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Into the Half-Acre Wood
Designing a Nature-Inspired Play and Education Space that Makes the Grade

by Kent Callison and Justin Killingsworth, MLA


The playground for Brainerd Baptist School in Chattanooga, Tennessee is a rectangular space clearly delineated into three accessible play areas by the concrete sidewalks, natural plantings and synthetic turf surfacing. The 2 to 5 year old dedicated play area (the two upper right sections) features 4 swings for young children and an age appropriate play structure. The 5 to 12 year old play area (upper left) is enclosed inside a gated fence and nestled within a grove of trees. The playground has ramped access to two taller play structures, with recycled plastic lumber slats on the barriers, climbers and roofs to blend in with the environment. The larger swing area (10 swings) is also designated for the 5 to 12 year olds. A 40-yard artificial turf sports field on the lower level is for soccer, free play and a place to enjoy snacks.

The benefits of play and recreation in nature are well documented. Schools like Brainerd Baptist School in Chattanooga, Tennessee are looking for ways to leverage the natural landscape to enrich the lives of students through play, recreation and outdoor learning. With the help of a landscape architect, a committed group of parents and educators created a sustainable playscape that inspires young imaginations.

Chattanooga, Tennessee (pop. 171,279) is known for its scenic beauty and abundance of outdoor recreation. The mountains, rivers, streams and miles of hiking trails have twice earned the city the title of 'Best Town in America' by Outside Magazine, and the unofficial nickname 'Boulder of the East.'


The 2-5 year old play area has the same recycled plastic lumber as the 5 to 12 play area. The physical activity includes climbers and slides, plus social interaction with musical instruments and talk tubes.

However, with the growing exposure, Chattanooga has experienced a population and development surge. That places a premium on natural recreation areas. Organizations and community leaders are continually looking for ways to preserve natural elements of the landscape while providing play and recreation areas that are developmentally appropriate and compliant with national standards.

A Place Where Play and Learning Take Root
One such organization is Brainerd Baptist School (BBS). Founded in 1953, the private K-5 school lies a few miles east of the city, and its campus is adjacent to a half acre of old-growth woods. Beneath those towering trees, the school had constructed a small playground 20 years ago, but it no longer served the needs of the students. A playground committee was formed; it determined a new play and recreation area was a necessity to provide the best possible experience for the students.


To complement the natural setting and the theme of the play area, a leaf-shaped bench constructed of aluminum and laser-cut steel was installed to provide a space for students to rest and/or socialize. It is also a favorite spot for teachers to sit while observing the students or leading an outdoor learning exercise.

It was essential that the new playground provide developmentally-appropriate play activities for children of all ages and abilities. It had to offer a space for outdoor learning, and attract new families to the school. The Chattanooga community is focused on environmental sustainability, so it was also important to minimize the impact on the natural landscape and to use recycled and recyclable materials in the design.

Landscape architect Justin Killingsworth worked with the school's playground committee on the project. Together, they designed the space and selected the playground equipment that met the needs of the students.

"When I first met with the school, the committee had a big vision, but the existing space was uninspired," recalls Killingsworth. "There was a small, aging play structure and a few ill-defined open areas, but when I saw those towering trees I realized the space had a lot of potential. We could make a place where a child's imagination could really soar."


The Nature Discovery Table features molded-in leaves and critters that provide a tactile play experience. They are also great for producing etchings. As an under-deck feature the table maximizes space and creates a shaded area for students to work on school assignments, enjoy a picnic, and/or socialize with friends. The table is designed with an opening at one end for children using a mobility device.

Inspiring Imaginations and a Love of Nature
The first project objective was to remove the old playground equipment and prepare the site with minimal environmental impact. The school and the landscape architect were committed to preserving the trees. The massive tree canopy throughout the space provided natural shade and an aesthetic. For Killingsworth, the decision to work within the existing landscape was borne out of a love for nature and the writings of two authors: Richard Louv and A.A. Milne.

"There are two books that really speak to me when it comes to natural play spaces," explains Killingsworth. "The first is Last Child in the Woods by Richard Louv. It's the essential work on the benefits of nature-based play, and the adverse effects of nature deficiency. The other is a favorite from my childhood, The Adventures of Winnie the Pooh by Milne. It's difficult to imagine Christopher Robin embarking on such amazing adventures had he been in a shopping mall instead of the Hundred Acre Wood."


GFRC tree stumps (GameTime) were hand-sculpted and painted for the 5 to 12 year old play area. The nature-themed tree stumps are a balance challenge.

Creating a Multi-Use Space with a Single Purpose
Once the old equipment had been removed, Yerbey Concrete prepared the site for construction, installed subturf drainage and created all of the walking paths, curbs and steps throughout the space without removing any of the old-growth trees.

The design of the space fell into three categories:
- separate, accessible play spaces with nature-themed climbers, slides, swings and freestanding play;
- a sports field for unstructured free play and organized sports activities;
- and a social gathering space that could be used as an outdoor classroom.

Paramount to the design was creating a space that invites children to enjoy the outdoors during play and learning. The playground equipment was installed in two areas. There is one section for children ages 2 to 5, and another for children ages 5 to 12. Both sections include age-appropriate play structures, swings and freestanding play activities manufactured by GameTime in Fort Payne, Alabama. To maintain the natural look of the space, and to fulfill the goal of creating an environmentally sustainable play area, Killingsworth and BBS selected recycled plastic lumber barriers and roofs to give the playground equipment a "cabin in the woods" look, and chose materials that were 100% recyclable. The team opted for a natural color palette that blended with the surroundings, and selected freestanding play sculptures from GameTime, like tree stumps and log climbers.

"The school wanted a playground surface that attenuated falls, was accessible for persons with disabilities, and offered a low maintenance solution," said Killingsworth. "As the seasons change, there are lots of leaves and needles that fall down from the trees. Synthetic turf makes maintenance very easy for the school staff." The synthetic turf playground surfacing was installed by AstroTurf of Dalton, Georgia.

Adjacent to the play areas is a 90'x45' sports field that features a synthetic turf surface for unstructured play and sports activities like soccer or football. Stadium seating was added for students and teachers to rest, socialize or conduct outdoor learning sessions. These areas also take advantage of the natural shade from the tree canopy that was preserved during construction.

As seen in LASN magazine, June 2016.

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September 18, 2019, 5:52 pm PDT

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