ASLA The Field: Making Nature Play Areas That Work

Read it here, or at The Field, ASLA


image: Andrea Weber

image: Andrea Weber

Nature play has been in the news a lot in the past few years, but what does it really mean and how can you successfully introduce it into a public park setting if it is new to your organization?

Just about every type of media, from popular to professional, has covered nature play in the last few years. The benefits of nature play are well researched and the field is still growing. Those of us working on promoting nature play can thank Richard Louv and his brilliant marketing of the concept of “Nature Deficit Disorder” which, if you have read his best-selling book (Last Child in the Woods: Saving Our Children From Nature-Deficit Disorder), you will know is a made up term cleverly designed to get the attention of the public and of professionals, about how little time our children spend in nature and what developmental costs that is having on them. It worked.

So if we know that nature play is good, and we also know that children’s exposure to nature is plummeting, how do we get kids outside, exploring nature? How does a public park agency start opening up to and implementing new ideas on play areas to support this need? The following is a case study on a project which opened in 2012 in Minneapolis, the first project built by the Minneapolis Park and Recreation Board (Park Board) to re-shape the typical play area to integrate more nature play and how it has re-shaped play area design moving forward.

In the fall of 2010, Park Board staff started working with a neighborhood group called North Loop, where former warehouses have been re-developed into housing. This burgeoning neighborhood didn’t have a play area within walking distance. An existing parkway along the Mississippi River had trails, but no play features. This site turned out to have significant archaeology as a former sawmill site, so milling history was blended into the idea of a nature theme, with trees, logs, and milling.

This would be the first attempt at a “nature play” area in the city, so a lot of discussion went into what that means and what type of nature play could be maintainable in a busy public park. As staff and community members met, we had to first define what it meant and agree on an approach. There is a huge range of types of nature play but it is essentially a continuum, from real materials loosely arranged and minimally framed in a larger wild setting, to a more traditional manufactured play structure themed with nature, made of metal, concrete, and plastic. What would work for this setting?

For 4th Avenue, we viewed the continuum of nature play experiences as:

image: Andrea Weber

image: Andrea Weber

  • Traditional Park Spaces: manufactured playgrounds or gardens are park features
  • Nature and Park Spaces: combinations of durable natural features and structured play events
  • Natural spaces: natural materials harvested from a wild setting for exploration.

Once the options were visualized with a range of photos and a common vocabulary understood, the middle ground “nature and park spaces” was chosen to balance more traditional play with some more experimental nature concepts. A large part of this was due to concerns about increased maintenance and also concerns from parents about needing active physical play equipment for children who don’t have a backyard. So including some traditional equipment with nature theming, as well as including some simple natural materials was the general design direction. From a playground safety perspective, any movable parts and play with natural materials are separated from manufactured equipment.

image: Andrea Weber

image: Andrea Weber

As the design was developed, multiple ideas were captured to provide layers of exposure to and interaction with nature. The play area concept would consist of these components: two age-separated custom play structures and a swing bay, a play stream with hand water pumps, planting areas with natural materials, and sensory plants with year round interest.

Since the local parents, who were mostly condo-dwellers, wanted lots of physical activity, manufactured play was a large component. Custom features in glass fiber reinforced concrete (GFRC) shaped as logs float in a blue rubber safety surfacing stream where kids can climb on top or crawl through the logs, and use built in Peavey Poles, like loggers did in the 1890s, for balance. Log steppers, slides, and balance beams, as well as stacks of milled lumber add to the structured play area theme of logs and milling. Custom play panels offer finger tracing lines connecting seeds to their tree, a map of Minnesota forests types and logging stamps, which can be found on some of the custom GFRC logs in the play area. A fourth panel shows animal prints, which were printed in the play stream concrete.

image: Andrea Weber

image: Andrea Weber

The play area surface is sand with access routes of poured in place rubber. The sand was anticipated to be used in the play stream, along with mulch and plant parts. The play stream is made of gently sloped concrete, with a few stones pressed in to makes a feature that is interactive, accessible, and hose-able. The end of the stream has a buried catch basin, masked by boulders, which can be easily pumped out when needed.

Elderberry image: Andrea Weber

image: Andrea Weber

Between the play equipment and stream concrete walks define several beds with interactive plantings, stumps, and boulders. One features perennials flowers and native grasses which are tactile and colorful. Another bed contains shrubs; though Park Board policies at the time did not encourage edible plants, fruiting elderberry were used. A third bed contains shredded wood mulch and real oak trunk sections, harvested by forestry staff from some recent storm damage. The oak trunks provide a great stepping course used by runners from the adjacent running trail as well as kids.

image: Andrea Weber

image: Andrea Weber

The 4th Avenue Play Area has been open for nearly three years now, and was the starting point for increasing use of nature in play areas with both themed play equipment and by incorporating natural elements and sensory plantings adjacent to manufactured play. A truly wild, natural materials play area was also opened in a larger wooded park and is used for youth programs. Draft guidelines are in progress to work with neighborhood groups on smaller natural materials spaces within neighborhood parks. These spaces are still seen as a companion to structured manufactured play equipment. We have yet to replace a manufactured play area with only natural materials play, but that may happen someday as smaller nature play nodes are being embraced and requested by families and neighborhood groups.

by Andrea Weber, PLA, ASLA, CPSI, Project Manager, Planning Division, Minneapolis Park and Recreation Board



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