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Natural Play Environments:
Prescription for the Future

By Leslie McGuire, managing editor




Creating educational play environments is becoming a lost art. In parks across the country landscape architects and enviromental agencies are working to invite wildlife into playgrounds and play areas. Nesting boxes are a good habitat amendment for cavity nesting birds. Bat boxes and squirrel boxes can also be built. A Bluebird Trail can be created by placing several nesting boxes at least 100 yards apart, preferably along a forest edge or in a meadow.
Photo courtesy of Washington Dept. of Fish and Wildlife
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Fewer and fewer children play outside. Attendance at the great parks is down by 27 percent and people think it is because of video games. Or perhaps parents are afraid of lions and tigers and bears. Whatever the reason, perhaps the role of playgrounds should change to encompass the shrinking access children have to the great outdoors. Of course, put in the usual play structures, but set aside areas in your design plans for other things such as tall grassy areas, logs, water gardens, snags, brush piles, nesting boxes, feeders, native plant landscaping, and all different kinds of gardens.

According to Karen Garland, education director of the Georgia Conservancy, the benefits of playing in nature are maximized by children having regular access to natural elements. Although special trips to natural environments such as woodlands provide valuable play experiences, children also need access to play in and with nature everyday.






The Morton Arboretum Children's Garden in Chicago, Illinois is another example of nature being the playground. Designed by Herd Schaal of EDAW, Fort Collins, safety was a big concern. One of their challenges was to find a way to make a pond (seen at the right) that would be safe as well as accessible without destroying plant life. The pond is filled with three feet of gravel, which gives the plants the three feet of water they need. However, the children are only in two inches of water, therefore safe.
Photo courtesy of the Morton Arboretum, Chicago and EDAW, Fort Collins


Professor Howard Gardner of Harvard recently made an important addition to the seven "Intelligences" he had already described in his groundbreaking Multiple Intelligence Theory written in Frames of Mind in 1983. The original seven were verbal/linguistic; mathematical/logical; spatial; kinesthetic; musical; interpersonal; and intrapersonal intelligence. The eighth, Naturalistic Intelligence, deals with sensing patterns and making connections to elements in nature. Primary examples of people having naturalistic intelligence are John Muir, Rachel Carson and Charles Darwin. Cultural groups valuing this form of intelligence are many Native American tribes and aboriginal peoples.






Planning a native plant landscape gives people a sense of place in the local environment and is key to a natural play environment. In addition to providing learning opportunities for children and adults, it attracts native wildlife and helps add to the biodiversity of schoolyards.
Photo courtesy of The Georgia Conservancy


What is Naturalistic Intelligence?

"Naturalistic intelligence involves the capacity to make consequential distinctions in nature--between one plant and another, among animals, clouds, mountains, and the like. Scientist Charles Darwin had naturalist intelligence in abundance. Most of us no longer use our naturalist intelligence to survive in the jungle or the forest. But it is likely that our entire consumer culture is based on our naturalist capacity to differentiate one car make from another, one sneaker from another, and the like." (From "Multiple Lenses on The Mind", Howard Gardner. Copyright (C) Howard Gardner, 2005 Paper presented at the ExpoGestion Conference, Bogota Colombia, May 25, 2005)

According to educator Leslie Owen Wilson, naturalistic intelligence deals with sensing patterns in and making connections to elements in nature. Using this same intelligence, people possessing enhanced levels of this intelligence may also be very interested in other species, or in the environment and the earth. Children possessing this type of intelligence may have a strong affinity to the outside world or to animals, and this interest often begins at an early age. They may show unusual interest in subjects like biology, zoology, botany, geology, meteorology, paleontology, or astronomy.



I want my children to understand the world, but not just because the world is fascinating and the human mind is curious. I want them to understand it so that they will be positioned to make it a better place.-Professor Howard Gardner, Harvard University



People possessing nature smarts are keenly aware of their surroundings and changes in their environment, even if these changes are at minute or subtle levels. Often this is due to their highly developed levels of sensory perception. Their heightened senses may help them notice similarities, differences and changes in their surroundings more rapidly than others. People with naturalistic intelligence may be able to categorize or catalogue things easily too. Frequently, they may notice things others overlook. As children, these people often like to collect, classify, or read about things from nature -- rocks, fossils, butterflies, feathers, shells, and the like.






Developing habitats for wildlife is tricky. While not a normal developers first choice, putting in a rotting log will attract salamanders. They are lungless and nearly all of their respiration takes place through cutaneous gas exchange. This means that they breathe through their skin.
Photo courtesy of Mountain State Biosurveys, LLC


Everything Has Rights

Play is a right of all children as stated in Article 31 in the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child. Play is essential for children to develop intellectually, physically, and emotionally. Nature and wildlife also have rights and for those rights to be met in the future, the future stewards of nature and the land must have experience with it, an understanding of it, and most important, a love for it.

Remember what Sir James Frazer said in The Golden Bough: "The second principle of magic is things which have once been in contact with each other continue to act on each other at a distance after the physical contact has been severed." The young people who have been exposed to nature daily will grow up with the magic of nature still acting on them.






Instead of trying to create a crispy, neat appearance, leaving dead and dying trees in place can be a good thing. There are natural benefits and educational opportunities as well. After the tree falls, it provides shelter for amphibians, reptiles, birds, mammals and insects. The tree's decaying debris also returns nutrients to the soil.


Don't Worry

In the U.S., liability is a major concern, in spite of the fact that the accident rate is lower at adventure playgrounds than it is at conventional playgrounds. Lawsuits are much more of a common practice in the U.S. than in other countries. The good news is that adventure playgrounds can be covered under the same insurance as any other part of a city parks or recreation program.






On a warm sunny afternoon, a flower garden is often mobbed with butterflies in search of nectar and a place to lay their eggs. Monarch, zebra longwing, Gulf fritillary and several species of swallowtail butterflies are frequent visitors to the showy flowers of scarlet milkweed (Asclepias curassavica), tropical sage (Salvia coccinea), butterfly bush (Buddlejia spp.) and black-eyed Susan (Rudbeckia spp.). Many other nectar plants also attract them. Scarlet milkweed and swamp milkweed (Asclepias perennis) also serve as larval food plants.
Photo courtesy of USF Botanical Garden


Design Considerations

The Georgia Conservancy already has a set of directives for things that can be included in a playground. They don't take up that much room, and bring a wealth of possibilities to the school. According to Karen Garland, education director of the Georgia Conservancy, for every 1/4 acre it is important to have one dead tree, a bog garden, brush piles for rabbits, vines for cardinal flowers, picnic tables for study areas, back packs or storage boxes with field glasses, magnifying glasses and study guides telling children what to look for.

These types of playgrounds pull in all different disciplines: creative writing and poetry, art lessons, geology (rock gardens), math (the Fibonacci numbers in pine cones) social studies (how local Native Americans used nature to provide food and shelter for themselves), outdoor learning centers with signage about tree types, leaf identification, or things to look for in all seasons. All of these things are not just good for scouts who need to get badges in after school programs, they are good for teachers because they can provide multiple lessons at their fingertips.

Once established, natural areas with native plants require much less maintenance. Just create eco turfs and let the children go back to a meadow area. Mow a path through the meadow for easier access.






ABOVE & BELOW: Owls have lost many nesting sites due to development. A natural playground environment is a perfect housing solution for the embattled birds. Just place an Owl box about 10 feet off the ground at the edge of a thick, tussocky meadow where field mice are likely to nest and feed. Make sure there is open space around the entrance so young owls can negotiate their return after practice flights.
Photo courtesy of Hawk and Owl Conservancy







Things to Include

Well-designed natural school grounds are hardy, easy-to-maintain natural landscapes that are aesthetically appealing, safe, and designed based on educational theory. It isn't necessary to eliminate the turf, just make sure that around the edges of the playground there are trees, grasslands and natural areas for wildlife. For example:

Hiding Places

  • Logs - Rotting logs are a habitat for many insects, salamanders and small mammals. Logs can be used to learn about the process of decay and the life associated with it. Logs can be placed in any of the habitat types or anywhere else on the playground. Partially submerged logs in wetlands or ponds provide a place for turtles and frogs to sun.
  • Snags - Standing dead trees or snags provide nest sites for cavity-nesting birds including woodpeckers, chickadees and many more. Many insects live in snags that attract a variety of birds. Predatory birds perch on snags for a better view of prey.
  • Brush piles - provide excellent cover for rabbits, chipmunks, skunks, small birds, and insects. Place brush piles in woodlands and along wooded edges. Discarded Christmas trees can be used as a brush pile.






Well-designed school grounds can also include hardy, easy-to-maintain natural landscapes. It isn't necessary to eliminate the turf, just make sure that around the edges of the playground there are trees, grasslands and natural areas for wildlife.
Photo courtesy of The Londonderry School


Everything Needs Water

Although water may create issues, these can be dealt with. Water needs to move, because if it doesn't, it becomes a mosquito haven. Standing water has to be chlorinated, but plants don't grow in chlorinated water. However, it's possible to build a submerged wetland area which keeps water off the surface.

  • Add a wetland- One of the most ingenious ways of creating an accessible wetland area for children was designed by Herb Schaal and the design team at EDAW, Fort Collins. It was a challenge to find a way to make it accessible without compaction or destroying plant life. The pond itself is filled with three feet of gravel, which gives the plants the three feet of water they need. However, the children are only in an inch or two of water, therefore safe. Stepping stones were set in the gravel so children could walk across.
  • If there is not room for a wetland or pond, consider a way to provide water for wildlife. The Georgia Conservancy suggests a half-barrel or a cement-mixing trough filled with water. If the soil has enough clay, simply dig a few shallow holes and let the rain fill them. Dripping water from a hose into a puddle is irresistible to birds.
  • Rain gardens - for stormwater and nature, too. Rain gardens are a great way to reduce erosion, attract wildlife, solve drainage problems, and reduce non-point source pollution. They also make beautiful additions to a school yard. A rain garden allows 30 percent more water to soak into the ground than a patch of conventional lawn. The colorful wildflowers create a gorgeous display of blooms throughout the summer and fall attracting a lot of interesting insects including butterflies, moths, and bumblebees.






By planning a natural playground at a school, the environment can be so attractive, it will invite people from the neighborhood all day and into the evening. By putting these playgrounds in places where the public can participate, one can piggy back uses and also create a safer environment.
Photo courtesy of The Londonderry School


Invite the Animals

  • Nesting Boxes - Nesting boxes are a good habitat amendment for cavity-nesting birds. Bat boxes and squirrel boxes can also be built. A bluebird trail can be built by placing several nesting boxes at least 100 yards apart, preferably along a forest edge or in a meadow. Boxes need to be placed on posts with predator guards. Boxes should be monitored and cleaned after each brood. Many birds may use bluebird boxes for nesting. The law protects all birds, except house sparrows and starlings.
  • Provide a patch of dry dusty soil as a dust bath for birds. Dust baths are important for feather maintenance because it removes excess moisture and oil while removing tiny parasites. It also helps the birds cool down on a hot day--and it's fun to watch them flap and wriggle while sending up poofs of dust.
  • Feeders - Place bird feeders near protective shrubs and trees to attract more birds. A bird feeder project should have some long-term benefit for the students and not be a one time project.
  • Wildlife Observation Blinds - A simple three-sided structure with slats cut out at eye level will allow students to view wildlife on the other side. It should be placed in front of bird feeders, wetlands, in meadows or along thickets for closer observation of secretive wildlife.
  • Wildlife Tracking Boxes - A wooden box filled with mud or modeling clay and placed near water or a feeding area makes a good tracking box. Visiting animals will leave tracks which students can identify, make plaster castings of, write stories about, etc.
  • Hills - One, or a group of small hills can be constructed with excess soil. This seemingly strange feature can add to the diversity and enjoyment of playgrounds. An open or enclosed lookout tower can be built on top of a hill.






At a training session provided by the Georgia Conservancy, teachers learn how to create a lesson plan based on separating or peeling bark, which can shelter resting bats during daylight hours, or provide habitat for insects that many wild birds consume. The bare, weather-worn branches are favored hunting perches for hawks and owls.
Photo courtesy of The Georgia Conservancy


Educational Assists

  • Signs - Identify projects with signs to help with community recognition. Signs will help publicize the project and can help offset complaints about the wild appearance of natural habitats.
  • Trails - Trails should be an integral part of any project. Make sure wheelchair access is incorporated into trail design. A nature trail could eventually wind throughout the entire schoolyard. Regularly mowed grass trails are easily maintained in sunny areas. Design the trails to be at least as wide as the mower. A 6-foot width works well. Wood chips are a good ground cover for wooded trails.
  • Weather Station - A weather station is an excellent complement to any outdoor learning area.
  • Geology Study Area - Develop an area on the playground where samples of local rocks are kept to learn about local geology. The samples should be large so that they are not removed.
  • Habitat Maps - A map describing the features of the outdoor classroom is helpful to visitors.
  • Art Opportunities - There are many types of murals, blacktop diagrams, sculptures and other art related projects that can be done to enhance the outdoor learning environment.






The Conservancy suggests putting up a bat house as one of the more rewarding ways to help wild life while educating and involving children. By providing bats with a roosting habitat, you also benefit by having fewer pests like mosquitoes and ants. It may seem like just a drop in the bucket but we can overcome chemical pest control and create a cleaner healthier environment. Bat houses may be put up at any time of the year. They will more than likely be occupied in the first three to four weeks after they have been installed.
Photo courtesy of My Wild Yard


Invite the Plants

  • Native Plant Landscaping - The typical foundation landscapes around schools consist of ornamental non-native plants. Native plants can be added to enhance the existing landscape or native plants can be used to replace the existing landscape. A native plant landscape attracts native wildlife and helps add to the biodiversity of schoolyards.
  • Gardens - A wide range of gardens are possible. Planned garden areas should be included in the school design.
  • Bird/Butterfly/Insect Garden - Plants selected for their nectar and caterpillar food. Be sure to include several species that bloom when children are in school.
  • Sensory gardens with sounds and sights, smells, textures, herbs, pods that rattle in the wind, and tastes such as berries or wild honeysuckle.






Rotting logs are a habitat for many insects, salamanders and small mammals. Logs can be used to learn about decay and the life associated with it. Logs can be placed in any of the habitat types or anywhere else on the playground. Partially submerged logs in wetlands or ponds provide a place for turtles and frogs to sun.


And Make it Tasty

  • Vegetable Garden - Use primarily early and late season vegetables so students can enjoy the harvest.
  • Berry Patch - A patch of harvestable berries, such as blackberries, raspberries, blueberries and huckleberries.
  • Alphabet Garden - Choose plants that start with each letter of the alphabet.






Rain Gardens in a schoolyard are a great way to reduce erosion, attract wildlife, solve drainage problems, and reduce non point source pollution. They also make beautiful additions to a school yard. A rain garden allows 30 percent more water to soak into the ground than a patch of conventional lawn! The colorful wildflowers create a gorgeous display of blooms throughout the summer and fall and attract a lot of interesting insects including butterflies, moths, and bumblebees.
Photo courtesy of Leonardo Academy


Invite People, Too

Herb Schaal suggests that social issues can sometimes be a problem for schools. Stands of trees should not be so thick that they provide hiding places. Protecting the site from vandalism may be another concern. EDAW, Fort Collins created a nature playground at a local school which is so attractive, it invites people from the neighborhood all day and into the evening. By putting these playgrounds in places where the public can participate, one can piggy back uses and create a safer environment.



The second principle of magic is things which have once been in contact with each other continue to act on each other at a distance after the physical contact has been severed.--Sir James Frazer, The Golden Bough



And While You're At It, Make it Comfy

  • Outdoor Seating - An area or several areas where class can be held outside or a child/ group can go to complete a task or read/write in privacy. Picnic tables can be used for lunchtime and as workstations. Place in an area that is easy to access from school. Hillsides are a good place for a small amphitheater.
  • Shade - Plant shade trees throughout the site especially near the playground. Arbors can be built to create shade. An open-air cabana can also provide shade.
  • Other features to consider include - a natural succession area, a greenhouse, and a gazebo with a chalkboard (for outdoor lessons, not limited to science).






Even in the winter, there are many things to look at and do in a natural environment. Identifying animal tracks is the most fun (after snowballs and snow men, of course), and a perfect opportunity for a science lesson outdoors.


Why Is This So Important?

There are very important reasons for adding naturalistic intelligence to the store of knowledge children will carry with them as they grow up. As Professor Gardner said in 1999, "I want my children to understand the world, but not just because the world is fascinating and the human mind is curious. I want them to understand it so that they will be positioned to make it a better place. Knowledge is not the same as morality, but we need to understand if we are to avoid past mistakes and move in productive directions. An important part of that understanding is knowing who we are and what we can carry out as human beings in an imperfect world, which we can affect for good or for ill."

I could not agree more.


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December 10, 2019, 6:59 pm PDT

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