Natural Playscapes

A playground should have its focus on the play, not the ground.  Traditionally our parks, schoolyards, child care centers and other places were equipped with a few pieces of simple equipment -- what's the physical or educational value of a see-saw? -- scattered around a paved and fenced-in area.  The resemblance to a prison yard might not be coincidental.

In recent years, however, there has been a movement away from playgrounds as "hard architecture" in favor of blending children's play space with the natural environment, or even creating a natural setting that will be as stimulating to the mind and imagination as it would be activating to the muscles.  One of the leaders of this trend is Rusty Keeler, an industrial designer who has brought his visions and plans to places from his own town in New York's Southern Tier to Chuzhou in China.  His new book "Natural Playscapes: Creating Outdoor Play Environments for the Soul" is both a work of personal philosophy, a treatise on natural history and human design, and a do-it-yourself guide to planning and construction.  It is also an inviation to (once again) see the world from a child's perspective.

Bend down on the hands and knees of your mind and imagine how a child might experience the change of seasons.  For the youngest children it is a brand new experience.  This is important.  This is profound.  What hints of seasonal change will your children discover in your outdoor spaces right now?  We adults must create environments that sing and and celebrate the seasons.  We can plant trees that give shade in the summer, burst into color in the fall (and provide loads of leaves to play with), go dormant and woody in winter, then in spring renew the cycle with a sea of green.  Beautiful. And there are so many plants that do that: tall trees, short trees, shrubs, vines and grasses.
   -- from "Natural Playscapes"

The 314-page book has hundreds of color photos, drawings, diagrams and contributions by persons from around the country who have worked with Rusty.  But there is something missing.   "Pieces of fixed equipment with a safety fall zone are not enough," Keeler explains on page 16.  "To avoid confusion with this outdated outdoor play environment model, I purposefully will not use the word 'playground' again in this book.  Instead, I prefer the word 'playscape', which hints at the idea of a landscape for play."  He certainly recognizes the need for safety wherever children play, but the standards of the Consumer Products Safety Commission and the National Playground Safety Institute can be applied harshly by overzealous playground inspectors.  There is a difference between "necessary" precautions and those which are "possible".

Rusty Keeler's aim is to make a playscape "a microcosm of your community's landscape, to give children an up close introduction to the world in which they live."  So playscapes are filled with growing things but also pathways to explore, huts and hideaways, running water, sand (lots of sand, not just a dinky sandbox), chimes and bells, playhouses and tree houses built close to the ground.  If there are no natural hills or slopes, Rusty recommends building them.  And there should also be accomodations for adults and the usual slides and swing sets.  Construction of the playscape can be a community effort , utilizing as much as possible donated materials and volunteer labor (including appropriate assistance from children).

Rusty joins Bill Jaker on OFF THE PAGE to answer questions and offer hints about "Natural Playscapes" and share experiences with listeners about where they liked to play when they were children.  To join in the program call during the live 1:00 PM broadcast to 888/359-9754 or post a comment to OffThePage@WSKG.ORG .

Rusty Keeler