More than ever, we need our play spaces to be rich in nature-based, open-ended experiences that give children, families and communities an opportunity to connect with nature and each other, over and over again.
As awareness increases of the benefits of children's contact with nature, many are embracing the idea of developing a nature play space for their backyard, school or local park. We know that getting started can be tricky, so we have put together some information to help you on your way to a fantastic playground.
Summary of key benefits of Natural Playspaces
- Children who play regularly in natural settings are sick less often. Mud, sand, water, leaves, sticks, pine cones and gum nuts can help to stimulate children's immune system as well as their imagination.
- Children who spend more time outside tend to be more physically active and less likely to be overweight.
- Children who play in natural settings are more resistant to stress; have lower incidence of behavioural disorders, anxiety and depression; and have a higher measure of self-worth.
- Children who play in natural settings play in more diverse, imaginative and creative ways and show improved language and collaboration skills. Single use, repetitive play equipment becomes boring quickly.
- Natural, irregular and challenging spaces help kids learn to recognise, assess and negotiate risk and build confidence and competence.
- Children who play in nature have more positive feelings about each other.
- Bullying behaviour is greatly reduced where children have access to diverse nature-based play environments.
- Symptoms of Attention Deficit Disorder are reduced after contact with nature.
- Playspaces should instil a sense of wonder, generate curiosity and spark children’s imaginations. They should be places where children can have fun, get dirty and choose what and how they play. Play spaces should enable children to be challenged, boisterous, messy and above all, themselves.
- Nature is filled with beautiful sights, sounds and textures. It provides all the sensory experiences children need. So it makes sense to mimic nature when we create spaces for our children to enjoy.
Natural Playspace Principles
Listen to childrens’ voices
Consult broadly with the children who will be using the space, listen to what they are saying and create an environment that reflects their perspectives on the world and how they like to play.
Listen reflectively to the children allowing them to express their ideas and aspirations through creative mediums and carefully interpret into reality.
Capture a sense of place
Give children a sense of belonging and of knowing where they have come from and what needs to be respected and preserved.
Your design should capture stories and elements that are unique to your site, your area, your culture, your values, your history. They should be interactive and tangible and support education.
Stimulate the senses
Children experience the diversity and beauty of the world through their senses. Create a space that will give children an opportunity to engage all senses and provide an understanding of the changing seasons and context.
Touch – provide different textures in pathway materials, vegetation, rocks, structures – rough, smooth, prickly, furry, uneven, sharp, wet, dry.
Sight – use varieties of natural colours, intensity of light, shapes, heights, forms through vegetation, sculpture, art, birds, butterflies, insects. Make it beautiful and inspiring to look at.
Smell – Plant herbs, bushes/trees with scented leaves and flowers.
Taste – Include vegetable gardens, fruit trees, edible plants.
Listen – create a soundscape using running water, rustling leaves/ grasses, insect hotels, bird gardens.
Proprioceptive Input - Is the connection and pressure between muscle and joints. Jumping, digging and any heavy work resulting in body awareness.
Vestibular Input - Is all about motion. Swinging, moving, balance, jumping and rolling resulting in better balance and coordination as well as feeding the limbic system (center for emotions).
Use Natural Elements
Nature provides the best materials for creative and imaginative play. Mimicking nature closely will provide a calming effect and will help facilitate childrens’ authentic interactions with nature.
Water – gives opportunity to touch, play, listen, experiment, discover. Create ponds, dry or shallow, rocky streams, water pumps for mixing with dirt/sand
Sand/Mud – allows children to dig, explore, create; integrated with water offers a textural and creative experience.
Plants /Trees – create mood, provide beauty, shade, screens, niches, aroma, texture, food, habitat for insects/birds/butterflies, seeds, spaces to hide, an apparatus to climb. Consider colour, forms, seasons, native and non-native,
Changing topography – use what is naturally occurring on your site or create new to provide diversity, interest and opportunities by including an open space, hills, mounds, creeks, swales and rock faces to meet, climb, run, roll, slide, balance and jump.
Wood/Stone/Boulders – use these elements to construct pathways, bridges, borders, fences, climbing structures, seating and to provide items for loose parts play, construction, gathering and collection.
Create Seamless Connections
Connections between spaces helps children understand their surroundings and their relationship in the space. Good integration between areas provides continuity and helps children be confident and independent in their exploration.
Providing seamless integration between the indoor and outdoor spaces and between different outdoor areas will allow children to move freely between each area and give them one sense of place and identity. Use winding pathways, tactile paths, boardwalks, tunnels, bridges, stepping stones /logs and plants to connect spaces.
Incorporate a range of play spaces
Diverse play opportunities provide an inclusive environment for all personalities. Offering a diverse range of spaces will encourage all areas of a child’s development – social, cognitive, physical, emotional.
Consider how you can provide spaces to inspire:
Fantasy and Imagination – natural amphitheatres, performance areas for drama, music and roleplay. Cubbies
Adventure – high structures, uneven surfaces, ropes, different sized boulders and logs to challenge and evaluate risk
Construction – cubby building, loose parts, small worlds to encourage creativity
Gathering & Collection – rocks, seeds, leaves, cones, sticks, pebbles to find and collect, to use as currency,
Special places – small, enclosed or hidden niches with seating, hammocks to be independent or social.
Factor in Loose Parts
Loose Parts provide the ultimate, open-ended, creative activity allowing children complete autonomy in manipulating where and how their play will go.
Include an area where children have the freedom and space to be able to invent, create, dismantle, move, carry, line up and build loose parts. Use natural materials that have different forms, textures and sizes, like stones, stumps, bark pieces, log rounds, sticks, shells, pinecones. Recycled materials such as plastic crates, tyres, pipes, and frying pans also offer a creative opportunity to free play.
Model Sustainable practice
Supporting local economies and good environmental outcomes will help children to build a life-long connection to nature and community.
Use what is readily available on site or in the local area, and choose to use only local suppliers, contractors, artists, products.
Download Nature Play SA's Natural Playspace info sheets
“Creating play spaces that use big stumps and rocks and incorporates music and art — touches on society’s three biggest preoccupations: health, education and the environment”. Adam Bienenstock, MBA CEO & Founder, Bienenstock Natural Playgrounds, Canada
Play Australia - not-for-profit organisation that works with community and industry sectors involved in creating play opportunities and environment.
Childhood and Nature: Design Principles for Educators - David Sobel
Designing Outdoor Environments for Children - Lolly Tai & Mary Taylor Haque
Environments for Outdoor Play - Theresa Casey
Last Child in the Woods - Richard Louve
Moving the Classroom Outdoors: Schoolyard-Enhanced Learning in Action - Herbert W. Broda
Nature Kindergartens - Claire Warden
Nature’s Playground - Fiona Danks and Jo Schofield
No Fear: Growing Up in a Risk Averse Society - Tim Gill
Nurture Through Nature - Claire Warden
The Outdoor Playspace Naturally for Children Birth to Five Years - edited by Sue Elliott
The Potential of a Puddle - Claire Warden
Risk and Adventure in Early Years Outdoor Play: Learning from Forest Schools - Sarah Knight
Smart by Nature - Michael K. Stone and Center for Ecoliteracy