Trails & Pathways Research

Providing a setting for playful discovery

Connecting Meaningful Destinations

The value of shared-use pathway networks is becoming recognized as a health promotion investment in municipal and county parks and open space systems but often they have tended to emphasize athletic, young adults as users, rather than children and families. Although most trail owners/operators include families and children in the description of core users they wish to attract, these populations represent a small proportion of actual users. In theory, pathway networks could at least be as interesting as urban parks because they provide family recreation opportunities for walking that are more interesting, quieter, and safer than city sidewalks.

Bringing play to nature and families to the trail

Although trails exist throughout our nation, it appears that a small minority of children and families are actually using them. Children need access to opportunities to activate, stimulate, and exercise their potential in the rich natural diversity of the outdoors. Today, many children have lost easy access to natural play spaces due to urban sprawl, parental apprehension, perceptions of crime, over-scheduled lifestyles, and heavy street traffic. Intentional design strategies to infuse nature back into the everyday play spaces of children can play a critical role in providing children the many developmental benefits of engaging with nature.

Our work with the Natural Learning Initiative around bringing nature to play created a foundation and helped us to understand the role of sinuous pathways in the overall playscape. When we had the opportunity to meet with the team from American Trails, a national, nonprofit organization working on behalf of all trail interests, they shared what they would like to change about trails today - “We need more children and families using them.” This aligned with the NLI research, and encouraged us to embark on another nature research project. For while Naturegrounds brought nature to play, it appeared the latest research and inquiries supported an additional, complimentary model-bringing play to nature. We again enlisted the team at the Natural Learning Initiative at the College of Design, North Carolina State University, having already utilized this invaluable partnership in the quest to understand best practices in nature play. Our work together elevated the creation of innovative play environments that allow children, families, and communities to experience the many benefits of playing surrounded by nature, and their research would prove an important framework in understanding how to apply these benefits to trails and pathway networks. 

An innovative way to bring people to nature



A research partnership with the teams at NLI, American Trails, and a rich, diverse Advisory Committee with experience in a variety of trail disciplines, resulted in Pathways for Play®, Best Practice Guidelines for Infusing Play into Pathway Networks. The purpose of Pathways for Play is to intentionally integrate play - critical for children’s health - into walkable, bikeable, shared use community pathway networks to provide opportunities for discovering and playing along the way, and encouraging use by children and families. This educational resource is designed to help professional and community activists promote playful pathways across our nation. Pathways for Play is designed to help professionals and community activists involved in planning and design of trails, greenways, and shared parks to intentionally make these community assets more playful, usable, and attractive to children and families. Playful pathway design will extend play-in-nature by creating attractive, playful routes for children to explore, discover, and be physically active outdoors.

Research shows a multitude of benefits, including:

  • Extending play value: Extending the types of play (especially in the physical and socio-dramatic domain) afforded by a continuous, complex, linear space where nature is omnipresent.
  • Enabling health promotion: Encouraging kids and families to get outdoors, enjoy the fresh air, and experience meaningful physical activity on foot, bicycle, or wheeled toys.
  • Expanding inclusion: Creating more possibilities for people of all abilities, ages, and backgrounds to engage in playful interactions with each other and their surroundings, which continuously afford play opportunities as children and other users move along.
  • Reinforcing environmental literacy: Children and families benefit from the learning opportunities afforded by pathways integrated with a “green infrastructure” of stream and river corridors and vegetation patches, transecting local habitats, exposing natural and sociocultural history of former land uses.
  • Promoting walkable, bikeable community connectivity: Playful pathways encourage non-motorized travel from home to local recreational and cultural destinations, thereby reducing both traffic and the carbon footprint.
  • Growing community social capital: Bringing residents together through shared lifestyle experiences focused on children and a sense of building healthy communities together.

Research shows a dramatic impact of playful paths

Trails-Research-shows-paragraph.jpg#asset:5142The Natural Learning Initiative, College of Design, NC State University, conducted independent research which provides new insight into how infusing play into pathway networks positively impacts usage, duration, independent mobility, and play behaviors of children.

Through an objective analysis of 169 observation points on four playful pathway sites, children were observed participating in gross motor activities, using natural loose parts, interacting with adults and other children, observing, and engaging with nature. Quantitative and qualitative data were collected through a variety of research methods.

Play pockets installed along trails that contained nature themed play equipment, were not only popular, but showed the highest levels of child-adult interactions. The following findings were concluded from the playful pathways in Springfield, MO and Chattanooga, TN. 

Play Value: Playful Pathways present opportunities for diverse play behaviors. 

Benefits: “Family Fun” was the most important benefit of pathways perceived by parents, closely followed by physical activity, engagement with nature, and scenic beauty. 

Frequency: In Springfield, 88% of park users report visiting the park more frequently after the addition of Play Pockets. For Springfield and Chattanooga combined, 75% reported visiting the park more often. 

Duration: In Springfield, 100% of families who visited the park before play pockets were added believe that play pockets increased the duration of family visits. For Springfield and Chattanooga combined, 91% reported increased visit duration. 

Because of the unique way that well-designed pathways can increase usage and enjoyment, playful pathways designed using best practices are eligible for National Demonstration Site recognition.

Discover more research articles to explore the many benefits of playful pathways.



A research and design assistance program in the Natural Learning Initiative, College of Design, NC State University 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.


AT_Logo_2016_-_Advancing_Trails.png#asset:3589American Trails is the only national, nonprofit organization working on behalf of all trail interests, including hiking, bicycling, mountain biking, horseback riding, water trails, snowshoeing, cross-country skiing, trail motorcycling, ATVs, snowmobiling and four-wheeling. Through education, partnerships, and timely information resources, American Trails promotes and advocates for the creation, conservation and broad enjoyment of quality trails and greenways that offer places of solace, health, fitness, recreation, and transportation for all Americans. Since American Trails formation in 1988 they have been involved in everything from advocating for more funding for trails, training trails advocates, and providing technical assistance to increasing accessible trail opportunities for all ages and abilities.

PlayCore has partnered with American Trails to encourage active lifestyles of families, children, and communities on trail networks. As the 2010 Bald Eagle Sponsor, PlayCore supported the 20th American Trails National Symposium at the highest level. An advisory committee comprised of American Trails leadership and board members contributed significantly to the development of the Pathways for Play program developed in partnership with PlayCore and the Natural Learning Initiative. PlayCore and American Trails continue to partner together on various opportunities to continue to provide playful opportunities on trail networks through an affinity program to their membership, educational webinars, and various other opportunities to promote the Pathways for Play program.

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

"It is clear that there is no other choice but to discover new ways to deliver high-quality outdoor environments for children compelling enough to motivate them to acquire healthy, fearless, outdoors-in-nature, active lifestyle habits.”

Robin Moore, DiplArch, MCP, Hon. ASLA

Explore Playful Pathway Solutions

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National Demonstration Sites

Learn more about our National Demonstration Site Network, view NDS sites near you, and sign up to join the program