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Designing a Natural Play Environment

Info: 5476 words (22 pages) Dissertation
Published: 11th Dec 2019

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Tagged: ChildcareEducation


‘Natural Play is a fundamental aspect of a child’s development and physical exercise. Through play, a child’s personality develops and they gain a greater control of mind and body. Play has opportunities for social, ethical and emotional development. Environmental based play initiates instinctive play as well as self-reliance, confidence and maturity [1] Play is used as a medium for translating one child’s personal culture to another, this quote portrays findings from the psychologist Arnaud in 1984 [2] ‘ I really believe there is something about nature – that when you are in it , it makes you realise that there are far larger things at work than yourself….Being in nature can be the a way to escape without fully leaving the world.’ [3]

Landscape architects have recently been given the responsibility to design ‘natural play’ schemes under the 2006 Play England initiatives which have provided the largest ever national investment in natural play. [4] Under these initiatives, the traditional concept of equipped play areas has been disregarded and instead, a greater emphasis is given to creating ‘naturalistic’ play environments for different age groups. Consequently, landscape architects have now a greater role in the development of play areas rather than the installation of equipment for play solutions. However, there are constraints which determine the extent to which landscape architects can give a ‘natural play’ experience. This study will explore and review recent projects in order to evaluate the success of such schemes. The research for this study is based upon the author’s experience working on Newcastle City Council’s Play England’s Play Pathfinder schemes during the summer of 2009 as well as designing and building an aerial walkway on a woodland adventure trail which was developed on a farm open to the public. [5], [6]

The study will be informed by examples from published literature, studies and information from play companies. Firsthand experience of the subject gained through designing, building and managing natural play areas as well as observations on regular visits to Skelton Grange Environmental Centre (Leeds) and during a field trip to Denmark (2009) will also be used.

Aims and Objectives

The aim of the study is to identify the principles behind the planning and design of natural play areas, as well as discussing constraints which affect the implementation. Factors that affect the design of natural play areas will be discussed; childhood development, social context, aspects of the site, management and expenditure as well as possible avenues which have not been considered under the Play England initiative. In doing this, it is hoped to determine to what extent ‘natural play’ environments can be designed and implemented in England.

What is ‘natural play’?

Before discussing the design of ‘natural play’ schemes it is important to define ‘natural play’ and how it has evolved. Natural play provides play opportunities in a changing natural landscape. Natural play can enable children to feel more confident in themselves, often revealing their deeper feelings and sharing of their ideas. Natural play has many invaluable qualities that cannot be taught through structured learning activities; the theories of natural play are robustly supported by researchers from varied disciplines including psychology, education, philosophy, anthropology and recreation. [7]

The evolution of natural play spaces

The essence of children’s play has changed little over the centuries. The links between the play patterns of un-modernised and developed societies have been shown to be very similar. For example ‘!Kung’ children in the Kalahari desert use an object, in their case the sheath of a banana leaf, to symbolise a baby and these mothering games are similar to those played by children in developed societies who play with dolls. [8] However, adults controlling children’s lives have imposed a series of changing theories as to how they should play.

During the age of enlightenment when all sorts of theories were being examined Rousseau (1712-1778), the French philosopher, valued the importance of good experiences to mental development in children. When he heard of children forced to read and not play he wrote “those who would rob these little innocents of the joys that pass so quickly’, he went on to say, ‘We must never forget all this should be play, the easy and voluntarily control of movement which nature demands of them, the art of varying their games to make them pleasanter without the least bit of constraint. To a child of 10 or 12 work or play are all one’, with the proviso that the activity of play is ‘with the charm of freedom’. [9]

The case studies for this essay have been chosen following observations of natural play schemes during 2008 – 2009. The sites cover the fundamental aspects and current trends of natural play used by after school clubs, Play England, Natural England initiatives, and environmental learning projects.

Play pathfinders and play builder – explain

Skelton Grange

Skelton Grange Environment Centre, Leeds is located 5 km from Leeds City Centre (figs.). The site is a gentle sloping 8 Acre site with woodland, open meadows, lawns and riverside walks. The site is located in a large industrial area on the periphery of Leeds City Centre and is leased from the National Grid. The project is an innovative, award winning, environmental education project that aims to bring alive the issues surrounding sustainable development. [15]The project is hoped to help people develop an understanding and appreciation of the environment by educating its visitors on ways to safeguard our future. The scheme funded by BTCV (British Trust for Conservation Volunteers) aims to use the Eco Centre and surrounding landscape to support a wide range of activities working mainly with children, young people and adults on school trips, play schemes, community groups as well as teenage individuals.

The site is used for education and training sessions, practical conservation, and BTVC volunteer development. BTCV staff at the centre work with young people and adults, schools, play schemes, community groups and individuals on developing an understanding & appreciation of their environment, and their role in safeguarding its future. The children who visit annually are from inner city West Yorkshire primary schools. These children gain many valuable experiences of environmental play which can be absorbed and provide inspiration for similar forms of play at home or school. The most striking issue which was observed on the site was the willingness to the children o learn and play in a rugged natural environment as many of the inner city children have a very limited horizons when it comes to getting out of town.

Broom House Farm ‘Adventure trail’

Broom House Farm ‘Adventure Trail’ is Located in the Durham countryside approximately 6 miles east of Durham City (figs.). The adventure trail is set on land belonging to a diverse ‘organic farm’ enterprise. The surrounding landscape has a significant impact on the adventure trail as it is visible from the trail and relates to educational material within the trail. The woodland where the adventure trail is located is predominantly coniferous however there are many mature broadleaved species in the woodland. Most of the coniferous woodland was established over 50 years ago when the land was set aside by the farming tenants after it was open cast for coal. The woodland is very diverse in flora and fauna. The trail is open to the public and has approximately 4,000 public visitors, 60 school parties per annum. These include visits through a recent Natural England initiative (name it) . There are also visitors from institutions for people with special needs. The wood offers a wide range of natural based learning activities and many outlets for un-structured natural play. The site has been designed to enable a sense of discovery for visiting children, consequently giving a strong bond with the environment.

The site is unique in the area and proves very successful with all users, the blend of natural play, education and playing within a woodland environment strongly complement each other. Visitors with special needs gain special interaction with nature when visiting. The bonding with nature is also highly significant for children visiting the site from deprived inner city areas of Newcastle, Gateshead, Sunderland and Durham.

During my experience as education/safety officer at Broom House Farm (2008), I supervised and carried out educational activities with the children. This was an important experience for me as over a period of time I was able to observe the children using the natural play setting. During the summer of 2009 I designed and helped build new additions to the adventure trail including a 100m raised board walk and other play zones (figs.).

Denmark Junk Playground

The play site is located in Fredriksberg, a central district of Copenhagen, Denmark. The site consists of a large clearing in a Beech woodland. The perimeter has mature trees which overhang much of the site. Shrubs have been integrated next to structures built by the children . This unique ‘Junk Playground’ also caters as an after school club for the adjoining school. The site offers a safe environment for children to be supervised from a distance, allowing them to construct a variety of custom built play equipment from shelters to play structures. This resource is run by adults employed by the council and funding from parents, all staff have a degree in some form of child development or education. The facility is also open at weekends when it is supervised by parents. The site is a huge success and is very popular.

The value of this resource to the local community is very high; children are left at the after school club everyday so they have to be very imaginative in the playspace to keep them occupied. The outcome of what the children design and build is usually well implemented. The community involvement of many parents also helps safeguard the success of the site on weekends. The site has an importance policy which allows children to construct play equipment, this is a good example of allowing risk in the play environment.

It was interesting to observe the competence of children as they explained what they had built and the construction methods learnt. More importantly the children explained that everyone uses the tools in a responsible manner, consequently there are few injuries.

ADD? Children are constantly encouraged to be creative within the education system. Depending on their age many have a drive to create constructions. Through natural play, natural materials can be used to create personal play equipment. This adds a further dimension to the benefits of natural play. When children construct anything they feel more confident of another intuitive childhood process.

Within the Danish junk playground, children are issued with and allowed to bring their own construction tools such as hammers, nails, saws and other materials to construct play equipment from the abundance of materials provided. These materials include wood, block paving and other recycled materials. The quality of the constructions made is inspected by adults for strength and any other irregularities. Through this process errors can be corrected and the equipment passed as being safe. The individuals responsible for the construction then shows their play mates and they share their special creations with each other and revise there constructions and equipment with a greater knowledge of construction. The constructions are often nestled and integrated within site, composed of mature trees and shrubs. The success of the natural environment is the popularity of building these structures and games within the greener areas of the site.

Fagan refer to sketch book for his opinions and feelings about the thriving site from a childs perspective?


A scheme in place in Fredriksberg, Copenhagen, Denmark were by children build natural play environments adding a different dimension to natural play, combining out of school care and natural play recreation. The results of this scheme is of huge significance to my study and is very popular on the streets of Copenhagen. Parents pick children up from the centre up to as late as 5 o clock. The children are fed with healthy meals which they often cook themselves, children are then free to roam the site playing and constructing play spaces. The children are issued with hammers, nails, wood, hard landscaping materials. The teaching staff all have degrees orientated around primary and youth education. The centre accommodates for ages up to 15 Years of age. There is a strong drive within Play England Guidelines to accommodate teenagers, in particular girls within natural play schemes within Britain. The site in Fritsberg is adjacent to a large inner city school so the visiting children have a quick transition between the two spaces. This could be more common as schools both within the inner cities and rural areas have a wider perimeter to their site with scope to expand, typically a site composed of wasteland grasslands, gravel, mud and pockets of trees with huge potential for transformation to create natural play spaces to socialise and spend countless hours in order to develop. The possibility for making the most of school yard sites would be of double affect as playground play is one few occasions children get to play in a safe environment. If developed playgrounds were open to the community more and not as segregated. As much of the school site in un used within the school timetable with limited Sport, Outdoor play and education it would make sense to make more use of these spaces as natural play sites. One of the biggest bonus’s to the scheme adjacent to the school in Fritsberg is the lack of Adult intervention. The children when playing are left outside to their own devices yet could seek help, if needed from staff who located themselves near to the building entrance.

Newcastle play sites

Location Distance from city etc / Add type of landscape, fields, water, woodland and surrounding area flat, hills etc? These play sites have been identified by the council to be improved, using funding from Play England. These playgrounds up graded from a play pathfinder to play builder, Some of these sites have been completed

ADD Observations not mentioned in table. How children use it. What you thought was good about it.

The activities carried out in these environments have many benefits enhancing children’s ability to recognise and appreciate the natural play environment. Sketches of the natural settings within these sites have been included. The natural qualities deployed create stimulating surroundings with opportunities for more imaginative play and wonder. Adults may view nature as a surrounding for the child’s activities. However children seem to view a natural play space as a sensory experience and a place where they can interact within a fantastical environment. Children develop their imagination continually through everyday experiences, which is essential in the child’s development as a well rounded individual within society.

Why is natural play important today?

Natural play environments offer a diversity of natural landscape experiences such as trees, vegetation, wildlife, plants, shaded areas, shelter, water, rivers and hiding spaces create a timeless naturalistic landscape. Children using natural play environments can become thoroughly engaged with nature. [16] The wide variations of the natural elements to play schemes can trigger unique spontaneity, for example playing with living creatures such as insects, building dens with natural materials or setting physical challenges within the environment such as climbing trees. [17]

Children seem to have a natural affinity with nature and love for the natural outdoors but today opportunites for this can be limited. Natural England carried out a survey in 2009 which identified that less than 10% of children have the opportunity to play in woodland settings, the countryside or parks. The research also discovered that only 24% of children visit a natural environment once a week in comparison to 53 % of adults who did so in their childhood. [18]

The benefits to children from playing in natural play environments

A recent lecture by Paul Walker the Director of Timbercare (designers and builders of natural play landscapes, mainly manufacturing wooden play units) highlighted his personal opinions of many elements of natural play. He concluded his speech by saying that ironically the investment within the surrounding landscape of a play area was more valuable to children than a collection of individual equipment which the company specialises in providing. [19] Walker felt strongly about his childhood experiences of natural play, he told many stories of his freedom one of which was how by the age of 11 he had a 6 Mile radius to roam within central Sheffield. The complexity of his different play spaces were therefore hugely diverse including post industrial landscapes, derelict buildings, woodland areas, canals and streets. Walker’s primary concern for his industry today is the necessity for low risk in play. Although safety standards now take a more balanced approach he felt they could go further. [20] He felt his childhood experiences of natural based play had a variety of different elements of danger and risk taking, making children of that era much more adventurous and evolving life skills in the changing environment around Sheffield.

Another professional who believes that children should have similar opportunities to Paul Walker is an American journalist Richard Louv whose revolutionary phrase ‘Saving Our Children from Nature Deficit Disorder’ sums up the restrictions facing the majority of children in modernised society. The quote below illustrates trends in child play.

‘ONE EVENING WHEN (sic) my boys were younger, Mathew, then ten, looked at me from across a restaurant table and said quite seriously, “Dad, how come it was more fun when you were a kid?”. Within the space of a few decades, the way children understand and experience nature has changed radically. The polarity of the relationship had been reversed. Today, kids are aware of the global threats to the environment – but their physical contact, their intimacy with nature, is fading. That’s the exact opposite of how it was when I was a child.’ [21]

Louv feels that our affinity to nature is innate and in jeopardy across the modernised world. Quoting Sobel he discusses the changes which have occurred in the experience of obtaining food suggesting that food has become almost abstract now being a product in a supermarket which has little connection with the field or farm it came from.

Children are now having to learn where food comes from through schemes such as Natural England’s ‘Learning Outside’ initiative.[22], [23] School trips to farms in England are limited as they take up considerable financial and staffing resources and often only occur once a year as seen at Broom House Adventure Trail. [24]

Urban living can be an experience which is disconnected from nature and can create “ecophobia” a term which Sobel devised to explain a fear that nature can be physically dirty and dangerous. While working at Broom House Adventure Trail it was apparent from children and teachers that children were warned not to get dirty and were wearing expensive designer clothing. This made a barrier to the children fully experiencing natural play and it would be beneficial to the children if teachers made it clear to parents that there would be a strong possibility of clothes getting dirty and damaged. Some of the children also seemed initially hesitant and detached from the natural environment. [25]

Benefits to Children’s Health from Natural Play

  • Watching children using the play sites described in this study it is obvious they expend a great deal of energy and burn many calories.
  • Not all children prefer sport and some do not like organised activities, but all children want to play.
  • Natural play offers less structured opportunities for refining skills such as balance, endurance and confidence and provides a valuable solution for steering children away from childhood obesity.
  • Many children are at risk from health problems caused by their life styles which include poor diet and lack of exercise.
  • In 2009 it was reported that ‘25% of boys and 33% of girls between two and 19 are overweight’. [26] It was noted in this survey that “parents are getting so used to seeing overweight kids, they do not recognise their own children are obese”.
  • These problems cost the National Health over £2 billion annually. County Durham is one of the worst areas in England for childhood obesity. [27] At Broom House Farm Adventure Trail it was noted that the obese children had less self confidence, were more negative in their approach to playing on the equipment and were teased by classmates.

Benefits to Children’s Mental Health from Natural Play

  • The BMJ group estimate that 2 children in every class of 30 schoolchildren will have ADHD. [28] There is a strong belief that children with behaviour and learning difficulties, such as ADHD, are thought to be deprived from the experience of natural play. [29]
  • Louv reports that parents of children with these problems are being taken to natural play environments in order for them to experience situations which require intense concentration, the children are compelled to observe what is around them and become part of the environment rather than separate from it. [30]

Children with special needs at Broom House Adventure Trail were seen to greatly enjoy the sensory experience of being close to vegetation, running around and watching others playing on equipment. The carers commented that the escapism of being in such a calming atmosphere was beneficial to their state of mind and they would appreciate access to such a facility more often. One respite care home arranged for their children to attend the adventure trail weekly in conjunction with their other activities.

Benefits to Children from interaction with playmates

Today many children in England lead less active lives as they are able to watch non-stop television or play indoors on computer games. This decreases the amount of interaction they have with parents, siblings and friends. Curry and Arnaud noted that ‘By the age of four and five children are extremely sensitive to each other and acutely tuned to what interests, pleases or provokes another child’. [31] Decreased opportunities to interact through observation, collaboration and discussion during play can have a damaging effect on the confidence of a child and their ability to interact in play environments and in their future lives.

  • Playing with others give children the chance to learn about equality and become integrated within wider cultures.

During a consultation process at Kippax Ash Tree Primary School the children discussed their visit to Skelton Grange where they worked together making a shelter and a ‘pebble island’ to simulate an imaginary civilisation in the woodland. The idea of the project was to encourage the children to integrate through constructive play and say how they would survive on the island. The outcome was a number of sustainable solutions which they had learnt about during the course of the day.

Opportunities to develop self reliance

  • Natural play environments develop a child’s independence and self sufficiency. When a child enters a natural play environments they can develop a distance from their carers or parents either individually or with other children exploring. This opportunity for play can be achieved in any outdoor space, however in a natural play environment it is enhanced by the magical natural surroundings. This process is important to children who live in confined conditions and are restricted from access to natural play by the location of their accommodation and poverty. White and Stoecklin state ‘While the development of greater independence from toddlerhood to middle childhood can happen within the confines of indoor spaces, safe space outdoors greatly adds to the ability of children to naturally experiment with independence and separation, and the adult’s willingness to trust the child’s competence which is essential for separation to happen.’ [32]

When children accompanied by parents played in the woodland at Broom House they were often heavily restricted by parents who would not allow them to explore the zoned play spaces alone. This was seen on many occasions and created a barrier to the full potential of the natural play experience for their children.

It was interesting to note that although school children stayed within their small teaching groups and despite not being in the comfort of their friendship groups, they were sufficiently stimulated to play together. It was also interesting to observe that the children moved quickly from the natural based play equipment to evolve new imaginative games, making maximum use of the woodland. It was also observed that the paths were used as catalyst for exploring the site within a time limit. [33]

Opportunities for exposure to nature

Our interactions with nature can be hugely diverse depending upon the environment which a child lives in or is exposed to. The experience of different materials, changing seasons and making connections to nature are important components in natural play. [34] The provision of living material in natural play landscapes incorporates the underlying processes of nature and therefore gives a strong understanding of nature gained through physical interaction and watching seasonal changes in the landscape. ‘Plants and vegetation as a medium within play spaces develop interactive skills. Plants stimulate discovery, dramatic pretend play, and imagination. Plants speak to all of the senses, so it’s not surprising that children are closely attuned to environments with vegetation. Plants, in a pleasant environment with a mix of sun, shade, colour, texture, fragrance, and softness of enclosure also encourage a sense of peacefulness”[35]. When children experience nature, it can be in a variety of sensory experiences its value is precious and can be remembered for a long time.

Children appreciate the natural layers of the earth no matter how small the play space. Moore recorded a conversation with girls about playing in sand ‘We make streams in the sand when it rains and comes down the hill’ the girls said. The got down on their hands and knees and embarked on a sequence of sand play. Within a few moments they had laid out a network of “roads” running around the humpy surface of the fine, hard-packed, sandy soil. Other infrastructure such as houses and an imaginary manor house was also built.’ [36]

* Water play

  • The outdoor environment provides a variety of contrasting surfaces with different textures and play qualities. Recent heavy snowfall in England (2009) triggered instinctive responses to an element which acted as a catalyst for all ages to enjoy excitement and freedom without hesitation or social barriers.

Natural materials are used to enhance environmental play for deprived inner city schools of Leeds such as Skelton Grange Environmental Centre in Leeds (West Yorkshire). One of the many natural based activities completed by school visitors is to construct components of the imaginary settlement described above using, sand, soil, water, twigs and leaves. This exercise although educational connects the children with natural materials.


Design of Natural play environments can produce a range of natural play experiences rather than a single type as per traditional equipped play area…


How can a landscape architect in the UK create ‘natural play’ environments?

The previous section outlined an understanding of what natural play is, case studies and the benefits of designing natural play areas. Play England have given landscape architects the opportunity to design natural play areas in many parts of England – what considerations need to be taken into account when designing them?

New Initiatives of Play England between the years 2006 – 2009

Play England began working for the children’s play programme in 2006 and 2007, with funding gained from ‘The Big Lottery fund’. The recent Play England guidelines show the design principles of Play England. Play England has produced many documents summarising the commitments announced for the Play Strategy of England. The two most relevant one to this study include the ‘Play Strategy’ and ‘Design for Play’. [37]

‘We’ve recently moved over to assessing the tenders on play value much more and this has forced the quality standards up, with suppliers now trying to outdo each other for natural play as well as good design and sheer quantity of features … we score each activity and feature for points and use this information to guide us in consideration of the tenders. In the end though it still comes down to us trying to decide which will offer the best play opportunities for the next 15 years or more.’

Play England have worked in tune with a range of professionals to ensure the best possible guidelines for Landscape Architects to work towards during implementation of the national Play Strategy in their work. Play England is supporting local authority Playbuilders and Play Pathfinders (focusing on 8-13 yrs olds). Their purpose is to deliver the government’s £235m investment in play and natural play in order to create innovative and adventurous play spaces across the UK. This level of investment has not been made before in England. The Play Pathfinder scheme is intended to provide free play opportunities for children and young people in the country over the next 10 years. The Government announced in April 2009 that the overall success of the schemes would be reviewed by children in their local areas. A conference is planned in March 2010 and will explore the future and momentum of the campaign after the last four years.

Play England Guidelines

Since 2006 Landscape Architects have been required by Play England to adopt design principles which take into consideration the summarised guidelines below for new and refurbished natural play schemes (please see appendix 1 for Play England Design Principles in full); [38]

  1. Enhancing the site. Site analysis work ensuring the spirit of the chosen site is enhanced, complementing attractive parts of the site and enhancing poorer environments.
  2. Using the best location. A balance in defining the exact location of the proposed park, between safety of the child user and seclusion.
  3. Enhancing natural features of the site as well as adding new features./Adding a variety of new soft landscape material and natural landscape features in urban and rural play sites.
  4. Providing opportunities for diverse play./This includes accommodating natural play for all age ranges including devising social spaces for parents and carers onsite.
  5. Provide the opportunity for children of all abilities and needs to mix./ There should be no barriers for people with special needs which may include carers or parents.
  6. Encourage community participation in the design process./ The design required has to work for the community and captivate preferences of the neighbours of the site.
  7. Ensure the play space can be used by all ages./ The play site must incorporate many aspects of risk for its users to develop an understanding of risk.
  8. Design to develop children’s experiences of taking r

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