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Using Nature to Nurture

Landscape Architecture by Stream Design

Led by Stream Design Landscape Architecture, nine months of design and installation work at the Waldorf School in Denver, Colorado, provided the school's kindergarten students with a new play area designed to inspire active play in an interactive, naturalistic environment.
Photo Credit: Bruce Kelley

Located in central Denver's Congress Park neighborhood just east of the Botanical Gardens, the Denver Waldorf School (DWS) decided its outdoor playground space no longer met the needs of the curriculum.

Stream Design Landscape Architecture was selected to bring DWS's educational concepts into a fully functioning natural outdoor kindergarden classroom and playground that reflected the native characteristics of Denver and Colorado.

Design team members were invited to observe and participate in classroom activities and discuss the project with teachers to fully understand the needs of the Denver Waldorf children and staff. Since kindergarten-aged children experience their worlds through movement, balance, and touch, the school's focus on "outdoor learning" was an important touchstone through the six-month design process. A variety of illustrative tools, including hand drawings, SketchUp/3D designs, and photo simulations led to the final design. DWS and Stream chose to avoid overtly themed play structures and bright decorations in favor of a dynamic playscape where children could discover the world without artificial distractions.

The school's design goal of all-natural materials in the play area was fulfilled almost entirely with wood decking, fencing and a custom play structure coated in a sustainable, low- or no-VOC (volatile organic compound) protective finish. The designers collaborated with the school's maintenance team to plan for the upkeep of the wood features, which require extra care in the dry Colorado climate.

Building for Imagination
Despite a limited budget, materials and construction methods were chosen to satisfy an initial goal of all-natural materials in the play area. The design team managed to fulfill the goal almost entirely using custom wood play elements, decking, and fencing with soy based low- or no-VOC (volatile organic compound) protective finishes.

The team collaborated with the school's maintenance and management teams to establish what was possible and necessary for the play area, and plan for proper upkeep of the structures, since wood features in the dry Colorado climate require additional care.

Incorporating naturalistic play surfaces like masonry walls also created more natural and playable environments. Even the grade control elements are boulders that are fun to climb on, and provide a different tactile experience, creating "rooms" that can serve a kindergarteners' imagination. The only plastics in the structures are in the slide chutes, the swing belts and tire, and the water pump - all necessary to fulfill safety or budget requirements. Stream also designed a wood/chain link hybrid fence that met zoning requirements and still matched the woody aesthetic.

Safety and budget constraints led to a few plastic features throughout the play area, including slide chutes, swing belts and the creek bed's water pump. Boulders were used as grade change and erosion control elements to maintain the nature play theme.
Photo Credit: Krista Douglass

Stormwater Surprise
Integrating an interactive water feature into the school's outdoor grounds was a treat for the designers. Since the Waldorf community embraces educational opportunities that integrate active play with the understanding of natural processes, a fully functional "dry creek" directs stormwater runoff through the playground into adjacent planting areas, giving the children a hands-on learning opportunity whenever it rains or snows. A specially designed (kid-friendly) pump allows water play to continue when natural flows aren't available.

Other special elements include a custom wood play structure with a slide and net-enclosed bridge, an embankment slide, and a gathering deck surrounded by gardens, which grow flowers, plants, and food for use in everyday classroom activities. About 160 plants were added to the area, including four different grasses, daylilies, dogwoods, honeysuckle vines, peppermint, purple coneflowers and dwarf globe blue spruce. The preservation of mature crabapple trees on site also enhanced the environment, providing shade during warmer months.

The school's emphasis on outdoor learning was incorporated with a "dry creek" feature that directs stormwater to nearby planting areas. Students learn about cause and effect and natural processes, and a "kid friendly" water pump fills the creek when stormwater is not available.
Photo Credits: Stream Design

Stream led a collaborative and creative team of designers and consultants to realize the play area, including Kerry White of Urban Play Studio and Kurt Simmerman of Sawhorse Studio. The final design balances guided and free play, illustrates cause and effect through natural processes, and provides a connection from indoors to outdoors using sustainable practices and technology.

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November 13, 2019, 8:19 pm PDT

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