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How to make your playground more natural

by Ron King, President, Natural Playgrounds Company

Each year we get requests from Center directors asking for ideas on how to “soften” their playgrounds with more natural play elements.

Most of the 330,000 licensed child care centers in the US have metal and plastic playgrounds on top of wood/rubber chips designed to prevent injury from possible falls. Sometimes a concrete path with a dotted line straight down the center to mimic a road gets trike use, and typically there isn’t enough shade --- which all adds up to a pretty harsh outdoor play environment. 

Although most of our work is designing equipment-free Natural Playgrounds, we have also found ways to incorporate more natural play experiences in manufactured ones, so let’s look at some ideas you can try. 

Step One: Assess what you have

The easiest way is to make an accurate map of your play area using graph paper and a 100’ tape. Measure accurately, and use the graph paper to record your measurements and corners. 

Make sure to show existing features: boundaries, fences, buildings, trees, walkways, paths, fixed playground equipment, light poles, large shrubs, streams, ponds, drainage ditches, and so on. Recording the location of permanent features in the middle of your play area is a little more tricky. From two fixed points (building corners, fence corners, etc.) measure from each one to the approximate center of the feature. This is called triangulation. Using the same technique, you can plot the location of each feature on your graph paper.

If anything can be easily moved, such as sheds, loose play equipment, sheds, and small shrubs, don’t bother putting them on the plan.

If your land has a varied terrain, try finding a way to show the size, shape, and location of the little hills and valleys, and indicate with arrows the general slope of the land. This will come in handy later. Any place you want to get a more accurate reading of the slope, download a free inclinometer application on your smart phone, and place it on top of a  straight 2 x 4 that lies on your slope. The inclinometer will give you the degrees of the slope. If you're interested in installing an inground/embankment slide, the slope needs to be close to 35°. If you want to write and ask us, we can tell you how to make that happen.

Now use your compass to orient your map, and then draw a big arrow pointing North. The noontime sun will be opposite that on the south end of the arrow. We find it helpful to draw a big red circle on the south edge of the map to remind us that in the late spring, all summer, and early fall, it’s hot on the playground, and that we need to do something about it. We’ll talk about this later.

Step Two: Highlighting the Negative Spaces

  1. Find a piece of tracing paper and staple/tape it to the front of your map. 
  2. Use a black Sharpie to trace over all boundaries, light poles, large sheds, and buildings. Fill in the sheds and buildings with black. These items don't move.
  3. Using a red Sharpie, outline in red all the areas taken up by playground equipment and the fall zone around it, and outline in red all the paved and concrete pathways and pads. Fill in these outlines with red. 
  4. If you have any water or wet areas on your property, use a blue Sharpie to outline and fill these in. This area should include intermittent water flow such as from roofs after rains, as well as low areas that remain muddy.
  5. Use a yellow Sharpie to circle and fill in all large trees, large shrubs, and well-established gardens.

All the left over space that’s around - and between - the above (1-5) is called “negative space.” Outline and fill in all this space with a green Sharpie. This is the space available to “soften” your playground using the ideas below.

 Step Three: What Do You Want Children to Learn?

What are your curriculum goals -- what it is you’re trying to teach children about their outdoor environment, and what it is that you want them to learn? For instance, on your “thematic units” list may be items like spiders, snow, farming, apples, birds, rocks and minerals, water, weather, wild animals, and simple machines, and probably many other subjects that are better taught outside than in. But also on your list may be things you want your children to be able to do outside, like jumping, playing in the leaves, damning up water, and so on. 

If you want ideas from your teachers, we suggest you don’t use the word “playground.” For instance, don’t say “What kinds of things would you like to see on your playground?” Children and adults have only one frame of reference for playgrounds - those filled with equipment. An open-ended question will result in lists of equipment they’ve seen elsewhere and will not generate the information you want.

Try “outdoor play and learning area,” or “outdoor classroom,” or “play park,” or “green play area,” all of which convey a more inclusive concept.

Step 4: Responding to the Information

If you find that teachers want their children to learn about birds, squirrels, chipmunks, butterflies, bees, inch worms, earth worms, and earwigs in their natural habitats, then clearly you need to find ways to include more wildlife habitat such as shrubs, trees, brush piles, flowers, compost piles, and so on in the play yard.

Or suppose teachers say they need more shade. If you’re trying to make a softer, more natural play space, then the answer to too much sun is not another gazebo or shade tent, but is instead a living willow hut, or a sunflower house, or a vine-covered arbor, or a cave, or shade trees.

One last example: suppose everyone feels that children should have more opportunities to make things, build things, play with loose parts, develop eye-hand coordination, be creative, and discover things on their own. 

The response to this is a list of very creative solutions that will go a long way to softening a play space. Here are just a few ideas:

  • large, deep (two feet or more, and drained well), free-form sand pit with lots of small shovels, hoes, spoons, trowels, cups, and buckets
  • water supply near the sand
  • pile of 4’ long saplings for making tee-pees, lean-to’s, corrals
  • 2” and 3” diameter saplings or branches cut into 6”, 12”, 18”, and 24” lengths for building things
  • ïhalf-buried boulders to climb on
  • ïsmall boulder piles to climb up
  • ïbarefoot path
  • ïfinders trail
  • ïpile of fairy house materials
  • ïpatches of tall grasses
  • ïbrush piles to crawl in
  • ïpile of fall leaves to jump in
  • ïscent garden
  • ïanalemmatic sundial
  • ïlabyrinth
  • ïand so on!

 Step 5: Designing the Softer Green Space

It might be very tempting to randomly stick all the items from number four in the green area, but don’t. Here are some design guidelines and ideas that will make optimum use of your space.

  1. Sit on the ground in various places to see what things look like from a child’s perspective. Start making decisions based on how they experience the site. 
  2. If your site is covered with woodchips, remove what you don’t absolutely need, and in their place:
  3. Create berms of varying heights and shapes everywhere you can (single or linear mounds of earth. We can tell you out of build them). These will give your playground a much-needed third dimension while providing visual interest, surprise, shadows, private spaces, and rolling and sliding opportunities.
  4. Create new paths that are narrow (18”), winding, and exciting to help organize spaces and activities.
  5. Plant fast-growing trees, tall shrubs, or living willow structures in the hottest parts of the green space, and use these areas for quieter activities. Keep in mind that the shade will always be on the north side of the plants. Use an occasional evergreen to provide visual texture and interest.
  6. Use Kid-Friendly treated lumber (you can’t buy the bad stuff anymore) to build stairs, jumping places, climbing walls in berms, and other elements built into the earth.
  7. If you want to protect an area, or to direct movement, build raised containers or beds which will encourage children to find other, more desirable routes.
  8. To “fill in” dead areas, plant low maintenance tall grasses, wildflowers, ground covers, berry bushes, and other shrubs. In making your selection, think about fall and winter colors and textures.
  9. Go through this catalog and pick out play and learning elements that fit your curriculum guidelines.

 A simple, inexpensive irrigation system will protect your investment and keep the softer parts of your playground looking great forever.


Ron King, Architect, is president of the Natural Playgrounds Company in Concord, NH. His firm works throughout the US designing innovative, environmentally sensitive, sustainable, and easy-to-license natural playgrounds, natural playground elements, play parks, and outdoor classrooms for childcare centers, K-12 schools, and communities. Based on his interviews with over 6,000 children, King continues to write articles describing their fascination with natural environments, and lectures throughout the country on ways to incorporate these findings into designs for natural playgrounds. This research, together with a wealth of other resources about natural play, can be found on this website. The company also manufactures natural play and learning elements available through their online store here.


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