A fallen tree met by opportunistic children.

Intentional Playground Design for the Developing Mind

I was recently contacted through one of our social media accounts and asked if it is possible to tailor our playground designs depending on the age and abilities of the children at a particular facility. While I knew the answer was an absolute yes, I also realized I had an opportunity to dig a little deeper for the sake of my own education. I contacted Dave Rexworthy, Senior Associate and Studio Manager at Bienenstock Natural Playgrounds, and he explained the beginning stage of the design process:

When we talk about the natural playground design process, we usually refer to it as our design facilitation. Our designers are there to use our depth of knowledge to help the owner of the facility, the staff, team, or even the community achieve their goals. If it’s a daycare, I’ll show photos of finished daycares that we’ve done to get the inspiration going. In that same meeting, we’ll talk about their wish list. Things like: what is it that they want to see in their space? What is their pedagogy? How would they approach education in their outdoor space? And what are their development goals?

Dave Rexworthy

Dave Rexworthy

I imagined a bicycle that looks flashy, but the pedals are welded in place and the gear selector does nothing. Attempt to ride it and you’ll quickly realize you are going nowhere fast. It wasn’t tailored for you, or anyone for that matter. In a similar way, it’s not enough for a playground to only appear at first glance to be a fun place to play. “What we want to do is create spaces of environment for mastery of all types of children,” Dave said. “We must design while looking through the lens of what is for the optimal health and development of the child.” Our kids’ minds deserve more depth and there’s at least one easy way to find out what that is: “We just ask them what they want,” laughed Dave.

It’s fun because sometimes they don’t give you exactly what you’re looking for. They’ll say they want giant dinosaurs, and so you have to start to interpret that and break it down to what it is about that element that they actually are looking for. If they are looking for something large to climb up and jump off, maybe that means putting in a large amorphous log. Sometimes we will show kids different spare parts or natural playground component of a playground to see which pieces they gravitate towards.

There is a sensory engagement that only a connection to nature can offer. At Bienenstock Natural Playgrounds, our goal is to make and encourage that connection; as a result, our playgrounds are intentionally designed for the developing mind. In this article from The Guardian, nature historian Stephen Moss said, “Nature is a tool to get children to experience not just the wider world, but themselves.” I experienced this first-hand after a large storm ripped through my town. The power was out, branches were strewn across front yards, and I could see some large old-growth trees downed at the park across the street from my home. Once the storm passed, my sons and I decided it would be a worthy adventure to investigate the wreckage. Upon reaching the park, we saw an empty playground. Beside it lay a tired old maple tree on its side, knocked off its roots, and now in its final resting place. This is where the action was. The bigger kids were doing their best to “climb Mount Everest” as one of them told me, and two little girls were investigating and collecting only the finest pieces of bark. Imagine my face when one of the other parents turned to me and said, “I feel like all playgrounds should be like this!” What a novel idea.

A fallen tree met by opportunistic children.

A fallen tree met by opportunistic children.

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