The September meeting of Willamette Valley Chapter of the Construction Specifications Institute featured a thought-provoking presentation by Eugene landscape architect Anita Van Asperdt on the topic of natural playgrounds. Anita explained how such settings are increasingly popular, a response to the “nature deficit disorder” unwittingly fostered by well-meaning albeit overly protective adults who mistakenly believed they could not safely leave kids to creatively play by themselves in unstructured, wild and wooly nature. Nature play is an antidote for our youngsters’ obsession with digital distractions, from video games to social media, and an alternative to parents’ over-programming of their kids’ time. Today’s natural play environments offer children a means to explore the world in much the same way preceding generations did throughout human history before our modern world intervened.
Originally from the Netherlands, Anita graduated from Larenstein College. After her education there and work with the City of Amsterdam, she moved to the United States, where she received an advanced degree at the University of Oregon and raised her two children. She’s worked as an adjunct assistant professor at both the U of O and the University of British Columbia, for which she has taught study-abroad design studios in Amsterdam. Presently, Anita serves as the chair of the Eugene Collaboratives of the Cascadia Green Building Council.
Anita and her firm, LandCurrent, are experts in the design of natural play environments. Landcurrent has designed projects as diverse as the Hoquarton Trail and Park in Tillamook, the Cooper Mountain Natural Area in Beaverton, the Urban Design Master Plan for the Courthouse Neighborhood in Eugene, and several commercial designs and contemporary garden projects. Further afield, Anita led the design effort for a natural play and discovery area commissioned by the Audubon Society of Western Pennsylvania, as well as the design of three distinct natural play environments for the Ottawa Montessori School in Ontario, Canada.
Anita Van Asperdt
Though she’s worked here in Oregon for many years now, Anita continues to be influenced by Dutch landscape designers, who have been leaders in advancing the concept of nature play. She cited the example of the Speeldernis (which translates to English as “Playderness”), located in Rotterdam. In her opinion, the Speeldernis is an exemplary nature play area, despite the fact that it might seem dangerous to the American eye. Instead of covering all areas with soft wood chips to avoid injuries, the design of the Speeldernis helps children develop their own sense of caution and safety.
This was a key point of Anita’s presentation: letting kids learn about caution by themselves may actually be safer for them than providing overly-designed and purposely-safe environments. Children are capable of understanding risk. Given the chance to do so, they can perceive, gauge, and judge risk on their own. They instinctively develop the ability to understand when something may be unstable, or slippery, or otherwise unsafe. The development of this sense comes easier with nature play, rather than with activity in more structured playgrounds. Notably, the Speeldernis has only reported one serious accident (a broken collarbone), in ten years of use.
Nature play also helps kids learn empathy and encourages them to take care of one another, by providing challenges which encourage teamwork. This means that the children’s wellbeing is not only enhanced by their own sense of safety, but also by an increased willingness to help one another. Such empathy, trust, and teamwork are valuable for every child’s development.
In addition to presenting a more challenging, engaging space for play, the Speeldernis provides opportunities for city kids to learn about the environment. Rotterdam is a large city, so natural playgrounds and parks provide relief from the dense urban setting. Kids discover nature by themselves in the Speeldernis by interacting with it, and observing the different plants and animals around them. This un-programmed learning is one of the many benefits of natural playgrounds.
Unstructured natural playgrounds such as the Speeldernis also allow kids to interact with the environment in more spontaneous and creative ways. In normal playgrounds, play structures are focused; intentionally, there are limited ways to use the structures, and these ways are obvious in the design of the equipment. Anita explained that manufacturers have moved toward more naturalistic designs; however, these designs focus first and foremost upon controlling how kids use the equipment in order to exercise a manageable “standard of care.”
This is not the case in more natural playgrounds; instead, kids get to decide how they interact with their environment, and how to manipulate elements such as rocks, dirt, branches, water, and so on to create their own creative play experiences. This lack of structure provides cognitive benefits for kids, enhancing creativity and independent thought. Fundamentally, nature play is not about equipment; it’s about giving children the freedom to choose how to play, how to explore, and letting nature be nature (rather than a “safe,” plastic facsimile).
Nature play means choosing among many possible adventures: Following meandering paths. Finding quiet, shady nooks from which to watch and contemplate. Just hanging out, or talking to friends. Scaling and sliding down a hill. Climbing a tree. Building a fort. Playing with sand and water. Watching birds and butterflies. Collecting and sharing pretty pebbles. Ideally, natural play environments foster both active and passive moments of play.
Anita talked about how a blue-ribbon group of experts, led by Robin Moore and Allen Cooper, has developed a comprehensive set of guidelines for nature play areas. Entitled Nature Play & Learning Places: Creating and Managing Places Where Children Engage with Nature, the document provide a road map for park and recreation agencies and other providers of children’s play spaces to follow when addressing the challenges of planning, designing and managing quality natural play and learning areas.
Nature Play & Learning Places describes how to create places for nature play and learning, navigate risk and site management challenges, and includes inspirational photos of nature play and learning places from across the country. In Anita’s opinion, the book reflects the movement toward the proliferation and importance of natural play environments in our future.
Anita began her presentation with an eye-opening and yet far-from-surprising graphic describing how much times have changed in just the past century: the great-grandparents of today’s children were afforded enormous freedom to explore their world; their kids not as much, and their grandchildren even less so. Today, their great-grandchildren simply aren’t allowed to spend time outdoors by themselves, unsupervised. Looking back at my own childhood, I’m amazed by how different it was a mere 50 years ago. My brothers and I had the run of the neighborhood, and we took full advantage of the chance to exercise our imaginations and bodies by truly playing without boundaries. We didn’t need the structure of a day full of appointments to keep ourselves entertained and occupied.
The advent of natural play environments represents a swinging of the pendulum back toward a time when it was normal for kids like me to learn about and connect with nature in the course of play, when it was okay to play in trees, poke at bugs, and make mud pies. Thanks to Anita for highlighting the importance now more than ever of spontaneity, exploration, creativity, and nature in the development of children!