Thursday, December 20, 2012

It Wood, Its Outside, Lets Build!

Some kids are born to build! I can remember building lots of forts indoors and out. My favorite hiding place with a grove of fir trees (old family Christmas Trees) with a concrete block inside that was my table, couch, potions lab all in one. There are a lot more tools out there today for building and creating outdoors.




Curvy Board

NYC High Line building kits


Auburn University Nature Play Area

Building frames and loose stick building  

 Happy Holidays and Happy Building!

Thursday, December 13, 2012

Music in the Playscape

There are  many options out there for music in outdoor play spaces. From large drums to chimes and many percussion instruments. These early encounters with sounds and music can instill a love of music and get kids over the fear of not being able to 'play' the instrument well.  Below are a few ideas to remember when installing music pieces and a few of my favorite instruments.


- How tall are the kids? Make sure the piece is not above their comfortable playing level, or offer a stool or seat.
- How many kids may want to play at once? There are some great large pieces, but it many be a good idea to add a few more instruments if you have more kids. Most kids like to specifically hear the noises they are creating and have trouble picking them out of a cacophony of many kids playing.
- Do they need sticks or mallets to play? If they do, spend the money to get tough ones, lots of them and attach them well.
- How does the instrument sound? While an old trash can lid will be fun to bang and make loud noises there is also a place for instruments that make very beautiful sounds. I find children play these much more often and won't tire of them in the long run.
- Consider water from above and below. I live in Oregon! We always consider water. :) But if a puddle develops in front of the piece it is much less playable. Nicer instruments may want to consider a roof structure for long term protection.


Marimba at mount hood Community College Early Childhood Center

Natural Playground Company  has a number of nice musical pieces. I love how the Tongue Drum sounds and looks.

Check out this whimsical and beautiful sounding wrenchophone. You can virtually play the wrenchophone here! 

Tongue Drum Sea Turtle from

Palm Pipe Drum
I love this CHIMASAUR! Colorful and fun. I would definitely run over and try this one out if I saw it.
Talk tubes, like these are the Auburn Discovery Playground, provide a chance to play  with sounds without having to have an instrument. 

The Marimba at Blue Lake Park offers a beautiful tone and features a rain shelter to protect it long term.
Have fun creating and playing your instruments!

Wednesday, November 14, 2012

Nature Play At Home

I share a lot of ideas and projects on the blog that are related to public projects and sites that are open for all types of users. In no way was this meant to say that nature play needs to be done on a large scale. Quite on the contrary, many parts of nature play have to do with materials, textures and small details.

There are some really easy places to start offering nature connection at home

Offer Natural Materials:  

Let kids collect these materials while on a hike then explore them more at home. Relate them to the seasons and seasonal patterns. There is so much to be learned from breaking open a fall nut or smelling a spring flower.


Offer Sand and Water Access:

Again it can be simple. Below is a fire pit turned into sand and water exploration. This works great because it comes with a mesh top covering to protect from animals and leaf litter.

Offer a Mud Kitchen or Potions Lab:

There is nothing better then a mud pie with fresh spices and flowers from the garden. Round up a few old kitchen containers and tools and identify a 'work counter'. Kitchen and potions labs help young children master the use of kitchen tools in a creative, no worries way. They are often not as much of a mess as you would expect. :)


Offer Real Tools to Interact with Outdoors:

Kids are naturally drawn to simple household tasks and tools. These small repetitive movements help with coordination as well as muscle memory and brain development.

A Great Resource for Further Exploration:

The Natural Wildlife Federation has recently Publish this resource, "Make your Backyard the Best Playground - Naturally!" It is jam packed with ideas and resources.


Friday, October 26, 2012

Play Set Into Nature: Engleman Park Wilsonville OR

A few years ago this lot was covered in trees, with a lone picnic table. Neighbors were not clear if they were even allowed in. At the Engleman Park grand opening next week it will be clear that this is a community space for play and relaxation that is centered around nature. The park will provide a respite for one of the denser areas of the city. 

The park features sit within a beautiful grove of  trees. The previous owner of the property planted them all 50 years ago. While brand new, the features seem as through they fit with the site seamlessly.

There are plenty of opportunities for play in nature and with natural materials as well as nature themed play equipment. A main central features is a rocky swale that will catch stormwater as well as provide an exploration place for imaginative play.

 Downed trees, boulders and stumps were salvaged from the site and nearby parks. This is a beautiful blend of equipment and rubber surfacing (shown below) while also accentuating the natural elements of the site; trees, boulders and water.

Tuesday, October 23, 2012

Nature Play Inspiration : School Grounds and Wood

Natural Playground Construction Timelapse from Turtle Rock Preschool on Vimeo.

I find these photos very inspiring. Their use of wood and natural materials is beautiful and in nice proportions.  The resulting spaces, most of which are in schools, would be inspiring and trans formative for young people. I have seen a few climbers similar to this, but this one is massive and has beautiful lines. All of these pieces were designed by Copper Beach in the UK. Their website has many more photos and information on their projects.

Wednesday, October 10, 2012

Come see the giant logs and lend a hand: Silver Falls State Park

Last week the crane was out in full force at Silver Falls State Park. The Bear, Cougar, and Bird themed discovery areas are under construction. The Silver Falls State Park Animal Discovery Area was design around a 1/4 mile loop path and 15 animal themed areas. The setting and access to natural materials will make this a fantastic project!

A four foot diameter fir tree was felled, portioned into pieces, peeler and place in the natural play area. The left chunk will be the crawl through 'cub den'. The right chunk will be hollowed out and become the 'bear cave'.

Park staff found just the right root wad for the 'cougar den' and it was placed on site.

Log and rock scramble areas in the Cougar area are underway. Hand holds will be added to the large logs so kids can climb more easily.


The Oregon Parks and Recreation Department has asked ON Play (The Oregon Natural Play Initiative) to host a construction workshop in October. Join us to tour the current construction, talk over the plans, get dirty and build some bird themed features: install a bird blind, plant a ‘bearry garden’, build a nest kids can fit in and many other wild things.

When: Sunday October 28th  10:00am – 2:00pm
Where: Silver Falls Group Camp Area (north side of the park)
What: Construction Workshop and Tour
Who: On Play members and interested friends and community members

Please RSVP to Michelle: Michellem at greenworkspc dot com 

Hope to see you there!

Tuesday, August 21, 2012

How Much Explicit Education Should We Mix Into Play?

I have been part of a few conversations recently that were circling the idea of environmental education and nature play. We all know kids learn through play, but we often try to sneak little lessons in our natural play areas. At what point is enough enough?

The Line Between Play and Education
Where can kids just play, run, destroy and be wild if the playground is turned into a natural play area and  littered with little lessons (on knot tying, on geology, on bird identification)? How long will it be before our play areas are way less fun and way more work. I strongly feel that some environmental education has gone this direction. Look, study, observe but don't touch and certainly don't pull, squish, stomp or experiment too much.

photo from

The Fine Line
As a designer for public spaces I know it comes down to audience, maintenance, and the goals of the agency. With a passion for learning landscape I find myself mixing learning and outdoor spaces all the time. I do like to step back and remind myself that there needs to be a place for play, just plain and simple free exploration. This is truly where kids learn: trial and error, cooperation, limits. It is also the point where public agencies and care facilities get nervous. How would your agency react to these comments around safety and nature protection?

Stacking those logs is hard because they are not round and we staked our bridge too high and it fell while we were crossing it.

Inside the frog is gooey and you can see all the organs.

How are Nature Stewards Created?
Most environmentalists attributed their commitment to nature to a combination of two sources, “many hours spent outdoors in a keenly remembered wild or semi-wild place in childhood or adolescence, and an adult who taught respect for nature.” I know this is true for me. We grew up playing in a few empty lots in my neighborhood as well as the wild spaces in our back yards. We picked branches of flowers off every plant we found. I never remember my mom scolding me for ripping off branches. Maybe she held her tongue or did not notice. But we were taught the basics of nature respect as we visited many national parks.

David Sobel has always been one of my favorite educators and authors. Orion Magazine recently published an  article by him entitled "Look, don't touch". It is a wonderful exploration of these ideas and more. He asks the question," what’s the most effective way to parent and educate children so that they will grow up to behave in environmentally responsible ways?" It is a good read and helpful in taking the long view on those days when the short term feels like the only thing out there.

All in all I think there needs to be a little room for truly wild, maybe even borderline dangerous or destructive.  This is not something I am often able to provide in a designed public or educational setting. But, I will carry some of these concepts into my designs and see what I can do. What do you think? Have you seen designed spaces that offer these types of opportunities?

Friday, August 17, 2012

Case Studies for Natural Play Areas in Oregon

The Oregon Natural Play Initiative has been working on putting together case studies for some of the natural play areas in the state. There are a few dozen examples on the website. They include photos as well as interviews with owners, maintenance risk and play area users. It is a great way to see some examples and also lessons learned. As part of the initiative I completed some of these interviews and learned a lot in the process. Take a look and let us know what you think.

Do you want to add an Oregon project that we missed? Just let me know.

Wednesday, June 20, 2012

Designing a Fairy Garden

Fairy Garden's in Public Parks
I have just started working on a fairy garden concept for a public park project I am working on. I love the concept, but the details have been a little tough to wrap my head around. All the wonderful pictures I have gathered would work well in a yard or preschool. But the park will have dogs, teenagers and other kids that may destroy detailed pieces.

photo from:
Pea gravel is always a popular material

Let the Kids Build
The key component here is letting the kids build fairy houses. I wanted to make sure that is clear. :) But, I need a strong structure for the 'garden'.

photo from:

photo from

photo from:

Fairy House by Sally J. Smith ©.

Solid and Maintainable Details
I need a few rock solid details that can hold together a fairy garden and hope the kids will do the rest. There is a dedicated maintenance staff on  site that will collect and drop off materials for building. I want to keep their dedication to the idea by creating a space that is easy for them to maintain.

stone is always a nice solid material, but expensive
I like the idea of a fort and community chalk board

This is neither solid or easily maintainable, but I love the feeling it adds. photo from: arbor day

My Site
My site is fabulous. It is a magical existing grove of giant sequoia trees. We call it the 'grove of giant's. I think the giant and fairies will get along well! The fairy area will be a part of a larger nature discovery area.

Could I really make it a grove of the giant!
You Ideas
So, I need your help. Do you know of any great public fairy gardens that have stood the test of time? Do you know if any materials and photos that may be good additions to my collection? Any ideas are welcomed at this point. Please leave a comment.

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