Enhancing Children·s Play in the Outdoors

Tess Michaels ² Tessa Rose Playspace and Landscape Design 0416 565297 tess@tessaroselandscapes.com.au www.tessaroselandscapes.com.au

The Natural World ²
Changes in the Design of Children·s Playspaces

Sensory stimuli and contact with nature are important elements of children·s play. Children need free access to a natural world ² these experiences with the natural environment are linked with the development of imagination and a sense of wonder ² important motivators for lifelong learning.

The Natural World ²
Changes in the Design of Children·s Playspaces  

There is a focus on site specific design, looking at plant materials and their relationship to the community environment. Plants stimulate discovery, dramatic pretend play and imagination. Plants speak to all of the senses Plants in a pleasant environment with a mix of colour, texture, fragrance and softness of enclosure also encourage a sense of peacefulness

´Fixed equipment leaves little room for children to play creatively, since there is generally a finite number of ways to use each aspect of the equipment.µ (Burger, 1984 and Walsh, 1993)

´What I like doing best is nothingµ.
Christopher Robin (A.A Milne, 1928)

Using the Outdoor Space Effectively for Children·s Play - Suggestions
´Outdoor play environments can be as effective as indoor play in stimulating children·s development..µ (Henniger, 1993)  


The addition of loose parts and props to children·s outdoor play is important to provide variety. Model the use of these items for children to extend pretend play Observe and discuss the movement, colour and sound of plant materials Placing babies in different positions within the playspace stimulates their sensory experiences, eg, under a tree, in the sandpit or amongst native grasses Provide rugs and blankets of different textures for young children·s tactile experiences Look at the leaves, flowers and bark of plants together ² build on conversations for language development There is a tendency for adults to create activities from the adult perspective rather than finding ways to provide ´children·sµ based experiences ² where does the children·s play take them? How can we be a part of it? What do the children need to take their interests further?

´With children·s access to the outdoors and the natural world becoming increasingly limited or non-existant, child care, kindergartens and schools where children spend 40-50 hours per week may be our last opportunity to reconnect children with the natural world and create a future generation that values and preserves nature.µ (Malone and Tranter 2003) Adults who model the enjoyment of, comfort with and respect of nature, assist children with this process.

Research Points   

In their study of 41 playgrounds in North Carolina, Hestenes, Shim and DeBord (2007) found that on playgrounds with more natural elements, children displayed less functional or repetitive behaviour and more constructive (building, hypothesizing) play Davies (1996), in her interview with 22 teachers in a preschool in Australia found that in terms of diversity in the outdoor environment, less than half the teachers thought about natural elements as part of the outdoor curriculum and those who did seem to believe that it would improve the playgrounds attractiveness rather than further the educational needs of children Teachers also perceived that their role was to set up the stage for play and direct children only when they engaged in inappropriate behaviours (Davies 1997) However, a teachers role is paramount in children·s experiences outdoors! Positive interactions enhance not only every level of children·s development but also build successful relationships between teachers and children, families and their colleagues.

Further Ideas to Explore

Explore sand temperatures on hot days ² sand hot on top, cool underneath, add water and wet sand gets very cold Use wet sand to make shapes and/or a structure and see what happens when it dries (the structure collapses) Try and build a bridge with sand ² discuss with children ´whyµ this won·t work Make rivulet patterns in sand with water, photograph, discuss and extend into art work and centre documentation Plant bulbs and/or seeds in patterns - what happens when they grow? Collect a wide range of natural materials sticks, leaves, rocks, shells and develop into cities, roads, with gardens! Follow through with children·s ideas in this area and document experiences Archeological digs ² similar to dinosaur bones ² things for children to find ² fossils, gems, etc


Further Ideas to Explore
SWING AREAS OR PLAYSPACE EQUIPMENT  Hang chimes or reflective mobiles on or near swing sets or playspace equipment for differing moods and reflections of items  Plant scented plants in pots around swing sets or playspace equipment ² again varies mood and experience  Consider using different textures as the ropes of the swing, areas children climb on, surfaces they sit on, eg, wrap silk, furry materials, etc, around rope to enhance experience ² something similar may also be achieved with the swing seat or slides


Young children - rugs to watch clouds with adults, discuss shapes, find them elsewhere in the playspace and extend to art work and other centre experiences Build a low mound with cushions for children to climb and roll on, etc ² great for children starting to crawl Large cardboard boxes ² construct a city with houses, climbing area, obstacle course, etc


Nesting boxes for bird life Weather stations Art opportunities such as murals, sculpture and installations using natural materials that can be temporary and changed based on children·s outdoor interests Watch a plant ² observe changes, document these through the seasons, explore what is happening

Small Group Work
What learning and opportunities for natural play can you see in this playspace? What may be added to enhance children·s play experiences? In what ways could positive interactions with adults be included?

Plants in Children·s Playspaces ² Ideas and Strategies 

Movement ² to move children from different areas in their environment safely Comfort ² provide spaces for children to relax and/or seek refuge Competence ² give children opportunities for success in negotiating the environment and making changes to it Control ² allowing children to experiment and make decisions Using plants as changes of scale, eg mini plants and large stalked plants ² can give children a feeling of control and power Child sized plants enhance feelings of importance Tall plants to frame landmarks in the distance ² creates a sense of vastness in the landscape

Drama and make believe with plants ² fairy gardens, secret spaces, fantasy

Tall grasses ² concepts of space, height, size, etc Plants evoke a feeling of ´REALNESSµ in the environment, creating ambience and atmosphere.

Practical Ideas and Strategies    

Meandering paths through scented and/or sensory plant materials Circles of vegetation rather than straight lines Greenery evokes a feeling of open space Include tunnels and rolling hills and mounds of vegetation

Construct archways or arbours of tunnels using climbers and twining plants or dense shrubs ² consider native climbers such as Hardenbergia spp or Clematis aristata There are a range of native grasses that can be used to create mounds and areas for children to roll, etc, such as Themeda ´Mingoµ, Poa Eskdale and Kingsdale and Lomandra mondra

Practical Ideas and Strategies
Not everything in a playspace needs to be functional, eg flower gardensa, vines, trees with branches hanging down, digging patches and special plants such as the Neoregelia ´Gee Whizzµ
Children come to understand that the flowers they enjoy are a result of care and diligence.

Plants can identify play areas through ecological themes with vegetation, eg water play in bog environments Vertical plant walls add new dimensions to children·s play. Consider planting herbs or small bromeliads like this outdoors or even indoors Use plant materials to define pathways for movement and consider unusually shaped garden beds with more curves

Although Narcissus spp ² Daffodils, are considered poisonous in NSW child care services the same effect can be achieved with native plants and grasses or alternative bulbs

Use plants to create shapes in paths Tepees with vines or bamboo are open for supervision but still give the effect of privacy to children

Consider using plant materials for seating. The adjacent seats are made with terracotta pots with bricks in the pots to avoid tipping over and then planted with turf varieties. Native grasses and/or herbs would also work and this provides a low cost seating option for children Create carnivorous and bog plant gardens (pictured left) and wildlife ponds with aquatic plants (pictured right) used with adult supervision

Practical Ideas and Strategies
Examples of plant textures and sensory plants below. Try using potted varieties first and moving them throughout the playspace to see where they grow best and where play is enhanced the most by Adenanthos their presence. Plants may then be planted out.
sericea, Banksia ´Birthday Candlesµ and Crassula orbiculata at left Carex ´Frosty Curlsµ, Lavandula ´Regal Splendourµ, Eriostemon ´Flower Girlµ and Pennisetum advena ´Rubrumµ at right

Choose plants for their fragrance, the sounds they make, sensory appeal and colour

Different sized foliage plants develop children·s early mathematical and spatial awareness skills

A natural environment with plants encourages language and collaboration between children. There is always something to talk about and some problem to solve

Practical Ideas and Strategies
Consider:  Plants that attract butterflies to the garden  Plants that look old and prehistoric ² play with dinosaurs  Indigenous plants ² those from the local community region ² focuses on learning about the environment  Mazes with vegetation ² using controlled bamboo or native grasses  Seasonal plants ² observing changes  Succulent gardens ² explore sizes, shape, colour, growth, change and texture

Grasses for simple and low maintenance mazes throughout the playground Prehistoric plants like Kalanchoe beharense are also useful as texture/sensory plants Succulents provide many learning opportunities with children ² the Aeonium aSchwartzkopf is purple/maroon in the sun and goes bright green in the shade

Labyrinths and Mazes
Labyrinths provide a powerful means of introducing restful movement into children·s playspaces. They have one path which leads to the centre and back out again and have been used for centuries as a form of meditation. Walking a labyrinth is a right brain activity enhancing peacefulness.

Labyrinths can be comprised of many different types of plant materials and also in various forms, sizes and shapes. Native grasses have been increasingly successful as low level labyrinths.

Labyrinths and Mazes
Mazes differ to labyrinths in that they are more of a puzzle and provide children with choices about which direction to take, etc. There is a wide variety of materials that can be utilised to certain heights that either provide gaps in the maze or are low enough to provide complete visual access. Plant mazes don·t all require high maintenance and pruning ² there are many options for low maintenance mazes.
Although the maze shown here is large scale, adaptations can always be made to suit site conditions. Both labyrinths and mazes are excellent alternatives to turf areas which have not been successful due to drought and compaction from overuse, especially when the appropriate plant materials are used in their design and development.

Edible Gardens
´The cycles of life, watching a seed sprout, grow, flower, produce seed and return to the soil to nourish the next crop of flowers is a metaphor children can grasp and relate to their own lives.µ Barbara Richardson (Rupp, 2005) Edible gardens can play an important role in the plant selection for children·s gardens. Edible and/or bush tucker foods may be planted alongside other plants. Edible gardens don·t necessarily need to be kept separate from other areas in the playspace. They can be integrated with other plants ² the focus being on using the whole playspace and creating an awareness of all plant materials during growth and harvesting.

Children with additional needs require universally accessible playspaces and want to be included in all experiences with plant materials. Elements such as raised sand pits, digging patches and planter boxes allow for accessibility at all times

´Children want play environments where they have the power to imprint themselves upon the landscape, endow the landscape with significance and experience their own activities as capable of transforming the environment.µ (White, 1997)

Plants don·t have to be high maintenance and a nuisance. If selected carefully to meet the soil and site conditions they will adapt and require only some maintenance. Look at your centres dry and wet zones ² plants can be chosen with these exact requirements in mind Plants and natural environments produce both psychological and physical responses. They may 
Assist in reducing stress in children  Improve children·s feelings of wellbeing  Increase independence and autonomy  Create an awareness of reasoning and observation skills  Increase positive feelings about the self and others especially in children with behavioural challenges

Children touch, smell, look and freely explore one planting to another ² it·s all about self-discovery and then showing others what they see and making the connection about how important plants are to them.

Useful Plant Materials