Landscaping Parks for Play

Reprinted from Rusty Keeler's book, 'Natural Playscapes'

Several years ago our urban Tampa, Florida neighborhood park was renovated. It’s our second home of sorts, our enlarged backyard, a green swatch of play woven into an urban quilt of concrete and cars. And it’s one of the few places we let our six-year-old and her friends play freely, beyond the immediate sight and reach of hovering secret service-esque parents prowling the park for pitfalls. Why? The park is fenced in, but more importantly, landscaped areas, like Shel Silverstein’s “Giving Tree,” beckon children to climb, swing, and explore – the things unwired kids are wired to do.

In one corner, a cluster of Confederate jasmine encircles an oak tree to provide a sort of fort, or hideaway for kids. Four-foot high viburnum hedges bordering a dog park fence shield kids sneaking up on each other. The play equipment is a station, not a destination, shaded in part by a sturdy oak tree low enough to climb.

So I’ve wondered, are parks landscaped for play? If so, are kids more likely to explore and play by themselves?I contacted an urban planner in Tampa’s Parks and Recreation Department who helped renovate our park. I was surprised to learn our park wasn’t intentionally landscaped for play. The Confederate jasmine fort spaced around the oak tree? Room for roots to grow. However, the park was designed “with the understanding kids will play in those areas, so we try to plant plants that will support that and survive it,” explained Tom Johnston, a 22-year veteran designing parks for Tampa. “As a designer, you realize it’s a flaw in your design if you build it and try to keep the kids out.”

Then who is designing parks landscaped for play? Robin Moore, professor of landscape architecture at North Carolina State University and director of the school’s Natural Learning Initiative, is a leader in promoting play in natural environments. He’s working with Mecklenburg County in North Carolina to create, within a park, a mixed woodland play area. He envisions children using loose materials to build club houses. The goal is to create an environment “dramatic enough that it would at least go through to pre-adolescence, 10 maybe even 12 years old,” Moore said. “If it is exciting enough, it would still work.” Moore doesn’t detect a national trend towards landscaped play, “but I hope it’s going to become one.”

Moore’s work and writing inspired Rusty Keeler, a former industrial play equipment designer turned landscaped-for-play park proponent, working in the Netherlands. Keeler was intrigued by playgrounds that featured sand, water and areas where kids could “dig in the dirt and get messy … it had nothing to do with playground equipment at all.” The parks reminded him of the corn and wheat fields, the rock piles and hedge rows he explored as a “free range” kid in upstate New York. So, he created Earthplay, a designer of landscaped outdoor play environments.

Keeler mixes open space with nooks, shrubs, getaway spots for quiet time, pathways and places where large or small groups can play with sand. He includes sculptures to climb that also react to wind and rain. He sees parks as a catalyst encouraging children to explore, “feeling connected to it all,” creating their own space, even adapting their play to seasonal changes.

Better yet, kids can explore without “an adult looking over their shoulder,” added Moore. “If you have an environment that parents perceive as being secure and safe, they’re going to let their kids be free in nature, then the kids are going to be more engaged.”

Edward writes a parenting column, “Green with your Offspring,” about exploring wildlife settings in urban areas.

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One Response to Landscaping Parks for Play

  1. Wendy W says:

    WOW! a park where kids are ALLOWED to climb the trees! Unbelievable.

    Our own experience has been the exact opposite. At one park in a nearby city, my friend and I were approached by a city worker and told that our kids had to get out of the trees. The reason: the potential for lawsuits should a child fall. Maybe I’m an exception in this nutso world, but if a parent is standing there WATCHING the child climb the tree, would a court actually blame the city parks if the child should fall? If so, the court system is even more messed up than I thought.

    We have park in our own town where we used to meet with friends on a regular basis. Our reason for choosing this park was that it has HUGE trees with branches just perfect for climbing. Our combined total of 6 boys (ages 7-13) loved to play here. In addition to the large trees, there is a wooded area with a path mowed through the underbrush where the kids could play out of sight of the adults. After a few visits here, we realized that the parks workers patrolled the area regularly with the sole purpose of CHASING THE KIDS OUT OF THE TREES! They also regularly moved the picnic tables away from the trees (and out of the shade) because the kids used them to reach the lower branches. Eventually they removed all the tables from the park except one, which was placed on the far edge of the park, well beyond the ability of the kids or moms to move it to a usable spot. This also left the toddler playground with no place for moms to sit while little ones played under watchful eyes. Frequently we saw signs of other kids having attempted to build forts or ladders in the trees, which the parks workers always removed and destroyed.

    My dream home would include private woods where my kids could build anything they want. This micromanaging of our kids play time is insane.