How to Build a Natural Playscape

July 26, 2011

In honor of our family themed July/August issue, we've invited guest writer Paige Johnson, who spearheads the blog Playscapes, to share her perspective on some of the most innovative contemporary design targeted to kids. Week 3: How to Make A Natural Playscape.
 

Natural playscapes are some of the most popular playgrounds being designed and reflect wider cultural concerns about sustainability and interaction with nature. They intentionally avoid plastic and metal and emphasize locally sourced and recycled materials in their construction. Municipalities are embracing the concept since even a custom-designed natural playground can be much less expensive than off-the-shelf manufactured components. That’s true for backyard settings as well, where making your own natural playscape can be an economical alternative to purchasing a traditional playset. Natural playscape ideas are readily adaptable to sites large and small, so choose from these to make your own unique space for family play! If you create one, send it to me...maybe you’ll end up on the playscapes blog!

  • 
  Step 1: Make a HillWhen I was little, my mom asked the builders in our new subdivision to leave a dump truck sized load of dirt in the yard. Raked smooth and sodded, it became the center of all our childhood play. We rode trikes and then bikes up and down its slopes, sledded on it in the winter, used a tarp to make impromptu water slides in the summer, and created an array of constantly changing games in which it was the center of a castle or a fort or a rocket ship. We had a swingset too, but the hill got much more use. If you can add only one thing to your family playspace, make it a hill. Leave it as a plain pile, or shape it like this one.Image courtesy of mortar and pestle studios.
    Step 1: Make a HillWhen I was little, my mom asked the builders in our new subdivision to leave a dump truck sized load of dirt in the yard. Raked smooth and sodded, it became the center of all our childhood play. We rode trikes and then bikes up and down its slopes, sledded on it in the winter, used a tarp to make impromptu water slides in the summer, and created an array of constantly changing games in which it was the center of a castle or a fort or a rocket ship. We had a swingset too, but the hill got much more use. If you can add only one thing to your family playspace, make it a hill. Leave it as a plain pile, or shape it like this one.Image courtesy of mortar and pestle studios.
  • 
  Step 2:  Add Boulders and StumpsBoulders and stumps can usually be found completely for free, from your city’s tree-cuttings or a country friend’s rock pile. A single boulder or stump can be a quiet place to sit, or an impromptu table.Image by Paolo Tasini.
    Step 2: Add Boulders and StumpsBoulders and stumps can usually be found completely for free, from your city’s tree-cuttings or a country friend’s rock pile. A single boulder or stump can be a quiet place to sit, or an impromptu table.Image by Paolo Tasini.
  • 
  A series of boulders or stumps are great for jumping or stepping. Burying at least one-third of each below ground will ensure that it is stable and won’t tip over as someone skips from one stump to another.Image by Steve Olson of the University of Minnesota Arboretum.
    A series of boulders or stumps are great for jumping or stepping. Burying at least one-third of each below ground will ensure that it is stable and won’t tip over as someone skips from one stump to another.Image by Steve Olson of the University of Minnesota Arboretum.
  • 
  Step 3:  Spill some SandPiles of sand dumped in parks for street kids were the forerunner of today’s playgrounds. Who says sand has to be in a sand box?  Use stumps or boulders to create the outlines of a space for sand, or simply make a pile and replenish it as necessary.Image from the Freeplay Network.
    Step 3: Spill some SandPiles of sand dumped in parks for street kids were the forerunner of today’s playgrounds. Who says sand has to be in a sand box? Use stumps or boulders to create the outlines of a space for sand, or simply make a pile and replenish it as necessary.Image from the Freeplay Network.
  • 
  If you have even the hint of a swale, add some gravel or larger rocks to simulate a dry creek bed. Don’t make any of this too difficult. Just lay out the sand and the gravel and give the kids some tools to dig with. They’ll know what to do.Image courtesy of the Montessori Children's Room.
    If you have even the hint of a swale, add some gravel or larger rocks to simulate a dry creek bed. Don’t make any of this too difficult. Just lay out the sand and the gravel and give the kids some tools to dig with. They’ll know what to do.Image courtesy of the Montessori Children's Room.
  • 
  Step 4: Plant Some Grasses to Wave in the Wind
Grasses are perfect for children to hide in without being such a solid barrier as to present a security risk. Plus they’re low maintenance, and let any toddler become a lion in a savannah. This beautiful installation is for a botanic garden, by 3:0 Landscape Architects.Image courtesy of 3:0 Landscape Architects.
    Step 4: Plant Some Grasses to Wave in the Wind Grasses are perfect for children to hide in without being such a solid barrier as to present a security risk. Plus they’re low maintenance, and let any toddler become a lion in a savannah. This beautiful installation is for a botanic garden, by 3:0 Landscape Architects.Image courtesy of 3:0 Landscape Architects.
  • 
  Step 5: Make a Path
Children love to follow a path. Use stepping stones, or bricks, or large rocks or slabs cut from a tree trunk to weave even a short trail through your grasses or along your hill.Image courtesy of Paul Horne at Pittsboro Parks.
    Step 5: Make a Path Children love to follow a path. Use stepping stones, or bricks, or large rocks or slabs cut from a tree trunk to weave even a short trail through your grasses or along your hill.Image courtesy of Paul Horne at Pittsboro Parks.
  • 
  Step 6:  Make Room for a DenPlaces to hide are often a neglected part of the playscape because of parental fears. Just remember that your goal is partial, not total, concealment. There are many options, but be sure to see the den as a less permanent construction than the traditional playhouse—a place that the child can change to suit their own fancy by draping it with fabric or weaving ribbons through the willow twigs.Image via Kleas.
    Step 6: Make Room for a DenPlaces to hide are often a neglected part of the playscape because of parental fears. Just remember that your goal is partial, not total, concealment. There are many options, but be sure to see the den as a less permanent construction than the traditional playhouse—a place that the child can change to suit their own fancy by draping it with fabric or weaving ribbons through the willow twigs.Image via Kleas.
  • 
  Use reclaimed logpoles to make a teepee that can be covered with annual vines in summer and burlap in winter, weave willow wands into a hut, or plant a weeping mulberry to form a natural green cave.Photo by Tim Gill of Rethinking Childhood.
    Use reclaimed logpoles to make a teepee that can be covered with annual vines in summer and burlap in winter, weave willow wands into a hut, or plant a weeping mulberry to form a natural green cave.Photo by Tim Gill of Rethinking Childhood.
  • 
  Step 7: Make a Bridge or a Gate to Nowhere
They require a slightly larger space, but a bridge to cross or a gate to open and shut will add further delight to the natural playscape. They don’t need to go anywhere, just being there adds a hefty amount of visual intrigue.
    Step 7: Make a Bridge or a Gate to Nowhere They require a slightly larger space, but a bridge to cross or a gate to open and shut will add further delight to the natural playscape. They don’t need to go anywhere, just being there adds a hefty amount of visual intrigue.
  • 
  If you have the topography for it, a bridge over a shallow ditch can become a balance beam, providing a challenge that helps in physical development. A thick board set into your path leaves plenty for imaginative kids to play with.Natural playground bridge via playbasedlearning.com.au.
    If you have the topography for it, a bridge over a shallow ditch can become a balance beam, providing a challenge that helps in physical development. A thick board set into your path leaves plenty for imaginative kids to play with.Natural playground bridge via playbasedlearning.com.au.
  • 
  Step 8:  Include Loose Parts 
Your child will, of course, make their own additions to the natural playscape. "Tree cookies"—sanded slices of logs—are a natural playground classic and easy to make on your own. They can be stacked and counted, laid out as paths, or serve as plates for a make-believe dinner.
    Step 8: Include Loose Parts Your child will, of course, make their own additions to the natural playscape. "Tree cookies"—sanded slices of logs—are a natural playground classic and easy to make on your own. They can be stacked and counted, laid out as paths, or serve as plates for a make-believe dinner.
  • 
  Returning to my own childhood, what I played with most (next to the hill) was a pile of bricks left over from the construction of my family's home. Bring loose parts into your natural playscape for endless hours of building.Image courtesy of Dimensions Educational Research Foundation.Don't miss a word of Dwell! Download our  FREE app from iTunes, friend us on Facebook, or follow us on Twitter!
    Returning to my own childhood, what I played with most (next to the hill) was a pile of bricks left over from the construction of my family's home. Bring loose parts into your natural playscape for endless hours of building.Image courtesy of Dimensions Educational Research Foundation.

    Don't miss a word of Dwell! Download our FREE app from iTunes, friend us on Facebook, or follow us on Twitter!

@current / @total

Join the Discussion

Loading comments...