Nature Play Playground Research

We learn to love nature by spending our childhood in it

Bringing Nature to People

Health research recognizes a strong relationship between daily exposure to nature and healthy human development. It is therefore critical to encourage outdoor play and find ways to reconnect children to nature in the places they live. Natural spaces are often too remotely located for visiting on a regular basis, so it is imperative that we deliberately design nature into the everyday spaces of childhood such as schools and neighborhood parks and find new ways to deliver high-quality outdoor environments that compel and motivate children to acquire active lifestyle habits outdoors.

Maximizing the benefits of play

Nature-Research-Maximizing-paragraph.jpg#asset:5135 Research has revealed that naturalized playgrounds result in increased play value, higher levels of physical activity, and improved environmental sustainability. Understanding the essential mix of nature and the built environment is critical in creating outdoor play spaces that get children and families to highest use through innovative design and incorporation of both elements. The Natural Learning Initiative, College of Design, NC State University has conducted several studies that support the benefit of playground naturalization, as well as point out the elements that align to a richly diverse outdoor nature play space.

Robin Moore, Nilda Cosco, and the Natural Learning Initiative, College of Design, North Carolina State University are invaluable partners in the quest to understand best practices in nature play. Their research, passion, experience, and technical expertise for bringing the living landscape into the built play environment has allowed us to combine our efforts and truly offer the best of what we collectively know about both worlds. Their research at a variety of settings in North Carolina and California validates the conclusion that higher levels of physical activity are supported by curvy pathways, anchored play structures, open areas, and naturalization. The evidence also demonstrates that children are more active in playgrounds where equipment and nature are integrated or “mixed.” Our work together has elevated the creation of innovative play environments that allow children, families, and communities to experience the many benefits of playing surrounded by nature.


Their work and research with us on designing play environments that integrate manufactured play equipment with the living landscape has resulted in many widely-used play spaces and has created the foundation for NatureGrounds®: Designing Play Environments that integrate Manufactured Play with the Living Landscape. The naturalized playgrounds created with the best practice principles outlined in the guidebook offer a new paradigm for playgrounds that respond directly to the need for children to be outdoors and engaged with nature. Landscape architects, designers, and park planners are crucial partners and sources of technical knowledge and expertise in these efforts. 


Creating a destination

Naturalized playgrounds become sought out destinations that provide visual interest, shade, and comfort, resulting in repeat visits, a relaxed and playful social atmosphere, and growth of community capital. Additionally they offer rich outdoor education and programming opportunities for both schools and parks. Research has shown many other benefits as well, including:

Play value: Plants increase the diversity of play and related learning opportunities through discovery, offer sensory stimulation, and increase aesthetic appeal.

Child development: Combining the built and natural environments directly addresses health promotion by extending the range of options for children's social, physical, and cognitive behaviors while supporting active lifestyles in children. Through exploration and discovery, increased opportunities to stimulate learning, creativity, and imagination occur in more naturalized play environments.

Health benefits: Engaging with nature has been linked to reduced attention deficit disorder symptoms and stress, while motivating children to be more physically active, focused, and civil to one another.

Environmental sustainability: Playground naturalization can provide an important community-based demonstration of environmental stewardship and sustainable site design practices — improving wildlife habitat conditions for local flora and fauna and natural irrigation through well-designed stormwater drainage systems.


Implementing research-driven strategies

The guidebook provides intentional strategies, tips, and design ideas for maximizing the plant life around a play area, while taking into consideration phasing, use zones, and regionality of plant material. Integrating planting pockets into playgrounds is an effective approach to achieving naturalization while providing plants as part of the play experience. Planting pockets integrate plants as closely as possible with manufactured play equipment, while still designing safer play environments that enrich the overall experience of users. Naturalized playgrounds support the play in nature movement in many ways, since play structures are heavily used by children, designing nature into these spaces is a meaningful step to bringing nature into children's daily lives. Innovative projects that promote nature play generate positive press and new funding streams, and nature-infused play spaces are more comfortable for caregivers and parents, therefore, they may be compelled to stay longer. Well-designed play areas are also a driver of community capital; naturalization adds visual interest, shade, and comfort, sustained repeat visits, a relaxed atmosphere, and growth of community pride. Because of the research-driven implications of the NatureGrounds programs, projects designed with us using the best practices outlined in the book are eligible for National Demonstration Site status.


NLI_Logo_COD_F_GY.png#asset:14213 A research and design assistance program in the College of Design at North Carolina State University, NLI creates environments to support human development and a healthy biosphere. It promotes the experience of children and families in the natural world through environmental design, action research, education, and information.NLI has partnered to develop NatureGrounds®, Pathways for Play, and assisted with significant product and play behavioral research, and outreach training.

Our scholars Robin Moore and Nilda Cosco work with NLI, and are foremost authorities on playing in nature. Robin holds degrees in architecture (London University) and urban planning (MIT),  has worked in the field of landscape architecture as an educator, researcher, and consultant, and is an international authority on the design of children's play and learning environments, user needs research, and participatory public open space design. Dr. Cosco is Director of Programs at The Natural Learning Initiative; her specialties include design programming and research of outdoor environments for children with and without disabilities; development of training activities for designers, educators, and community members interested in creating high quality outdoor environments for children and families; development of printed and online dissemination materials; and coordination of state-wide comprehensive projects (design, environmental intervention, training, and evaluation). Read more about them by visiting our scholar profile page. 

Our Scholar Partners

Robin Moore, Dipl Arch, MCP, ASLA

Professor of Landscape Architecture, Director of Natural Learning Initiative, College of Design, NC State University

Nilda Cosco, PhD

Research Associate Professor, Director of Programs- Natural Learning Initiative, College of Design, NC State University

"A generation ago playing outdoors in nature was usually taken for granted, but times have changed. Now, nature must be deliberately designed back into children’s lives.”

Robin Moore, DiplArch, MCP, Hon. ASLA

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