Nature Play: Best practice design considerations for a natural play area

Naturalization adds value to outdoor play equipment by enhancing its visual quality as a focal point, enhancing the benefits for children playing and learning in a natural environment. Manufactured equipment, combined with natural elements, tells children that playgrounds are their special play spaces. The added comfort and aesthetic enhancement of nature also encourages accompanying adults to become more enthusiastic users.

Here are a few ways to get started planning your nature play space:

Plan for your community

Research demonstrates that naturalized universal design of playgrounds produces an environment that is more attractive to a diverse group of people. Naturalization helps create playgrounds that are attractive and usable by all people – no matter their age, cultural background, economic status, and level of ability or personal skill. Naturalized playgrounds can become social crossroads in the community.

Provide a space for everyone such as play areas that promote physical activity, shaded areas for social gatherings, and site amenities for the whole family to rest and enjoy.. Also consider ways to ensure the space is inclusive and usable for all by considering  physical, communicative, social/emotional, sensory, and cognitive play opportunities.

Locate near site features and park utilities

Location: In nature play settings, location is everything from the walking access, plant/tree placement, and drainage systems, it is all essential to the functional success of naturalized playgrounds. The playground should be reachable within walking distance via accessible routes or connecting trail systems to encourage the community to engage in nature play.

Along with a well-designed surface drainage system, parks should consider employing contemporary landscape engineering practice, which offers innovative solutions such as rain gardens and vegetated swales to accommodate storm water runoff.

NG-Design-Blog-Post.jpg#asset:8538Topography: Provide variation such as elevation changes to your play area as it stimulates children to move. Topography can also help improve nightlines and create vistas to other areas the family can explore. 

Vegetation: Mature trees are crucial site assets that add shade and aesthetic quality to the site making it attractive to more users. Conserve trees and other significant vegetation such as existing woodlands by seeking professional advice from a certified arborist, to determine health of existing trees, and licensed landscape architect or contractor concerning appropriate construction methods near mature trees. Further information on spacing can be found in the NatureGrounds guidebook referenced later in this article.

Shade: Place manufactured playground equipment close to large, deciduous shade trees so that users are both protected from direct rays of the sun during hot summer months and exposed to warmth of the sun at other times of the year when the trees are not in leaf.

Make it welcoming

Entrances provide a welcoming sense of arrival, while playground barriers offer a sense of security, provide organization to the play area, and create natural enclosures. Pathways function as the social arteries of the space directing users throughout the play, trail, and nature areas.

Consider interconnected, continuous, circular, hierarchical pathway layouts without dead ends, which facilitate running, chasing, and hide-and-go-seek games between dispersed play structures, thus increasing vigorous physical activity adding active lifestyle benefits.

Define play settings to maximize active, social, and sensory play opportunities

Recognize settings that promote active play as the most important because they motivate moderate and vigorous physical activity and integrate them into the living landscape as part of the play experience. Research shows that a mix of the build environment along with nature get children and families to higher use as they expend energy and reach moderate to vigorous levels of activity on the recognizable play components and foster exploration, learning, loose part play, and wildlife observation in the natural elements. 

Socio-dramatic play settings engage a wide age range of preschool and school-aged children, by providing stages and decks, that gives children the opportunity to gather and create spontaneous dramatic play episodes.

Hands-on water play and sand settings offer rich sensory play experiences and integrating them together can be molded to extend play value. With water in mind, remember to include drinking fountains to offer accessible places for hydration.

The creation of innovative play environments that integrate manufactured play equipment with the living landscape will be successful through the aligned energy of those on the front line working together to implement research-based best practice.

This information and more can be found in our best practice guideline: NatureGrounds®: Creating & Retrofitting Play Environments. The purpose of the program is to create a dramatic shift in the standard playground development paradigm by integrating nature, to not only benefit children’s play but to engage communities in working together to revalue the importance of children’s outdoor play and engagement with nature.

To learn more about nature play and our solutions, please visit

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