A Playground Designed by Children

By Laura Dice, Coordinator of KEYS 4 HealthyKids


Where was your favorite place to play as a kid?  Did you like to go exploring in the woods?  How about making mud pies?  Or making a fort out of sticks and blankets? 

But how many forts, sandboxes, or groves of trees do you see on playgrounds?   Probably none.

Photo courtesy of Naturalearning.org

Photo courtesy of Naturalearning.org

Above:  Traditional Playground

Below: After natural elements were added


“What do you want on your playground?” is a question not often asked to children when designing a new playspace.  So, we decided to do just that when KEYS 4 HealthyKids began consulting with a school in Charleston, WV. We asked the students and received some creative responses.  The students were not shy once they learned that we really were going to use their ideas. Here’s what they wanted: “tunnels, tight ropes, rocks to paint, butterfly gardens, musical instruments, snails, a creek, sunflowers, forts, boulders”, and more.   A common theme was to have items from nature. 

We shouldn’t be surprised.  A survey by the Children’s Play Council found that 86% of children would rather play outside with their friends building dens and getting muddy to playing on a paved surface. (http://www.theguardian.com/society/2006/aug/02/childrensservices.comment)  Imagine a children’s play space with forts, dens, more trees, vegetable gardens, winding paths, butterfly bushes, climbing boulders, wooden balance beams, and teepees.  Doesn’t every child deserve a place to explore and discover nature?

Before you disregard this idea as impossible because of the regulations and requirements, note the following:  1. This is already happening in child care centers and schools across the country including West Virginia and 2. These playgrounds are actually safer than traditional playgrounds that have tall structures and harder surfaces. Although we may not be able to satisfy all of the children’s desires, we can do our best to make their ideas become reality. For example, instead of a creek, we can create a dry creek bed.  Instead of placing an expensive musical instrument outside, we can create a music station out of outdoor child-safe wind chimes.

Not only should natural elements in a playground be allowed but child advocates are promoting the inclusion of natural elements into day care and elementary school playgrounds.  Studies show that including natural elements into a play space for children will improve academic performance, improve nutrition, reduce stress and ADD symptoms, increase physical activity, and improve social relations. (http://www.naturalearning.org/nli-infosheets)

 The benefits of a ‘natural playground’ aren’t just for children. A typical playground structure can cost anywhere from $30,000 - $250,000.  Natural elements such as a raised bed or bamboo tee pee can be almost free.  And unlike a metal or plastic piece of equipment, natural materials can be gathered from a backyard and built or installed easily. In our experience, we have hired a local landscape designer and recruited parents, staff, and other community members to help build.  Even the children can help in planting and building!  This creates a source of pride and accomplishment that creates connections between members in the community. 


Students at Hamlin Pk-8 enjoy helping to build their new playground.




David Hill of Three Trees Design and Landscaping (a local company) is working with children at Hamlin Pk-8 in Lincoln County, WV to install a sensory garden on their playground.




Building a teepee is easy!  I went to North Carolina to attend the Natural Learning Initiative in October, 2013.




Creating a playspace for children that includes natural elements builds community, is cost effective, and most importantly… the children love it! 

If you would like to learn more about adding natural elements to your existing playground or designing a new natural play space, contact Laura Dice at laura.dice@camc.org.  We will be hosting the School and Youth Garden Symposium in Charleston, WV on September 27, 2014 where there will be speakers to teach you how to include natural elements into your playground.  Please e-mail me to register.