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Play Environments for the Soul

Think back for a moment. What was your childhood like? What was your favorite outdoor place to play? What was that environment like? What were the smells and sounds? What did you do there? Who was there with you? What did it look like and feel like and how did it change over the seasons? What sort of games did you play and what did you discover there? These are all very important questions. They are all about the place where you first interacted with the planet—with the natural world. That place was your introduction to the environment and the community and the cycles of life. Remember?

The places that adults remember playing in as children are so often natural places. Places with a stream, or mud, or fallen logs, or even a dirt pile in a vacant lot in the city. I’ve heard adults talk about smells of apple blossoms in spring and the feeling of the petals raining down in a light breeze. People tell me about planting pumpkin seeds in the ground and watching them grow into the gigantic fruit. Other people tell me about digging for bugs in rotten logs and searching for crayfish under wet rocks. Women tell me about digging gigantic forts and tunnels in snowdrifts behind their houses, and men talk about climbing trees and playing with matchbox cars in the roots.

As environmental professionals, I have no doubt we have all had meaningful experiences playing in nature that have had a lasting impact on who we are, and why we now do what we do. There is just something about connecting with the natural world that is so important for all human beings—for all children. These are the kinds of experiences that we need to feed our soul.

In Bellingham, WA, volunteers collected smooth river boulders and local driftwood for a playscape for young children with special needs. The large boulders were bonded together with cement to create a textural sand and water play sculpture. Colored marbles were embedded between the rocks to add a sense of discovery and surprise.

Unfortunately, children today don’t often have the kinds of opportunities that we had, not so long ago. With modern urban and suburban development, natural “wild” areas are less available. Parents’ fear for their child’s safety keeps children indoors far too much. Our culture is fast-paced and places importance on going, doing and becoming, and less on wandering, allowing and discovering. More than ever before both parents today work, which leaves children to grow up in child-care settings.

Children enter child-care as infants, sometimes as early as 6 weeks old, and stay until they are ready to go to school. This setting becomes the place where they spend much of their formative years. The outdoor space at the child-care center becomes their outdoor world—the place they visit day after day. It is the place where they first develop a relationship with the natural world. What will they discover there? What will they find?

Because children spend so much of their time in these settings, it becomes so important for us as professionals to really think about the kinds of environments we are creating. We are not just building playgrounds. We are creating children’s experiences —their memories, their childhood. What kind of memories will they have of rubber and steel and asphalt? Every child will experience a first Autumn, a first interaction with water, a first touch of a fuzzy caterpillar. How do we create environments that support and enhance these experiences? How do we create the “experience of Autumn”? How do we help place children in scenes that change throughout the seasons and are different every day? We have a very important job, and it takes thinking back to our own childhood experiences, and imagining how we can recreate them in safe, meaningful, beautiful ways for the children of today.

Change of Heart

Every community has surprise resources and talents. In Caroline, NY we approached the city forester who was happy to donate huge Maple Tree sections to an elementary school playscape project. The trees had been recently cut down in the city and this was a chance to give them a second life. Mark Watson, a local sculptor, carved with a chain saw, sanded and polished them into beautiful huggable sculpture reminiscent of Henry Moore.

After working for 5 years as the Conceptual Industrial Designer for Kompan/BigToys in Olympia Washington, I had the unique opportunity to work in The Netherlands for the playground manufacturer, Speelhout. While designing play equipment for both companies I learned a great deal about children’s play and development, but it was my year in Europe that changed my mind about what children really need. There I saw public spaces and interactive public art like nothing I had seen in America. They built sculpture gardens and play environments that were one of a kind. Neighborhoods and parks had playgrounds that were unique and blended seamlessly with the natural world. I realized children everywhere needed a new kind of playscape, and there needed to be a new way of thinking about the design of children’s spaces.

One of a Kind Spaces

The infant-toddler playscape in Skaneateles, NY includes many amenities that were donated by the parents. One parent who owned a precast concrete company donated a section of culvert to be a tunnel, and another parent who owned a paving company donated the paving for a series of winding tricycle paths. Many parents in the playscape committee were master gardeners so the environment became very rich in plantings.

It’s not uncommon for play environments to be picked, prefab structure by structure from a catalog, but I realized that a play environment should be a reflection and statement of the community and environment where it is located. A play environment in Arizona should be different than one in Alaska. Can you imagine the difference? It should of course be a one-of-a-kind place that suits the individual needs and uniqueness of each school, park or child-care center, but it should also take into account the materials and plants of the region. It should be a microcosm of the greater environment surrounding the community.

To create a truly rich, imaginative play environment, we can bring in local stone, native plantings, and the talent and skills of local artists and crafts people. The Community-Built movement in America today is a process based on Amish Barn raising, where the whole community works together for a common goal. To start, we first take an inventory of the talents and skills of the community. Those, along with a list of available materials and plantings become our “design palette” with which to work. Are there masons interested in being a part of the project? Carpenters? Artists? Gardeners? The design is based on these skills and then passed on to a playscape committee who organizes the necessary materials, tools, food and volunteers for the big build days. When the planning is completed, we return to lead the volunteers in the community build. A build typically spans two weekends with 25 to 100 volunteers per day. This process not only saves the community money, but it brings people together in a special way. The project leaves them with a sense of pride and ownership that will last long after the build days are over.

Every community has surprise resources and talents. Sometimes all it takes is a bit of detective work to find them. In Caroline, NY we approached the city forester who was happy to donate huge Maple Tree sections to an elementary school playscape project. The trees had been recently cut down in the city and this was a chance to give them a second life. Mark Watson, a local sculptor, carved with a chain saw, sanded and polished them into beautiful huggable sculpture reminiscent of Henry Moore. Soft wood chips surround the pieces for safe climbing. A simple care plan will ensure enjoyment for many years to come.

In Bellingham, WA, volunteers collected smooth river boulders and local driftwood for a playscape for young children with special needs. The large boulders were bonded together with cement to create a textural sand and water play sculpture. Colored marbles were embedded between the rocks to add a sense of discovery and surprise. Driftwood pieces were added to the yard as decoration, with larger pieces used as balancing, climbing and sitting areas. Native plantings were used as well. Children hide in the tall decorative grasses, sit in the shade of trees, and taste the flavors of herbs. With all these local elements, the children who use this space get a first hand feel of their local natural environment.

In Skaneateles, NY the infant-toddler playscape committee was loaded with master gardeners so the environment became very rich in plantings. We created a Sunflower jungle, forests of Jeruselum Artichoke with Black-eyed Susans, a dwarf Apple Tree mini orchard, and planted a variety of other trees, herbs and shrubs. A parent who owned a precast concrete company donated a section of culvert to be a tunnel, and another parent who owned a paving company donated the paving for a series of winding tricycle paths. A rubber surface on the paths helps protect toddlers from skinned knees and gives infants a soft crawling pad as they learn to walk. A local metal fabricator made a variety of chimes for sound exploration.

Soundscapes

Many children today enter chid-care as infants, sometimes as early as 6 weeks old, and stay until they are ready to go to school. The outdoor space at the child-care center becomes their outdoor world—the place they visit day after day. It is the place where they first develop a relationship with the natural world. The toddlers in Caroline, NY can interact with polished wooden sculptures that are perfect for climbing on.

Shhh. Listen. What do you hear right now? Where are you and what are the sounds around you? While we are typically a visually-dominated culture, the sounds in our environment have a tremendous effect on us, often unconsciously. The landscape of sound in an environment is called the Soundscape. When we think of creating multi-sensory play environments, sound is an important element that should not be forgotten when we want to create a “sense of place”.

I have a friend in Ithaca, NY whose house is located above a giant waterfall. You visit his house and no matter what room you are in, you hear the falls. You feel the falls. The sounds echo the changes of the seasons. In a dry summer, you hear a gentle trickle of water splashing down the rocks. During the Spring thaw, the river is raging and you are swept up in the thunder of water pounding down the falls. I know that if my friend moved away, he would deeply miss those sounds. The sounds of those falls create a sense of place. They create a feeling, for him, of home. The hectic sounds of New York City paint a feeling of excitement and action, while the hush of the Redwood Forests create a totally different mood. When thinking about children’s environments, adding the layer of sound can form a rich sense of place in much the same way.

At Cornell University’s Early Learning Center in Ithaca, NY I was hired to create an entire soundscape for their existing play environment. After spending time getting to know the space and the spots where different types of play activities occur, we developed a plan for adding sound. I ended up thinking about sound in three ways:

1) Sound as a Backdrop to play. Ambient sounds create an

overall mood behind the environment. Things that make

sounds in the wind or with rain could be used.

2) Sound as a By-Product of play. Adding sound elements

to places where children already play. Thinking about what

kinds of play occur in different areas and how to match the

textures of sound to the types of play. What should a wild,

gross-motor play area sounds like, compared to a more

quiet, solitary space?

3) Sound as the Goal of Play. Installing interesting

instruments and sound sculptures for the children

to explore.

The Whatcom Center for Early Learning (WCEL) features a raised herb garden, a tricycle track, a slide embedded in a grass berm, decorative grasses, a playhouse, a mini treehouse, a sand and water play area, a deck with trellis, a "wobbly walk", a textured path, and quite area, a talk tube and much more.

Once the observations and designs were completed, local fabricators made most of the elements. Other pieces were bought from nearby suppliers. The sounds range from delicate twinklings in quiet areas to loud resonating booms in active areas. Because too often children get stuck with clanky, non-harmonious instruments and toys, all the materials we used were chosen for their rich, deep sounds. We added a variety of wind chimes of wood and of metal, including a set of four chimes by Woodstock Windchimes tuned to Vivaldi’s Four Seasons. (The children and staff have a ceremonial “changing of the chimes” at the start of every season.) We hung tiny Tibetan bronze bells in a huge forsythia bush and cow bells from India in existing trees that the children climb. “Listening Cones” were fastened to the outer fence. Children put their ears to the cones to hear the sounds of the forest that boarders the play yard. Beautifully tuned “Entrance Chimes” were mounted in an exiting railing just outside the door to help mark the transition point from indoors to outdoors. A huge set of 3” diameter tuned standing chimes with rubber hammer mallets let children “pound out a song”. A giant wooden marimba and set of tongue drums were made by Sound Play of Georgia. Inspired by Sonic Architecture, the enormous Thunder Drum is the booming attraction in the far corner of the yard. Six softball mallets allow a group of children to play the 48” diameter galvanized steel drum at once.

Because Cornell’s play environment is fairly protected and free from vandalism, we were able to do some things that couldn’t be possible in a public park. Still, there are many creative ways that sound can be added that will hold up to vigorous public use. Walk the space. Listen. What sounds are currently there? What sounds might you want to amplify? What sounds might you want to blend out? The possibilities are endless.

What’s Really Important

Keys to Community-Built Success

Community Built may be defined as an interactive process that involves the local community in the design, organization, and creation of community projects. At its heart is a firm belief in volunteerism, empowerment and the value of community.

Here are some of the key steps to a successful

Community-Built project:

1. Form a Playscape Committee

Have your clients put together a diverse group of people who will volunteer to plan and organize the Community-built Construction Days. They will divide up the responsibilities into various committees. Some will be in charge of recruiting volunteers, others in charge of locating tools and resources.

2. Inventory the Community

Assess the local flavor of the community your project is in. What is the history, industry, talents and natural features of the area? These can be incorporated into the design and construction.

3. Look for Local Artists

What talented people can be recruited from the community? Look for sculptors, muralists and gardeners to add features such as mosaic benches, wrought-iron gates, sound sculptures, or stepping stones.

4. Use Native Plantings

Use plants that are naturally found in the area. This makes is easier to get local donations and connects people with the native plants of their community.

5. Approach Local Businesses and Service Groups

When looking for volunteers, materials and tools, the committee should look to these people for assistance. Service groups like Kiwanis and Rotary often support community-built projects. Local businesses can donate everything from hardware and landscaping supplies to tents, tables and food.

6. Schedule and Plan for Construction

Plan for plenty of time to organize the Community Build Days. Time frames often range from 4-6 months. Pick build dates when the weather is most likely to be pleasant, people are not away on vacation, and all the members of the committee can be present. A long weekend or a series of consecutive weekends works best.

7. Food and Childcare

Feed the masses! Have meals, snacks and drinks available throughout the build days for the volunteers. One member of the Committee will be in charge of Food. Provide childcare during the build so parents can bring along their children.

8. Safety

Have a plan in case of accidents. Keep a first-aid kit on hand and notifylocal ambulance groups of your project before hand.

9. Thank-You's

Keep track of all the businesses and individuals that contributed to your project. Send thank-you notes to all the volunteers and letters to the newspaper mentioning all the businesses that supported the project.

10. Join The Community-Built Association (CBA)

CBA is a not-for-profit association of professionals who are involved in all aspects of the community built field. They hold inspiring conferences and have newsletters all about the Community-Built Process. www.communitybuilt.com.

Because the play environment is the place where children first experiment with and explore their surroundings, Buckminster Fuller said that playgrounds should be renamed “research laboratories”. Referring to Fuller, Jim Greenman, author of Caring Spaces, Learning Places says, “A playground should be like a small-scale replica of the world, with as many as possible of the world’s sensory experiences included in it.” I remember the hedge row in the fields behind my childhood home where I’d watch snakes sunning themselves on hot rocks, fill my belly with ripe blackberries and cherries, build giant igloos in winter, and follow the zig-zagging tracks of rabbits, deer and raccoons. What do you remember?

I end with this quote by the great horticulturalist Luther Burbank. “Every child should have mud pies, grasshoppers, water bugs, tadpoles, frogs, mud turtles, elderberries, wild strawberries, acorns, chestnuts, trees to climb. Brooks to wade, water lilies, woodchucks, bats, bees, butterflies, various animals to pet, hayfields, pine-cones, rocks to roll, sand, snakes, huckleberries and hornets; and any child who has been deprived of these has been deprived of the best part of education.” LASN

Rusty Keeler, founder and designer of Planet Earth Playscapes, works throughout the country creating one-of-a-kind, natural, community-built play environments for children. Keeler lectures at colleges and conferences internationally and was recently awarded 2nd place in an international playground design competition sponsored by the International Play Association (IPA). He lives in Ithaca, NY..


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June 17, 2019, 8:43 am PDT

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