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 http://world-bird-sanctuary.blogspot.com

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.
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