Nature based play areas allow more creativity, more exploration and more physically challenging exercise than traditional playgrounds. They are place based and reflect their surrounding environment. Nature play areas are unique and unlike most other play areas so children are more engaged in them. Natural play areas are an extension of the classroom because they provide many opportunities for learning about science and nature through exploration of wildlife gardens and trees. Children learn naturally when they have access to insects, logs, grassy areas and gardens.

Primary 3-6 year olds

  1. Loose Parts play area – this area is filled with tree “cookies” (thin slices of stumps), small wood pieces, wood blocks, etc… for children to play with. Children can learn to balance blocks and build with creative pieces. They can also explore different textures of wood since the items are cut from smooth crape myrtle branches and rough oak, as well as other textures and patterns. They can build imaginative fairy houses or just work on the physics of building the tallest tower.
  2. Sand circle – sand allows for sensory input, broad creativity, and imaginative play.
  3. Canoe – we have a retired canoe that was donated to the school and is now part of the play area for children to pretend that they are having adventures in nature. The play areas are designed to mimic the local environment of Austin and provide a sense of place for the children.  One of the advantages of natural play scapes is that they are place based and can help children learn about the area they live in. The two canoes allow children to pretend to be paddling down Lady Bird Lake, which is a very special part of Austin.
  4. Circle of stumps with a large stump table in the center – while sitting in the stump circle, children can tell stories, have tea parties, relax in the shade of the native persimmon tree, play games, and imagine playing with fairies and gnomes.
  5. Pea gravel fall area below play activities – we used pea gravel for the fall zone because young children love to sort through the small rocks for treasure. They sort for color, size, and texture. They use the gravel for pretend money to buy acorns and special leaves from their friends. They collect it in their pockets to decorate towers and gnome homes that they build. Preschool aged children find many creative uses for pea gravel, so it was chosen over mulch for the youngest students.
  6. Bridge over dry river bed – this element will again give the impression of the Colorado river or a bridge between two lakes. It mirrors the local environment and allows for creative place based play. The river rocks below are to add a new texture and material to explore.
  7. Teepee made of crape myrtle that was removed during construction – this open ended teepee made of sticks and twine will provide an opportunity for creative play and story telling.
  8. Music – there are several musical elements in the play area. One is made of recycled kitchen items such as pots and pans that each produce a different sound when tapped with a spoon. It was made by Parkside graduates who are now in middle school. There are also be two beautiful musical elements made by a local teacher. They are similar to a glockenspiel and chimes, but made for outdoor installation.
  9. Stage – children love to come up with plays and dances if they are given a stage to perform on. The play area will have a small wooden stage next to the music area.
  10. Small horizontal ladder (monkey bars) – I have found a set of monkey bars that is approved for use by 4-5 year olds. Young children benefit greatly from the coordination and hand strength that can be gained from monkey bars.
  11. Spinners – the primary play area has two small spinners that hold one child at a time. Many children calm themselves by spinning and other children learn coordination and sensory integration from spinning.
  12. Play house – there are two open ended play houses on the play scape. One is small and suitable for 1-2 children to play in and the other will be larger and able to accommodate several children. They can use the larger one as a store, as a house, as a fort, or many other imaginative spaces.
  13. Nests – there are 2 nests made of natural sticks from the property. Children can pretend to be birds or dinosaurs by sitting in the nests that are proportioned for their body size. Sticks are tied together so that they can’t be used as swords.
  14. Butterfly gardens and sitting stumps – there will be 2-3 areas of butterfly gardens in the play area. The children can watch the insects and birds that are attracted to the gardens and they will be able to sit on the stumps at the garden edge to watch the wildlife.
  15. Slide built into the side of a hill – we have created a small hill out of an old root ball that was on the property. We packed the root ball with dirt and covered it with grass. Then we anchored a slide to one of the flat stumps on top of the hill so that it cannot move. The slide is built into the hill so there is no way to fall off of the sides or bottom of it. The children can climb up and down the hill, roll down the grassy hill, or slide down the slide. This will allow the kids to strengthen their balance and coordination.

Lower Elementary 6-9 year olds

  1. Design made of tree trunks and stumps in the shape of a snowflake – children can balance on the uneven surface of the logs and play games such as “hot lava” trying to keep their feet from touching the ground.
  2. Monkey bars – children develop coordination, hand and upper body strength by using monkey bars.
  3. Tire Climber – Designed by master playground designer James Jolly, parent volunteers have built a climber out of reclaimed tires. The tires have been pressure washed to limit exposure to chemicals. The tire climber will encourage physical exercise and strength building.
  4. Spinner – older children, like the younger ones, benefit from spinning, especially if they have sensory processing issues.
  5. Music – there are three tuned musical elements built by a teacher from the larger Austin community. Two of them are tuned to allow songs to be played. The third is a percussion instrument. They are placed near an open area on the play scape to encourage dancing and singing to the music other children play.
  6. Observation deck and playhouse – there is a two story play house structure that will allow children to look over the thicker underbrush behind the play area. Inside of the deck, there will be wooden tiles with bird silhouettes on them so that children are encouraged to look for birds of different shapes and sizes. The property has a diverse and plentiful bird population and this structure will provide the opportunity for children to learn about nature while playing outside. The rest of the structure can be used for imaginative play similar to other playhouses.
  7. Teepee – there is a teepee made of crape myrtle from the property and twine that will encourage pretend play.
  8. Nests – there are two nests in this play area that will encourage the children to notice how nests are built and pretend that they are birds or dinosaurs. The nests for the older children can be taken apart and rebuilt.
  9. Loose parts – there is a designated area where stumps, sticks, tree cookies and twine can be used to build. Children learn about the textures of different types of wood and the physics of balancing and building in this area that encourages creativity and cooperation.
  10. Canoe – there is a second donated canoe installed in this play space that encourages place based pretend play.
  11. Upside down tree – While removing trees from the property that were unsafe or infected, we reclaimed a piece of a tree that has three branches coming out of the trunk. We cut them all short and then turned the tree stump upside down. Then we anchored it into the ground in the fall zone. Children can climb on top of it, or sit underneath it like it is a fort.
  12. Mulch fall zone – we chose to use mulch for the fall zone for the older children. Mulch allows for running on the playground and provides more cushion for falls. Mulch is also better for the slightly larger climbing equipment that is needed by older, larger children.

Upper Elementary 9-12 years

  1. Sand volleyball court – the property had a sand volleyball court on it when it was purchased. It has been weeded and we have replaced the net and edges. Children can learn team play and get exercise while playing volleyball.
  2. Loose parts – we have provided stumps, cedar poles, tree cookies, sticks, cleaned reclaimed tires, and other natural materials to build with. The teachers will instruct the children on a few knots so that they can lash the cedar poles together to build shelters and teepees. Knot tying and shelter building are important outdoor skills that are especially appreciated by this age group. They love stories about survival in the wild and love to feel that they could survive on their own in the forest. Being able to construct a shelter is a skill that most 9-12 year olds want to have. It leads to feelings of competence in nature and the desire to learn about the outdoors.
  3. Teepee – there is a teepee made of crape myrtle from the property and twine that will encourage pretend play.
  4. Monkey bars – children develop coordination and physical strength by using monkey bars. This element will also be used during physical education.
  5. Obstacle climber – this play area has a triangular play structure with rock climbing hand holds that looks like part of an obstacle course. It can be used to build strength, increase motor planning, and during physical education class.
  6. Stump circle – there is a circle of stumps that can be used for relaxing and socializing in the shade or for class discussions outside.
  7. Frisbee golf – there will be several Frisbee golf goals that will teach children a game that is very popular in Austin. It helps them develop accuracy of throwing and sportsmanship.
  8. Upside down tree – While removing trees from the property that were unsafe or infected, we reclaimed a piece of a tree that has three branches coming out of the trunk. We cut them all short and then turned the tree stump upside down. Then we anchored it into the ground in the fall zone. Children can climb on top of it, or sit underneath it like it is a fort.
  9. Mulch fall zone – we chose to use mulch for the fall zone for the older children. Mulch allows for running on the playground and provides more cushion for falls. Mulch is also better for the slightly larger climbing equipment that is needed by older, larger children.
  10. Gaga – During the 2014/15 school year, a Parkside alum will be building a gaga pit. This is a social game similar to dodgeball except that the ball can only hit below the knees. This game encourages team play and sportsmanship as well as physical exercise.

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