A while back, our office took a field trip (we love those!) to a viewing of the film Project Wild Thing. This documentary depicts the movement launched by filmmaker David Bond in response to the growing disconnect between children and nature. The movement employs advertising and humor to challenge the barriers modern western society has placed between nature and our children, with the goal of restoring a healthier relationship between the two. It's well worth the watch.
Like many parents of young children, Bond is nostalgic for an era in which outdoor play was a hallmark of childhood, and children had greater access to the awe, freedom, challenges, and seemingly limitless potential provided by nature. This same nostalgia fueled the nature playground trend in the early education/child care community.
In our conversations with educators and clients, we have found "nature playground" to be a broad term meaning different things to different people; hence it is an idea encompassing a broad range of design possibilities. To appropriately manage expectations to ensure we're all speaking the same language, we have found it helpful to bracket images of our ideal nature playground into the following sub-categories: wild nature, tamed nature and simulated nature.
Wild Nature Playgrounds
Authentically natural outdoor spaces for play which are fortunate enough to have the benefit of great siting (often attained through careful master planning), or those fortuitously enjoying proximity to undeveloped land, allow for children's enjoyment of nature in its raw form, devoid of apparent human intervention. Access to play in environments of this type is precisely what Project Wild Thing is promoting. Picture children able to observe minnows in a babbling brook or chasing lizards through the desert brush. The opportunities for observing and participating in a constantly changing world abound. Unfortunately, these tend to be found in communities which are more connected with nature in the first place.
Tamed Nature Playgrounds
Tamed nature playgrounds are those in which highlights or elements are designed and constructed from a palette of natural materials, some of which may be live plantings. These can allow for natural exploration within prescribed boundaries, and specific landscape interventions can be developed to dovetail with an early education curriculum. Features can include nature-inspired elements such as garden planters, willow tunnels and grass fields. Plantings can be selected to attract birds or butterflies. This can be a successful strategy for introducing nature to urban locations or those programs lacking in space.
Simulated Nature Playgrounds
Islands of purchased climbing structures designed to look like trees placed in an expanse of resilient ground material designed to look like grass exemplify the typical simulated nature playground. These playgrounds can effectively address children's developmental needs too; supporting large muscle development and coordination, social development through pretend play, and opportunities for sensory learning. They can also offer good supervision, can be aesthetically appealing and are generally safe and easy to maintain. However, features in this category of playground tend to be less open-ended than are play opportunities in the other two categories of nature playgrounds. Simulated nature playgrounds don't change with the seasons and generally miss the chance to reinforce a sense that humans are connected to natural processes.
We have collaborated on a number of nature playgrounds and find that the benefits natural play environments can provide must be evaluated in the context of the unique parameters of each educational program. Considerations include age of the user groups and appropriate level of challenge; how outdoor play can support pedagogical goals; climate; initial and life cycle costs; adult to child ratio for supervision, etc. Typically the final product has elements of all of the sub-categories, but the categorization is a useful tool we employ to help define the specific goals and aspirations or each client group. Examples of successful nature playgrounds we've been involved with include "The Ranch" for Teton County, Williams College Children's Center, Oxford Street Day Care and ABCD playground in Dorchester, Massachusetts .