Getting Real with Natural Playgrounds

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 ( 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 ( 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 ( 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.

bird's nest

Do want to share your ideas or favorite pictures?

2 thoughts on “Getting Real with Natural Playgrounds

  1. I think you are getting at two very important and different approaches here. The first is bringing bits of nature into more urban settings. This I love. It is ‘easy’, cheap and can be very effective. I can even have public parks clients do this, knowing they can replace their large stick, pine cones or even tree cookies without much problem. (fishing them out of the nearby pond, keeping them out of windows or fall areas is another problem all together) Urban trees are always delivering more loose parts.

    The other topic is play in nature. Which I find so much more difficult. As a designer I often come into a project where owner has picked a site and wants nature play. Sometimes boundaries can be shifted, but often people are still envisioning a playground made of nature materials and some natural activities, (think, stick fort buildling) kind of a hybrid playscape.

    On the far other side of the spectrum you have play in nature. Those large expanses that have time to heal, like you and David have talked about. I think this can be done well on a smaller scale too. I have seen a few schools in Germany that fence off portions of the schoolyard to heal and have grand reopening of them through the year. Kind of a rotating pasture approach.

    I like to think of natural play as a continuum. All of the above finding a different location between free play in an expansive natural area and play with a concrete log or a stick in a concrete play area.


    • Yes, this is spot on. What I’m wondering is that we often spend time thinking about what can go into a a naturalistic play environment and not enough time thinking about its sustainability. Of course there are exceptions, and I’d love hear about environments that have stayed natural for ten or more years, but in my experience they are few and far between. The successes I have seen are by very highly skilled LAs with a very supportive and deep pocket client. What resources are available for the LA who gets such a client a few times in a whole career, small park departments on shoe string budgets, daycare centers?

      With the advent of the web we can share resources and begin to address these questions, no?


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