Very early in my carrer I did some projects at the San Francisco Zoo. There was a stretch of cages that the keepers called “death row” because so many animals, mainly primates, died in them. There we basically 12x12x12-ft chain link boxes with a little concrete closet for shelter. They were baren except for a roost and a basin for water and another for food. The animals were either lethargic or paced constantly. Volunteers and I added tree branches, hung ties and barrels and generally tried to introduce some variety and “naturalness” to these bleak environments. Although we never felt we had done enough, the little we were able to do meant a lot to the animals which began to behave normally and even reproduce.
I’m sharing this story because I know for this and many other related experiences what introducing natural features into play areas can do to stimulate and support play. What I also learned is that natural features tend to break down with heavy use. Here’s good example. It is wonderful to be with a group of kids the first time they turn over a rock and discover all the creepy crawly thing that live there. I think such an experience is emblematic of what we look for in a natural playground.
Here’s the rub, depending on a bunch of factors like moisture, season, etc. it will take a week to a month for that rock to become repopulated with the same critters. If the rock is turned over every day the life therein disappears. This is the challenge for those of us who would provide more naturalistic settings, the closer we get to being really natural the harder it is to maintain from the constant use. Any children’s museum that allows for touching living things will tell you that they have to work very hard to manage the exhibitions. Even National Parks have to put traffic restrictions in place to reduce human impact.
David Verbeck, who’s company is Grassroots Playgrounds (http://preschoolplaygrounds.com/) have talked about this dilema at considerable length. One notion we kicked around is the idea that in order to have as much nature as possible there needs to be a lot of space so the nature is spread out and has a chance to recover from the constant explorations. Over time certain areas will become more heavily used, like the edges between soil and water, and those areas can be give special care so they endure.
Gregory Gavin at Riveropolis (http://www.riveropolis.com/Riveropolis.3.26.13/home.html) does an amazing job with his programs where growing their own “forest” is part of his curriculum. This gives the kids responsibility for the life of their nature which seems like part of the solution.
Here is a link (http://pinterest.com/tdawson/natural-playground-ideas/) to an interesting Pinterest collection assembled by Tara Shepherd Dawson that is chocked full of good idea. I’ll follow this post with links to other similar collections and sources.
Do want to share your ideas or favorite pictures?