Who we are, how we think

An article written by Camille C. Calderaro


Natural playground elements are re-creations of those favorite, magical outdoor environments we treasured as children. They are those places that engaged our senses. The enchanted forests, sandy beaches, rocky streambeds and desert gullies we explored. The endless fields where anthills and mole tunnels became biology experiments and footpaths led to secrets in the tall, grassy hills. We discovered special places to dream and gaze as clouds floated through turquoise skies. We became one in a dreamlike, magical world. We slowly, simply connected to the seasons and to ourselves. We had a relationship with the earth.

Anita Rui Olds discussed the importance of nature as both spiritual and physiological. She claimed the mythological superhero in most cultures journeys forth in search of fortune or salvation. In our collective unconscious, our superhero (heroine) is driven to conquer the known and unknown. Much of a child’s outdoor play is bold, driven adventure, jumping, leaping, climbing, and crawling in search of mystery and fascination. As humans we are also instinctively drawn to the mystical. We create work of art that transport us to our higher selves. Children are highly receptive to magical experiences. Their minds are open, free flowing, unrestrained by logical, rational thought.

“Physiologically, the natural world is a feast for the sensory motor apparatus of the human child.” Movement, action and motion are essential to a child’s development. Human senses operate in response to stimuli. Original natural playscapes offered opportunity for perpetual play of texture, action, motion and rhythm. Fragrances, pleasant sounds, rich and subtle color, and varied textures, all provide enchanting memories. The smell of Grandma’s house, the eucalyptus grove, the sunny, sandy, secret corner of the beach bungalow, the dark private space under the lifeguard rowboats. All are lasting sensory memories of special places in childhood.

Natural playground design includes environmental play yards, outdoor classrooms, work yards, creative loose parts play, and adventure playgrounds. Or as Buckminster Fuller termed them “research environments.” Mix these concepts with whimsy, mystery, novelty, sense of place and a few fairies and you have provided a rich environment for the wild spirit to flourish. An environment that allows freedom from the engineered, virtual, scheduled, achievement-oriented lives that is the culture of childhood today.

“By the end of 1995, one out of every three of the nations 20 millions children under five was in an institutional or commercial children care center. Before the age of five, a child may have spent 12,500 hours in a childcare facility. More than the amount of time most adults have spent in elementary school and high school combined.” (Child Care Design, Anita Rui Olds, 2001.)


Swedish research show that children who spent 50% of their day outside in all weather are less sick, exhibited advanced motor skills, and increased power of concentration. Outdoor play activities were more diverse especially in the effective, imaginative and social, emotional domain.

Recent research from Iowa State University, Department of Landscape Architecture, expanded knowledge about the social, emotional and spatial-cognitive development of pre-schoolers and kindergartners related to natural play. The two year study exposed children to aspects of being outdoors that supported their development. Design elements included ordering systems, spatial sequencing and shaping or identifying sense of place through composition such as “vegetated rooms.”

For example, where commercial play structures create social hierarchy based on physical prowess, vegetated rooms transformed the social structure of kindergartners. These vegetated rooms provided a controlled environment and place of significance that became prime areas for socialization and fantasy. These rooms were used more frequently and for longer duration.

Social hierarchy became based on a child’s command of language and creative imagining of what the space might be. Girls named the rooms, “The Princess Palace” and the more active children called it “The Eagle’s Nest.”

Additionally, stepping-stones offered a meandering, alternative path of movement to previously unused places in the play yard. The various path materials, texture, and color varied widely from existing surfaces. Prior to the new path, outdoor play was oriented towards the play equipment. These new pathways altered the children’s movement and sense of space.


Planning and design of a natural play yard can be approached as a master plan or as individual projects. Master planning is a tool for re-designing of existing sites to create a new site plan. Master planning allows for fundraising and phasing.

Each site offers unique character, opportunities, and constraints. Each design involves its own cast of characters from the children and staff to parents, master gardeners, and local artists. Installation can be a combination of professional and parent volunteers.

In today’s litigious climate, it probably is not wise for parents to design play yards in commercial, school, or institutional settings. The concepts of risk, challenge, and hazard must be weighed carefully. Entanglement, entrapment, pinch-shear-crush points, use zones, resilient surfacing, and more, all come into play. In America, even natural playgrounds in all public childcare facilities are held to ADA, Consumer Product Safety Commission, and ASTM safety standards.

The challenge is to create the rich, whimsical, magical outdoor play environments within the safety standard guidelines.


The usual landscape architectural site considerations overlap the child development needs. The following are a few of the essential considerations:

• In Minnesota, 75 square feet per child minimum

• Enhance topography and terrain

• Drainage and environmental hazards

• Micro-climates

• Circulation, pathways, fencing, enclosure

• Age-appropriate, infant, toddler, pre-school scale challenges

• Zones, passive, active, private, large group, small group, organized fantasy

• Large muscle options, swing, slide

• Create landmark, sense of place

• Enhance the site opportunities with natural elements such as: water, sand, grassy hills, dirt mounds, round boulders, gardens, trees, shrub niches, wild life inhabitants, bird houses and feeders


• Pile snow from plowing in an accessible play location.

• Kindergarten “vegetated room” size, 4’x4’x3’ vegetation

• Easily accessed outdoor storage for loose parts, props, and building supplies. Create a construction zone.

• Create outdoor art area, horizontal, vertical easels, tables.

• Play with scale, miniatures, troll and fairy houses.

• Install pathways with a mix of natural materials. Allow for grasses to grow in between. Use materials that age and weather.

• Create digging mounds, add “relics” for archeological treasures.

• Facilitate more use of water. Tubs, troughs, hoses.

• Children love sand and water play. Create natural sand area.

• Add garden and flower beds with whimsical, easy to care for plant materials.

• Places to sit, “to scale” benches, walls, logs.

• Create a fort or camping zone with tents and natural materials.

• Add chimes or outdoor musical instruments.

• Add an unusual (safe) object or piece of art. My favorite was a 20’ tennis shoe dropped in the middle of a typical neighborhood park.


• Plant materials should be chosen with toxicity, durability, seasonal interest and wild life habitat in mind. Native plant materials restore the environment and attract birds and insects. Be attentive to allergic responses and chemical maintenance issues. Any new pant material needs to be installed with damage control designed into its survival. Clever design detailing such as pathways, raised beds, plant massings or naturalistic planting beds can alleviate some plant damage.

• Children love hills of all shapes and sizes. It is a challenge keeping grass alive and erosion at bay, (though eroded hills are great digging). Experimenting with native grasses and creative pathway design can add to the success of hillside play.

• Daily, weekly, monthly and seasonal maintenance are essential to a successful play yard. Simple awareness of tree and shrub branches at eye-jabbing levels, probably needs to be delegated to specific staff.

• Outdoor supervision by staff takes on new meaning and may require training. For example, staff and parental support for sand and water play areas is essential to the success of an enchanting sand and rock streambed.

• Finally and obviously, the absolute best play yard is a messy, wild looking environment that engages children in their natural play world.

Every outdoor play environment is a world unto it’s own. When we have re-created the environment described by Christopher Robin (Milne 1928) to Pooh, in which he remarked, “What I like doing best is doing nothing.” Oh, to be a child again.


Greenman, Jim. 1988. Caring Spaces, Learning Places. Redmond, WA 98073

Herrington, Susan and Studman, Kenneth. From Yard to Garden, Interventions in the Landscape of Play Places. Feb. 2000.

Frost, Joe and Talbot, James. 1989. Magical Playscapes. Childhood Education.

Olds, Anita Rui. 2001. Child Care Design Guide.


Allen, Lady of Hurtwood. 1974. Planning for Play. Cambridge, MA, MIT Press.

Greenman, Jim. 2001. Places for Childhoods.

Goltsman, Susan. McIntyre, Sally, Moore, Robin. 1996, Supporting Child Development Through Outdoor Play Environments, Play It Safe, An Anthology of Playground Safety, Second Edition. Arlington, VA, NPSI.

Moore, Robin C. Goltzman, Susan, Iacofano, Daniel S. 1992, Play For All, Guidelines. Berkeley, CA, MIG Communications.

Moore, Robin C., Nilda G Cosco. Dept. of Landscape Architecture, North Carolina State University. www.naturallearning.com.