What does a natural playground cost?

We always know there'll be a time during presentations to prospective clients when someone will ask "how much do natural playgrounds cost?"

I take a deep breath and say "That's a hard one, but if you give me a minute, I'll give you an answer."

It's hard because there are no direct comparisons. A few of the tangibles might be sort of comparable, but it's almost impossible to compare the intangibles. For instance, a slide is a slide, so the experience of actually going down a slide in a manufactured playground and going down a slide built into a hill in a natural playground will be pretty close. But it's really more complicated than that.


  • They are the same initial investment as a traditional playground
  • 10 times more play and learning elements
  • Significantly higher play value
  • Tailored to your budget
  • Last longer
  • Lower maintenance costs

Here's an example: a 35' long slide gives a great ride for kids of all ages, 5 years to 65 years. To achieve the proper slope for this long a slide, the ladder has to be 20' high. 20' is way off the ground. If kids try climbing the slide and fall off one side, they'll get hurt. If they fall off the ladder, they'll get hurt. Further, if they're afraid of climbing ladders, or are intimidated by height, they won't have a chance to even try the slide.

On the other hand, if this same slide is built into a hill, there is no ladder (so no one can fall off), there is no way a child can be intimidated by height, and there are no sides to fall off of, which makes the slide very safe. Further, if the access up the hill to the top of the slide is made challenging and fun (rock walls to climb, or interesting paths to follow), then children will find the whole experience more interesting and may therefore be more inclined to repeat it -- thus making them exercise more while they're learning more than just climbing up and sliding down. The actual cost of the slide for the natural playground will be far less, as the slide is simpler (no structure, no ladder, no ladder enclosure, no tube to keep kids from falling off), and there is no need for a fall zone all around the slide (it's just at the end).

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What are natural playgrounds?

If you've ever climbed trees, rolled down hills, scrambled up rocks, made mud pies, dammed up water, hid in grass, played house in bushes, built snow forts, dug in sand, played in dirt, planted seeds, jumped in leaves, tracked animals, or had fun outside in other, similar ways, you've experienced natural play.Our unique design process helps our pla...
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Where do I find money for a natural playground?

We recently ran across this company, RSF Social Finance which believes that the primary role of money is to "serve the highest intentions of the human spirit." In our conversations with their Senior Lending Manager, he said they support the kind of work we do and would welcome applications from our clients!

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Is a catalog available?

A lot of people ask us for a catalog. This is interesting, in that playground catalogs typically 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 that you can 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.

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How is a natural playground constructed?

I know it sounds easy. Sort of like landscaping, so anyone with any kind of landscaping background should be able to build these beautiful play areas, right?

That's certainly what I thought when I started the company 25 years ago. I'd design beautiful natural play environments all over the country, and then our customers would hire local landscape contractors to build them.

Well, it didn't work out that way. We found that landscape contractors were adept at building patios, landscaping around commercial and residential buildings, planting trees and shrubs, installing gardens and walkways, but had no idea how to construct 3-dimensional landscapes.

If they tried (and they did), because they didn't understand how to build in three dimensions, they would change our design on the spot, with the result that things no longer fit. Most of the time, they misinterpreted our plans, didn't know how to solve drainage issues, couldn't read plans, didn't understand the ASTM and CPSC safety guidelines so they'd create safety hazards, and they had no idea how to implement the ADA guidelines.

They caused more headaches than it was worth, and, because they didn't know what they were doing (had never before built a Natural Playground), to cover themselves, they charged our customers way too much money, in one case 3 times what we had estimated!

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What is your design process?

"Designing" generally implies that a process will be followed in developing a plan that shows how something will look and function once it's built.

A plan is usually required when a number of elements need to be placed together in a coherent fashion that optimizes the space you have.

Depending on the project, each element (which the dictionary defines as a part or aspect of something abstract) may consist of a number of components, each of which may be abstract in itself.

So a typical client will have a number of components that need to be categorized into elements that need to be drawn together in a coherent plan.

You need to find a designer to help you do this.

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Why encourage natural play?

Manufactured playgrounds challenge children's physical development (mostly gross motor skills) but do very little to challenge their emotional, social, and cognitive creativity.

On the other hand, Natural playgrounds made with natural play elements, mirror natural world experiences that help children - and young adults - constantly discover new things about themselves and the world around them through experimentation, observation, problem-solving, and manipulation. In addition, natural playgrounds are very physically challenging!

Our playground designers give natural playscapes character, the imprint of time, biological complexity, architectural eloquence, and physical challenge.

"Children gravitate naturally toward sand, water, loose parts, and stacking materials. Children need exposure to nature. They need play that helps them develop a sense of beauty,' says Joe Frost, professor of early childhood education, University of Texas.

"Trees and stones will teach you that which you can never learn from masters." Saint Bernard, 11th Century.

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Why build natural playgrounds?

Why do all playgrounds look alike?

We always begin playground workshops the same way. We ask people to think back to a Saturday morning when they were 8-12 years old and to tell us what their favorite outdoor play activity was, either something they did by themselves or with their friends.

Exercise follows:

  1. Before you read further, what was your favorite outdoor play experience? (For this exercise, exclude sports, shopping, electronic toys, and motorized vehicles.)

  2. Take a moment and write it down. Was it rolling down a hill? Chasing your friends? Building forts in the woods? Playing in the water? Watching insects in a field? Throwing snowballs? Playing four square or statue? Or just talking with your best friend on a bench under a tree?

  3. So write it down, and then read on.

Whatever it was, playground equipment probably wasn’t part of it. It never is. Very, very few adults in all our meetings and workshops have said "my favorite outdoor play activity was sliding on the playground slide," or "playing on the monkey rings," or "going up and down on the see-saw," or even "going to the playground."

The funny thing is that when we work in schools, we ask children the same question, and even though they have all this safe, expensive, manufactured equipment on their playgrounds, their favorite play activities still have nothing to do with the equipment. 

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What do natural playgrounds look like?

Natural play areas often look like miniature natural landscapes.

Flat land is transformed into rolling hills, vegetation grows where it looks right, weathered brick paths meander around "natural" features, sand play areas are scooped into the ground, fallen trees are perfect for sitting and climbing, natural rock piles make wonderful seats and climbing areas, loose parts for constructing things are all over the place, shrubs are great for finding insects and "hiding," trees provide cool shade, places for birds, great spring summer and fall colors, and fruit if you plant fruit trees...

Take a look at our gallery, and see lots of inspiring photos!

Natural playgrounds are definitely the way to go!

How are natural playgrounds different?

We are all curious about the natural world and how it works. There is very little in our lives that is unaffected by nature. Weather dictates our choice of clothes, our buildings battle the elements, food comes from the soil, water comes from ponds or underground reservoirs, and we sleep when the sun goes down.

When thunder rolls, or frost forms on a window pane, or a rivulet of water takes a new course, or a leaf falls, or a bee lands on a flower, or wind blows hair or makes a leaf tornado, kids of all ages want to know why.

Why is the sky blue? Why does the rain make noise? Where does the water go? How do you make bricks? How do you make a lean-to out of sticks? Where do ants go? Why is grass hollow? How come things grow? Why is a caterpillar fuzzy? How do you build an igloo? Why does it feel cozy crawling under a bush? Why is it so exciting to run through the grass? How can a conversation with a friend feel so intimate when we’re sitting on a log right in the middle of things?

Young people should be learning about these things when they’re outside, not just when they’re taking a class, but also when they’re relaxing or playing.

Natural Playgrounds use natural landscapes as their model, and incorporate as many of the following features as possible:

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Are natural playgrounds really safer than manufactured playground equipment?

Because equipment is so expensive and has such limited play value, we rarely recommend it. Sometimes, however, our clients want it because it offers play experiences not otherwise available (sliding and swinging are examples). In these two examples, our playground designers incorporate slides into existing or created hills (for pictures of in-ground or embankment slides, see examples on this site), and for the vestibular motion achieved by swinging, we use low impact porch/arbor swings.

Our Guidelines: What’s important to keep in mind, is that the natural features of the site should be the framework within which play is experienced. No play component (natural or manufactured) should dictate the design of the site, or force the site to do something that doesn’t befit its general nature.

Whereas a site will naturally dictate the design of natural play and recreation opportunities (an obvious example is a hillside that easily becomes an amphitheater or a place for sledding or rolling down hill), equipment and its typically large safe zone requirement often dominates a site and destroys its natural character.

All too often, equipment companies will remove trees and other vegetation so they can level a site to make way for their equipment, an action which is both environmentally disrespectful and needlessly expensive.

Sales reps ("playground designers") from large equipment companies, whose clients ask for natural playgrounds, tell us they have no equipment options that offer natural play experiences. As a result, all they can offer is landscaping. Clearly, they should be offering Natural Playground options.

But are they really safe?

We're always uncertain how to respond to these kinds of concerns. It's sort of like trying to discuss safety issues about a walk in the woods, so let me just share some things with you.

For months, we've been looking for safety information with regard to natural play areas and have found nothing. They seem to fall somewhere between playgrounds, parks, and gardens, so I think the insurance industry hasn't quite figured out how to develop safety standards on which they base their risk assessment.

Sometimes we cavalierly suggest that natural play areas are really nothing more than landscaping, and as far as we know, insurance companies don't yet have an opinion about the safety of landscaping, or how to assess the risks inherent in landscaping.

So let's take one thing at a time.

The majority of serious playground accidents result from falls off high play structures. That's why there's so much attention paid to fall/use zone material and depth (see statistics at the end of this article).

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Who should consider natural playgrounds?

If you need to remodel old playgrounds, build new ones, develop master plans for play areas around schools or communities, develop outdoor classrooms, create learning trails, or build gardens, shade structures, gateways, or play sculptures...

...and you want to do something creative, different, cost-effective, long-lasting, educational, and beautiful that benefits your children in numerous ways,

Please don't pull out a catalog! 

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...and let our natural playground staff help you assess your situation and work with you to develop a plan that gets you where you want to go - in a natural way - toward a Natural Playground.

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What are some other online resources related to natural playgrounds?

You may find the following educational resources helpful.   

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