Creating a Barefoot Preschool

There is a buzz about Forest Schools and getting kids more access to nature, and there is of lots of science pointing to the benefits. The question is how to make this a reality in more preschools. Nature is complex and ever-changing, and trying to duplicate it is a real challenge. The good news is that we don’t have to replicate the forest precisely to deliver most of nature’s benefits. What are those benefits?

  • Trees – Shade
  • Trees – Climb in
  • Rocks – Climb on
  • Hill – Roll and Run Down
  • Grass – Soft path
  • Bushes – Hiding place
  • Dirt – Dig
  • Sand – Build
  • Water – Flow and float
  • Loose Parts – Perhaps nature’s greatest gift to children

The goal of the Preschool playspace creator should be to come as close as possible to giving children the same experiences and benefits as are to be found in nature. The following are suggestions about how to accomplish this when space, time, or budget mitigate against their inclusion.

Barefoot Preschool Playspace Design Suggestions

Landscape Considerations

  1. Pathways – Limit the use of concrete and asphalt as much as possible

The routes of travel must conform to ADA guideline for accessibility, but that does not mean they have to be tricycle freeways. Trikes and wheelchairs can negotiate grass, decomposed granite, wood decks, and other surfaces just fine. Consider using as much grass as possible. Using a rubber turf protecting mat system will vastly improve the durability of the grass by reducing compaction and protecting the roots while enhancing drainage and also reducing maintenance. Trikes are a means of transportation and are not of themselves play activities. Wheel toys that allow more than one child or hauling stuff is best.


  1. Shade – Should be where children play

Unfortunately, most playspace shade falls where the children are not playing. The best solution is to just shade the whole playspace just as plant nurseries do. Heck, if it is good enough for plants it should be good enough for kids.

Slide shade 1

  1. Plant Materials – Editable as much as possible

Select plant materials that produce fruit smell great can be harvested for loose-part play, or attract birds and butterflies. The very best information on plant selection comes from Robin Moore, Plants for Play: A Plant Selection Guide for Children’s Outdoor Environments.

  1. Fixed Elements – Only those elements that are used every day should be fixed permanently in place.

Anchoring to the ground limits flexibly and increases the cost. Limit fixed elements to sandboxes, hills, trees, shade structures, and the like.

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  1. Hills – Needed but are problematic.

Hills are one of the best ways to enhance the playspace. Unfortunately, they come with problems of their own. When we use the grass-everywhere rule, then grass at the top of the hill will tend to die. One could cover that spot with a play feature, but that will trigger the ADA ramp requirement which requires far more space than most preschool yards will provide. The best solution is a four-foot circle of decomposed granite at the top.

Apparatus Considerations

  1. There should 1½ play opportunities per child.

Most playground problems come from boredom and competition. Ensuring play opportunities are abundant is the best way to have the playspace truly become the third teacher

  1. Only introduce plastic when no other material is available to perform the function.

Plastic is the least natural material that we find in the playspace. Almost all functions can be performed by wood, glass, fabric, or metal.

  1. As much as possible, elements within the play space should be able to interoperate.

While each feature, like the sandbox, has a specific function, many of the loose parts associated with that function can become play objects in other elements. For example, a simple plank can be used almost everywhere.

  1. Every element should have two or more functions.

The plank mentioned above can become a bridge, a balance beam, a teetertotter, or a slide.


  1. Climbers should be both inside and outside

Climbing outside is mainly the same movement as walking, whereas trees allow for inside climbing that requires very complex movements and strength.

  1. Active play areas should also contain places or materials for quiet play.

Kids play hard and then need to catch their breath and self-regulate. Perches on climbers, nooks next to blocks and other cubbies for withdrawing from the more intense play should be in as many places as possible.


  1. Children use loose part accessories in direct proportion to the proximity of storage.

Designing a playspace should be very similar to designing a kitchen with the arrangement of the work surfaces and the storage of tools carefully laid out for maximum efficiency.

  1. Storage should be designed or selected to match the items to be stored.

For example, sand toys should be stored in wire baskets.

  1. How elements trigger play behavior, and how that behavior changes over time, should be known and integrated with the curriculum so that teachers can initiate desired play episodes and manage transitions.
  2. Where possible storage can provide space definition, look for opportunities to place them back to back to separate functional areas.

For More on the benefits of nature play see: