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Applying Green Build to Play Areas

by Thom Thompson, MS, Ed., Richard Ward, MBA and Arthur Mittelstaedt, Jr. EdD, LASN associate editor for playground safety

Berms, boulders, fallen logs and bridges bring added interest and texture to a tricycle path at the Seattle area Sammamish Children's School for children two to eight years old.

As mentioned in the Nov. playground column, "Playground Safety and Green Design" by Dr. Mittelstaedt and Richard Ward, the principles of green build should be applied to playground designs. Landscape architects and specifiers are in an ideal position to apply these concepts to children's play areas. This is because all of the considerations and use of natural features, stone, plants, streams and slopes, they employ for a landscape project can be used to create a complete and exciting natural play area.

The benefits to children are numerous. The benefits for the owners of the facility can be realized immediately from the construction stage of the project to the reduced need for maintenance when it is completed.

While the green build concept is appropriate for school settings, it is ideal for the play areas in multi-family housing projects and early childhood centers where there is an emphasis on outdoor learning experiences. Using some past design implementations one of the co-authors, Thom Thompson, illustrates how green build concepts can be incorporated, with or without the use of traditional playground equipment, into unique and developmentally sound play areas for a wide range of children.

Large boulders can serve as accents and markers for playground entrances. Boulders were added to the existing grove of trees as a creative-play supplement to the main play area.


In the initial phase when a play area is designated the design should include any existing natural features that can be used to enhance the play site.

The natural topography and existing plants and trees on the site can be used to the advantage of the creative landscape architect. If there is a small stand of trees on the site these can be saved from demolition to be included as a separate play unit or a natural boundary between two independent play units. Areas of naturally occurring tall grasses can be left for boundaries between separate play units and a large stump removed and placed as a perch for birds.

The save and use principle also went for stumps and logs on the site. A large stump is prominent in the middle of the designated tricycle path area, with large logs used as containment for the steep side of berms to create higher elevations.

Naturally existing slopes can be preserved for later use as an embankment for small slides, gardens or a shallow stream used for draining rainwater. Each site will present a number of opportunities for enhancing the reduction of impact on the environment due to building a play area for children.

Abundant vegetation should be a part of the initial concept. Plants children can engage, plants that separate play units, plants that make noise in the wind and change with the seasons are all integral to appropriately designed play sites. A good planting concept can greatly increase the theme of the play area and increase the feel and score for a green build project.

As dirt was excavated for the school building it was dumped nearby, creating a hill some 20-feet high with a base in excess of 80 feet for a long embankment slide.

There are numerous small details and features the creative landscape architect and specifier can incorporate into a design that will support the green build concept and enhance the feel and look of the play site. A dry bed of a seasonal stream on a slope can assist with erosion control and be incorporated into the landscaping with bridges over walking paths. The use of indigenous plants and wild tall grasses that rely on natural water can reduce the need for expensive sprinkler systems. Nearly any features that can be used in residential projects can be used in creative playground projects.

An initial concern was the significant cost for excavating and removing dirt and large rocks at the school. Additional onsite soil and rock were used to create a berm and boulder garden.


There are numerous financial benefits that can occur for owners from the green build approach especially, but not exclusively, if the concept is applied at the onset of the project. In a recent project the owners of a number of regional early childhood centers were building a new school. The Sammamish Children's School for children two to eight years old is located east of Seattle. Because this was a new, full-construction project an initial concern was the significant cost for removal of the excavated dirt, large rocks that were being unearthed and cleared and old fallen trees.

The answer lay in the design and development of the play area. As the dirt was excavated for the school building it was dumped several yards away to create a large "mountain" for a long embankment slide. The "mountain" was shaped as each load was dumped.

Eventually a hill some 20-feet high with a base in excess of 80 feet was built to hold double slides with a run of over 18 feet. Additional excavated dirt was dumped randomly in an area designed as a berm and boulder play area. Boulders that were exposed during excavation were kept in a pile on-site and later placed in the berm area and used as accents to designate the entrances to play areas. The same "save and use" principle was done with the stumps and logs on the site. A large stump was used as an accent in the middle of the designated tricycle path area and large logs were used as containment for the steep side of berms to create higher elevations.

In preparation of the area for a traditional play structure the dirt was pushed to the outer edge of the excavated surfacing pit and used as the containment system for the loose surfacing material thus avoiding the cost and waste of using wooden timbers for containment. The onsite use of material saved thousands of dollars and an unintended saving of hundreds of gallons of diesel fuel by not having to transport dirt 20 miles away was an added bonus. This practice of using the materials already being generated on the site can enhance the reuse and recycle principles of the green build concept.


Lower cost during construction was one of the savings the owners realized. Simple things like dirt and boulders and scrap logs and stumps were turned into creative, innovative play opportunities for the children. This was done at literally no separate cost for the play event. This saving then can increase the dollars available to expand and equip the remaining areas of the playground. It can mean using more expensive recycled rubber surfacing instead of wood chips. It can provide for the building stone retaining walls instead of those made from concrete blocks.

Another advantage was an increase in play value for the site. Play value is measured by the number and length of time children are engaged with the activity. Simply put, if an activity will play a number of children from varying age groups for an extended period of time and it will do it day in and day out then that activity has a high play value. Berm and boulder areas have high play value because a wide age range of children will use them day after day and create new activities and play each day. This is "open play," compared to a closed or "predetermined" play used in a prescribed manner. Children will learn, master and "use up" closed events. They will reinvent open play events into something different each day because it doesn't have a "right way" to play on it and it doesn't look like a specific thing. Further, older children will reinvent the same area for different purposes than younger children. This is why these areas can be so valuable. Different groups of children can use the same area for different purposes. This opens up a number of opportunities for the creative landscape architect.


While there is no specific data the green built concept can increase playground safety because they in general avoid the things that lead to the majority of injuries, that is, heights that provide direct falls to the surface. The 20-foot slide on the hill we mentioned could not be done with a free standing slide. There first of all is no surfacing material that can meet the criteria for fall protection from that height. There should be various heights on a playground but height under the green build concept is achieved by changes in elevation that don't have direct falls to the surface possibilities. A berm is constructed with slope on all sides so regardless of the height it does not have a "critical fall height."

There is little safety concern about the use of plants and trees on play sites as long as the issues of toxicity, a lack of thorns or sharp needles and supervision sightlines are addressed. Large boulders and rocks fall outside the realm of equipment detailed in the published guidelines, but the prudent landscape architect will not cluster them to create a fall hazard to an adjoining boulder. Logs and stumps should address the general hazards of sharp objects and climbable height and like boulders should not be placed so the user can fall on a log nearby.

Another safety factor for green built play sites is the open, multi-use nature of the natural elements. When children reinvent the use of boulders in a boulder garden it is an imaginative re-creation, not an inappropriate use. This holds true for low bridges that connect one berm to another, a streambed that drains excess rainwater or a simple series of low platforms around a tree trunk.

A word of caution. Anything placed on a play site that children will likely interacted with is considered and evaluated for safety purposes as a play device. Artistic sculptures are play equipment if they are located in a play setting. Prudent adherence to CPSC and ASTM general safety issues is the best guidance.

The creativity and use of site amenities that landscape architects and specifiers bring when they do private residential or corporate projects is deeply needed and applicable to green build playgrounds in a variety of facilities. These authors feel it is critically important that they are involved early on in a project so they can make the best use of the topography and existing natural features on the site. The owners can benefit greatly from this early-on expertise, even if it is just construction cost savings and a possible application for a better green build rating score.

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October 23, 2019, 10:04 pm PDT

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