designing new playgrounds was bankrolled in part by a collaboration that let UCD masters students create plans for school credit. Seasoned architects like White then took those plans through to completion.

In 2003 voter-approved bond money was allocated to learning landscape construction. Under a subsequent 2008 bond, construction was completed. Today, every DPS elementary and ECE-8 school has its own learning landscape; each consists of traditional playground elements and custom-themed aspects.

Many features – like the Platte River- inspired native sandstone seating area at Palmer Elementary – are custom fabricated. Most spaces have outdoor boulder amphitheaters where you’ll find kids jumping, climbing and hopping. Community gardens too are common, though with Colorado’s tough climate they’re dependent on committed supporters like Denver Urban Gardens and great parents and teachers.

Offering less suggestive, nature-based play opportunities for students, learning landscapes also mean more neighborhood green space. “DPS has decided to open campuses to the community on nights and weekends,” White says, noting other schools and districts aren’t always so welcoming. The shade shelters, for example, could be used as outdoor classrooms, but that’s unlikely. Hence that amenity was designed specifically for neighbors as a social gathering place, under the assumption that if parents are comfortable, their kids will play outside longer.

Can learning landscapes offer authentic experiences? “It depends to what extreme you’re talking,” says White honestly. She calls some non-DPS institutions “strip mall elementary schools.” DPS has gone one enormous step further, and White says, “For purposes of getting kids outside, these projects are leading the nation. You won’t find true nature play, but it’s a great start.” In White’s opinion, the next step is “taking one small area within a [DPS] campus and doing a truly nature-based focus – maybe a sand area with a water pump.”

Speaking of water, White mentions the Mordecai Children’s Garden at Denver Botanic Gardens, 1007 York St., 720-865-3585, botanicgardens.org, as a distinguished example of nature-based play. “Take the waterway with logs,” she says. “That’s totally manufactured, but kids are in heaven damming things up!” The garden, which targets children birth through eight, is Rocky Mountain inspired and incorporates “a slight sense of risk” according to DBG gardener Julie Casault. Flawlessly integrated plants offer a sense of local ecosystem. “The goal,” says Casault, “was for it to feel as if you’ve stumbled upon a stream in the mountains.” The garden’s open through November.

White also lauds the kindergarten playground at Denver Waldorf School, 940 Fillmore St., 303-777-0531, denverwaldorf.org, which she recently helped restructure. “All the materials are very natural and the design is simple,” she says. Adds Administration Director Judy Lucas, “Nothing about the environment is prescriptive. Because each feature can be used in a variety of ways, the possibilities for play are endless.” Under a bridge there’s a mini swampland with bona fide plants where kids can experience nature creatively without passive lecturing. According to Lucas, “Everything that happens in a traditional classroom can also happen outside.” 

Hands-on manipulation of one’s landscape can happen anywhere, asserts Kate Armstrong, the urban forager who leads tours through Tentiko, tentiko.com, 972-836-8456. She worries when kids today don’t know how to “MacGyver something … the problem is, I’m not even sure parents today would let their kids go into an alley, find pliers and an old bicycle tube and make a go-kart with some plywood.” No matter your physical landscape, take a cue from Armstrong and encourage high-quality play by occasionally ditching structured activities.

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