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Designing for outdoor play and learning

When it comes to designing outdoor spaces, creativity should be encouraged. An understanding of the characteristics and history of the site will helpt to establish a sense of place and relate to what is there already.

A skilled designer, most likely a natural playground designer, should lead the process, supplemented with additional expertise, such as from a play expert or civil engineer. Public artists can also add richness to a project, and art installations can sometimes offer children more play value than equipment. 

Back to nature

Natural play is growing in popularity in the UK. Natural play spaces contain playful landscape elements including landform, vegetation, and natural elements such as logs, stones, mud, and sand.

Research studies have documented the benefits that can come from natural play, including for children’s learning, healthy growth, and development. This year the Forestry Commission is publishing Nature play: simple and fun ideas for all, an illustrative guide that provides ideas for local forest managers to implement in their nature play areas. Many of the ideas in the guide can equally be applied to urban areas.

The guide encourages the use of locally sourced materials and construction by local crafts people. Natual PLaygrounds Company offers a balanced design approach to traditional playground design and natural play. The concept encourages children to be active and creative, allowing them to take appropriate risks to learn their boundaries and valuable, lifelong lessons. 

Children prefer to play in natural environments, as they help develop all types of play. In contrast to man-made environments, a natural setting can create more imaginative play and so prevent the dominance of a hierarchy based on physical strength that encourages bullying.

Much of the momentum behind natural play design originates in Denmark, Holland, and Germany. These countries offer important examples of how to create well-designed, thoughtful play spaces. Danish landscape architect and play design champion Helle Nebelong believes that, by contrast to natural play spaces, standardised play equipment can actually be dangerous. As Nebelong explained at the 2007 CABE Space leaders programme: ‘Play becomes simplistic, and children no longer have to think about their movement. The ability to concentrate on estimated distance, height and risks needs practice. And the playground is where that practising should begin.’

Play expert Tim Gill believes that these countries are getting it
right primarily because landscape architects enjoy a much closer involvement in the process. The starting point is a holistic look at the site, rather than at what pieces of equipment should be bought.

In addition, those countries have not become as pre-occupied with safety as the UK, even though their facilities meet the required European standards.

10 principles for designing outdoor play environments

One golden rule: a successful play space is a place in its own right, specially designed for its location, in such a way as to provide as much play value as possible. The rules ask practitioners to imagine a play space that is:

  1. Designed to enhance its setting — successful play spaces are designed to fit their surroundings and enhance the local environment, complementing attractive spaces and enhancing poorer environments.
  2. Located in the best possible place — successful play spaces are located carefully ‘to be where children would play naturally’. While children often enjoy feeling as if they are away from adult view, there is a fine balance between a space that is pleasantly secluded and one that is remote and hidden away.
  3. Close to nature — grassy mounds, planting, logs and boulders can all help to make a more attractive and playable setting for equipment, and planting can also help attract birds and other wildlife to bring the play space to life.
  4. Designed so that children can play in different ways: successful play spaces can be used in different ways by children and young people of different ages and interests; they can also be important social spaces for parents and carers, as well as for children.
  5. Geared towards encouraging disabled and able-bodied children to play together — children with different abilities can play together in well-designed play spaces, and parents and carers who are themselves disabled should be able to gain access to play spaces if they are to accompany their children.
  6. Loved by the community: a successful community engagement process will help create a site that the community likes and which meets its needs. CABE Space’s "What would you do with this space?" offers constructive ways to involve children in public space design. 
  7. Where children of all ages play together — good play spaces avoid segregating children based on age or ability and are laid out so that equipment and features can be used by a wide range of children.
  8. Designed to enable children to stretch and challenge themselves in every way: Children and young people need opportunities to experience challenge and excitement in their play.
  9. Maintained for play value and environmental sustainability: good play spaces are designed and constructed using sustainable materials and maintained to encourage different play experiences.
  10. Flexible and able to evolve as the children grow: Building some ‘slack space’ into the layout — areas with no predefined function — can help introduce the potential for change and evolution.
Produced on behalf of CABE Space, London, England by HorticultureWeek




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