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Making Space For Nature

By Jennifer A. Salyer, ASLA, LEED AP BD+C, CPSI

The Toddler area's main play structure, by Safeplay Systems, has six decks with a maximum height of 32''; two slides; an Education Climbing Wall/Ramp; an Inclined Block Climber; a Tot Crawl Tube; six Play Panels, a Balcony; and a Bubble Window Panel.

Eglin Air Force Base, located near Fort Walton Beach, Fla., has nearly completed two new Child Development Center (CDC) facilities for 6-week to 5-year-old children. The project was a design/build effort that incorporated sustainable elements to pursue a LEED Silver Certification for both buildings. The facilities occupy 75,800 square feet on a site of approximately 10 acres.

Outdoor Play Areas

One critical objective of the design process was developing the outdoor play areas. The Air Force's new model for CDC facilities focused on encouraging children to learn about, interact with and experience nature through the playscape. Landscape architect Jennifer Salyer with Barge, Waggoner, Sumner & Cannon, Inc., drew from experience on previous playground projects and training as a Certified Playground Safety Inspector throughout the design process. Sayler was a key player in the development of the outdoor play areas and the integration of the planting design.

Above & Below
The main play structure in the Pre-School area features five decks with a maximum height of 48"; three slides; a Climbing Wall/Ramp; a Mini-Bridge; a below-deck Crawl Tube; raised Planter Beds; three Play Panels and two Barrier Panels.

The building layout created three distinct outdoor spaces, dividing the play areas into an infant/pre-toddler area, infant/toddler area and a preschool area, each enclosed by a six-foot, vinyl-coated chain link fence. To enhance the traditional composite play structures by Safeplay Systems, the play areas incorporated art, music, water, sand, drama/imagination, gross motor, sensory, garden and building activity areas. The natural environment was integrated into the design through natural building materials and landscaping that defined and shaped the play spaces.

Each of the three play areas had concrete walkways along the perimeter, and a main central walk providing access to the different activities. To create a sense of entry into the play areas, a cedar arbor was installed at each end of the central walkway. Surfacing materials on pathways in the Toddler and Preschool areas included ''tree cookies'' and engineered wood fiber to introduce different textures. Recycled materials were used in the composite equipment, stand-alone play panels, playhouses, raised planters, sand boxes and storage buildings. The overall color scheme of the play components was neutral (browns, tans, greens) to emphasize the natural playscape.

Plantings added color to the space through a variety of deciduous and evergreen species, flower colors, blooming seasons, plant forms and habits to provide diversity and interest. Non-toxic species with no berries or thorns were carefully selected, and native or drought-tolerant species also received preference to reduce irrigation needs and meet LEED sustainability objectives. The planting beds were watered via drip irrigation to further reduce water consumption. Each play area also incorporated a designated ''garden'' space accessed by a pathway through a vine tunnel. The outdoor space was connected to the classrooms with plantings or green space outside every classroom window.

Shade & Furniture

Given Florida's climate, creating shade was a necessary component. Large canvas shade structures provided cover for the composite equipment and sand areas, and were supplemented by arbors and canopy trees. Outdoor furnishings included trash receptacles, child sized tables, cedar benches and log stump stools, as well as outdoor cabinets to contain loose toys and building blocks.

Playground design must go beyond selecting and installing a play structure, and include elements like safety, aesthetics and sustainability. Play areas and structures should challenge children to develop physically, emotionally and mentally, and the vision of the landscape architect is vital in making space for nature – and children – to grow.

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November 22, 2019, 1:38 pm PDT

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