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New playground's a 'natural' for children

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Is a catalog available?

By Ron King, Natural Playgrounds Architect, M.Arch, CPSI President, The Natural Playgrounds Company®

A lot of people ask us for a catalog. This is interesting, in that catalogs contain standardized items which can be placed anywhere on any playground site, anywhere in the world.

Because many of our play and learning elements can be used in this manner, we do have an online catalog and will soon be coming out with one in print because we also understand how wonderful it is to have something in hand that you can show someone else.

But the idea behind this short article is to talk about the uniqueness of Natural Playgrounds, and why they're so difficult to catalog, so let's first start with manufactured playground equipment that you see everywhere.

Manufactured equipment is all the same. It varies in purpose, obviously, but generally the use of each item is predictable and uncreative, and leads children to do the exact same thing over and over again.

Natural playgrounds, on the other hand, contain many natural features and land characteristics that are actually part of the play environment. Further, Natural Playgrounds are by their very nature constantly changing, constantly growing, and constantly providing all kinds of different and new challenges to children. They are totally creative and totally unpredictable, and children can't do the exact same thing over and over again, because the Natural Playground itself keeps changing. This is what makes them unique.

This uniqueness can't be cataloged, which is why it's been difficult to come up with one.

Internally, however, we've been developing a "catalog" of ideas that can be implemented on a natural playground. Currently, there are about 400 different play ideas on this list, and it's to these that we turn for each project. We obviously don't incorporate them all; we sort through them and pick the ones most appropriate for a particular site. Each one is then tailored to meet the specific needs of each client and each curriculum.

What we'd like clients to understand, is that every project is very different from every other one. Sometimes sites are square, sometimes they're rectangular, sometimes they're L-shaped, sometimes U-shaped, sometimes very large, sometimes very small (our largest was 25 acres, our smallest 2500 sq. ft.), sometimes flat, and sometimes steeply sloped. Some have water running through them, most don't, some are in pristine natural surroundings, some are concrete parking lots, and some are faced with major drainage issues.

Some of the sites are in an arid region, some like in Russia only have two months of warm weather, some get a lot of snow, while others get a lot of rain. Some are extremely windy, some are covered with trees while others have none, some are in urban areas and get very high use, while others are rural and have few children playing on them. Some need to reflect cultural norms, while others want thematic units incorporated. Some cater to special needs adults and children, some to only special needs children.

Bottom line, is that every site and every project is different, and to us, that means that each project is unique and demands a unique design.

We always get a kick out of looking at a manufactured playground. Installers make no bones about leveling the ground, removing all the existing trees and vegetation, installing their equipment, and then laying down a blanket of wood chips or rubber.

It's the same everywhere, which is why manufactured playgrounds all look the same. This standard approach has lulled all of us into thinking that designing a playground is simply a matter of looking in a catalog (and there sure are a lot of them), picking equipment that meets a budget, calling the supplier, and arranging for installation. If you stop to think about how a child's mind works, you would know intuitively that this simple approach fails every time. Since when did any child you know play in a predictable way?

Have you ever seen a young child play with a cardboard box? Do they need instructions? Do they need to be told how to get inside the box? If you set a child down in sand, do they need instructions to run their fingers through the sand? Or to start pushing their fingers in to see out far they'll go? Do you need to tell them to put sand in their mouth? If the sand is a little wet, do you need to tell them to push it into shapes?

So children really don't want equipment out of a catalog. It might interest them for a few minutes, or even for a few hours, but if you give them any kind of natural play option, they will always gravitate to it and play with it for hours all by themselves.

So ---- we always start with a very intensive, 30 page questionnaire that we ask the staff and the administration to complete. Their responses vary considerably, so we spend a good amount of time analyzing the results and integrating them with what we know about child development, age-appropriate activities, how children play, the land, and, finally, safety issues.

When we visit a property, nothing excites us more than to look at everything that affects the site. We study the runoff because it shows is where the rain drains off the property or where water collects. We then use this to create exciting water play areas or perhaps a rain garden.

We take a look at the wind patterns, because they may suggest that the site is very windy and that we should use the wind by installing a windmill, wind chimes, wind pipes, plants that make sounds when the wind blows, things children can do to catch the wind, and so on. Maybe the staff wants a wind generator!

We study the terrain very carefully. We actually do our own survey so we can generate contours down to 3 inch intervals. This means that we know exactly where the snow melt travels, where the rain drains, and which way the water runs from the downspouts so we can utilize the slope of the land to make exciting things happen.

Understanding the exact nature of the land means that when we change its shape, we aren't fighting with it. We can sculpt the land so that it allows us to create play opportunities which weren't possible before, such as building a slide into the new slope, or creating a rock climbing area, or carving out a shallow cave, or making a tunnel, or making an amphitheater.

The other design parameter which really takes precedence over everything is the way in which the land relates to everything around it, such as the buildings, the neighbors, the parking lot, the path system, the existing vegetation. There is really no way to describe how all of this affects the design except to say that it does in a big way.

When our team analyzes a site and begins the design process, every decision is framed by the land and what it's telling us, by the way a decision is going to make a child feel, by the shapes of the open spaces and the shapes of the buildings, and by all of the information we've gathered about the site.

We always tell clients that making optimum use of their site is our main goal. We don't want any spaces that don't have some kind of a purpose, and yet all the spaces need to relate to each other so children have a sense of continuity, balance, beauty, aesthetic, and organization.

This means that each and every element in a design plays a very particular role in the overall layout. If one element is removed, it affects several others. It's sort of like looking inside a watch. If you take out one item, the watch stops working. This doesn't mean that children would stop playing, it just means that the play would not be as rich as it might otherwise be.

If you consider that natural playgrounds are sustainable, have a very low carbon footprint, take advantage of the lay of the land, are part of the Green movement, have a much higher play value, are inherently beautiful, and are far less costly than manufactured playgrounds, then you can understand why the design approach is so much different and why we have trouble offering a catalog.

Some people have asked why we separate out our design fee from the cost of the Natural Playground; it's because we want to be as transparent as possible. This is not the case with playground equipment companies which will tell you that their design services are free, but they aren't. They can't afford to be. Here's how it's structured:

If you buy playground equipment out of a catalog, 25% of the money you spend on the equipment is allocated to a general design fund. If you spend $100,000 on equipment, $25,000 goes toward paying for who knows what including a salesman to visit you with a catalog, help you select a few items that fit your budget, and then draw up a layout that fits your fenced in space. They'll tell you that this service is free, but it's not. You're paying a lot of money for it.

We, on the other hand, tell you upfront exactly what this design fee is going to be (the maximum we charge, regardless of how large the area, is $15,620, and this figure is reduced as the site gets smaller than one acre, down to a minimum of $2,970). So it's not 25% of the project cost; it's more like 10%, so you're saving a lot of money right there.

The other difference is that the money you spend on our design fee all goes toward finding the best solution for creative, imaginary, discovery-oriented play on your site. Every available characteristic of the land is evaluated as a potential play opportunity, and every good opportunity is integrated into an overall design package meant to optimize the use of your entire site.

Working with you, we develop a plan that is specifically tailored to your site and its unique characteristics, and then expressed as an extremely comprehensive, accurately scaled, photorealistic plan!

So please don't be fooled into thinking that you're saving money on design fees by installing equipment purchased from the catalogue of a playground equipment company. Not a single penny of their fee is spent on finding the best solution for your site, which is why all manufactured playgrounds look pretty much the same.

Your site is unlike anyone else's; it is absolutely unique, and many of the existing features themselves become part of the play environment, which is why it's hard to put that in the catalog.

Nevertheless, we're going to try, because our individual products are also unique and we'd like as many of you to have them as possible.

In the meantime, please visit our online store here to find what you're looking for, or if you'd like to browse an online catalog, please go here.

Note: There are several companies which are designing what they call "naturalized playgrounds." Unfortunately, these playgrounds are not natural playgrounds. They are equipment-based playgrounds that have been landscaped, so make sure you clarify this with any designer under consideration.


Please contact The Natural Playgrounds Company® to discuss your thoughts and plans. We welcome your inquiries and will get back in touch with you promptly.
Thank you for spending some time with us today.

(Don't forget to check out our online store of natural play elements!
Click HERE to go there now!)