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First ''NatureGrounds'' Community-Built Playground in North Carolina

The playground at Chantilly Elementary was a partnership of Balfour Beatty, GameTime, the school and the PTA. A Powerscape Plus structure by GameTime features Rockscape climbers, several slides and ramped access, complemented by swings, a Rockscape climbing arch and an area dedicated to ''GT Jams'' (outdoor musical play line). Closer to the play area are smaller trees and plantings such as asters, gardenia, lamb's ear, sea oats and fountain grasses to add varieties of color.

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With the shift to so many indoor activities for children, it's more important than ever to make sure they are exposed to all the opportunities playing outdoors and being exposed to nature can offer. With this in mind, PlayCore teamed up with North Carolina State University to create the NatureGrounds program.

Together, their mission is to promote the importance of the natural environment in the daily experience of all children, through environmental design, action research, and education. See ''Putting Nature into Play in the Oct. 2009 LASN or at

NatureGrounds is a comprehensive program that features many resources, including an online database of child-friendly plants to include, a guidebook with best practice principles for combining the natural and built environment and CAD tools to design and envision the overall play space

Sycamores, corkscrew willows and river birch were planted on the outskirts of the play area.

Chantilly Montessori Elementary

Chantilly Montessori Elementary School in Charlotte, North Carolina installed the first NatureGrounds community built playground in North Carolina on November 4-6, 2009. The playground at Chantilly Elementary, made possible by a partnership with Balfour Beatty, GameTime, the school and the PTA, consists of a Powerscape Plus structure by GameTime, featuring Rockscape climbers, several slides and ramped access. There are also many freestanding events such as swings, a Rockscape climbing arch, and an area dedicated to GT Jams, GameTime's outdoor musical play line. With the included benches, there will always be room for an audience.

The local PTA donated the planting materials to make the NatureGrounds unit come to life. Sycamores, corkscrew willows and river birch were planted on the outskirts of the play area. Closer to the play area are smaller trees and plantings such as asters, gardenia, lamb's ear, sea oats and fountain grasses to add varieties of color. At the entrance to the play area is GameTime's Vine Trellis featuring clematis, a blooming evergreen, to add year round color.

Plant selection for the playground came from consulting the plant database and hardiness zones information on the website of NatureGrounds


For the past three years, Balfour Beatty, a top engineering, construction, services and investment business has donated a playground to an area school in need. Beth Hayes, the ADA coordinator at Chantilly Montessori in charge of play areas, contacted the firm. Because Montessori has a philosophy of learning that puts an emphasis on the natural environment--botany, biology, and science, the idea for natural grounds for the play area seemed a perfect fit.

''Here at our school we teach the children to discover nature,'' explains Chantilly Montessori Principal Leslie McCarley. We have classroom gardens and we often take tests and do schoolwork outside. I knew our playground had to incorporate these things.''

Neither Hayes nor McCarley wanted some static, big city play area in this tranquil setting. When Hayes showed McCarley the NatureGrounds Guidebook, McCarley immediately thought it was a wonderful idea.

Beth Hayes then contacted Scott Cunningham at Cunningham & Associates, who designed the play structure. Hayes, as the ADA coordinator, was excited about the accessible unit, which allows kids to get on the play equipment, not just to the equipment. Because the plantings are also made accessible by the walkways and safety surfacing, they can also interact with the natural elements of the play space.

Hayes was concerned that the slope leading to the play area would not be accessible for some children with disabilities. Bob Nelson of Balfour Beatty assured her he could make it happen. He had a pathway dug out to the area to level it and poured a concrete walkway to allow full access.

The PTA had been saving for years to be able to give the children a new playground. With the donation of the play equipment by Balfour Beatty, the PTA used their savings to purchase the plants for the area, getting ideas on what types to use by consulting the NatureGrounds website, which includes an online database of planting materials and their hardiness zones.

More Nature

But the school hasn't stopped there. It committed to increase the student's exposure to nature even more by hiring Robin Moore, PhD, to expand on the play area and create walkways with outdoor classrooms and bigger garden areas. Prof. Moore's PhD is in design; he also has a master's in architecture. He is a professor of landscape architecture and director, of the NC State University's Natural Learning Initiative

This initiative is about designing environments for children's play and learning, including playgrounds, parks, botanical gardens, residential neighborhoods, childcare centers and schools. Like NatureGrounds, Natural Learning feels it's important for children to daily experience nature and to design for inclusion.

''One thing I love about this school is (even thought) we are in an urban area, what could be considered an undesirable part of town, I don't feel like I am in a city environment,'' says Principal McCarley. With the school bordered by trees on all sides, it does offer a quiet respite.

Thankful and Excited

The children were as excited to get their new playground as the adults, and so thankful. Prior to the arrival of the volunteers, the children had painted flowerpots and canvas bags as thank you gifts. They made pins for the volunteers to wear and during lunch some sang songs they had written about the new playground and how they would play on the equipment; others displayed pictures they had drawn. You couldn't walk by them in the hall without hearing exclamations like, ''We have four swings now, before we only had two!'' or ''Wow! Did you see all that stuff on there?''

Hi-Tech's Great, but...

The more high tech we get, the more we realize the basic importance of outdoor recreation for kids (and adults): reducing stress, physical fitness and body movement, getting the blood pumping, improving self-esteem ... you could add a dozen more benefits. Outdoor activity gives kids an appreciation of nature and helps instill environmental awareness, an important element for today's kids to understand.

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October 23, 2019, 10:28 pm PDT

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