If you’ve spent any amount of time on RYGblog and you haven’t picked up on the fact that the primary reason I got into this ground redeeming business in the first place was because of my family – for my girls to have beautiful, creative, meaningful spaces to play, hang out, learn, and connect in at home…I apologize. Because that is why. And from there our hope is that whatever we do will help others be able to do the same.
Well…very early on in my RYG journey I met Holly Brooks. She was one of my landscape design instructors at Emory. Yes, as an experienced landscape designer and principal at King Landscaping here in Atlanta, she really is excellent at what she does. However, it’s what drives her at the core that really connected us…and that’s to create amazing spaces for families to live fuller lives in outside at home. Just like me. If we can do that…we consider it a great day’s work. (And by the way…she has 2 young daughters always reminding her of what a rich life at home looks like too.)
Earlier this year while Holly and I were meeting about a client at her home office, I was given a tour of her backyard by Holly’s two adorably precocious girls…accompanied by the darting family cat and faithful pooch. And when I say her backyard is amazing, it’s an understatement. Sure…not surprisingly it’s beautiful…she’s a landscape designer for cryin’ out loud. But what really struck me were all of the incredible natural play spaces…seesaws and bridges made from fallen trees, stumps to jump from, paths to run and ride around on, kids’ veggie gardens to snack from, a huge tree swing, a platform that serves as a ship some days, and a treehouse or home-base on others. It. Was. Awesome. A cornucopia of fun and learning.
So I asked Holly if she would write a post on why natural play spaces are important and what elements might be included in one. And this is what she came up with. Enjoy!
Parents’ understandable urge to keep their children safe often comes into conflict with the kids’ need to play, explore, and invent. A “natural” play space or playground may please both generations. A natural play space is designed to integrate natural components into a place to play and learn. The space may be made entirely of elements from nature or incorporate prefabricated playground equipment. The space takes advantage of physical components such as plants, trees, varying terrain, and water to encourage physical activity—climbing, balancing, building—with creativity and imagination.
A well designed natural play space may even enhance children’s physical strength more than a traditional playground. With prefabricated equipment such as slides or swings, children climb the same number of steps or grasp bars the same width apart each time they play. Consider instead a series of tree stumps fashioned like stepping stones in a variety of heights and widths scattered around a play area; children will engage more of their core muscles as they move from one to the other and can also exercise their creativity by choosing different patterns of activity. Over time, the strength they build up from leaps and bounds or from balancing on a rope ladder instead of a stationary ladder will help them recover more quickly from the inevitable falls, bumps, and bruises of play.
That playground staple, the swing, could also feature in a natural playscape, but preferably as a more versatile platform swing instead of a seat with a harness. Every play area needs a slide, but instead of positioning it on the most level place in the yard, take advantage of natural grades to situate it into a hillside.
When designing a natural play space, work with the landscape. If you have trees, help your children build a treehouse, preferably accessed by a rope ladder. Don’t cover up large roots in the surface, since they make great hiding places for small treasures. If a tree falls, don’t haul it off. Cut it into rounds to step on, or convert it into a balance beam, teeter-totter, or footbridge across a low-lying area or water feature. A pond is a great place for kids to observe animals and insects, and scooped out water mixed with garden soil or sand can lead to fanciful creations. Include features for children to sit on, in, or under, giving them privacy and shelter.
As much as possible, integrate the play elements with the “adult” portions of your yard or landscape instead of making them distinct. A family-centric landscape poses more opportunities for engagement and learning. If possible, create a “circuit” of play spaces around the perimeter and leave some open space in the center for games that require room to run or chase. In small yards, think vertical. Put a series of zip lines or small platforms or perches in the trees instead of a large treehouse.
Thanks so much Holly! I so appreciate your sharing how important natural play spaces are for kids’ physical and mental growth…and what one might look like.
It’s clear that Holly practices what she preaches…or more accurately, lives out what she designs. I hope that Holly and her post have inspired you to do the same with your outdoor spaces. I’m certain you’ll be glad you did…and that your kids will thank you…that is if you can ever get them off of that amazing “pirate ship”!
Take care all,
Resources for more information include the Children & Nature Network (www.childrenandnature.org) and books by Richard Louv, the organization’s chairman emeritus.