Situated near the eastern end of Golden Gate Park in San
Francisco, the Koret Children’s Quarter playground is a popular destination for
city residents. It was built in 2007, replacing the former Sharon Quarters for
Children, which was originally constructed in 1888 and believed to be the first
public playground in the U.S. The
current play area includes a combination of natural elements, unique sculptures,
and manufactured playground structures. One major attraction is an undulating concrete
slide built into a hillside.
In 2017, the large play structure was destroyed by arson, but was replaced a year later.
The “Nature Nook” is a delightful natural play space on the grounds of the Boston Nature Center & Wildlife Sanctuary, located in the Mattapan neighborhood of the city. In about eight years since the playground’s construction, the vegetation has grown nicely to form a cozy play space consisting of several “rooms” of activity areas. The playground includes all the important elements of nature-based play: water, sand/dirt, wood, plants, rocks, and hills. Additional features include a stage with seating, planters for gardening, music and art spaces, a building construction area, a gathering (seating) space, and a boardwalk.
Pergola with vines at the playground entrance
Water pump and stone stream bed, with adjacent sand play area
Children exploring the woods
Musical play, grass hill, and stage with seating
Building construction area, including a permanent wooden frame that children can lean sticks against to form forts and other structures
Boardwalk through the woods
Bridge over the stream bed; near the sand play, dirt play, gardening, and art areas
Photos by Alice Webb
Project Design by StudioMLA Architects, Brookline, MA
I finally got to visit the play area on the Common in Cambridge, Massachusetts – A superbly-designed space with hills, custom wooden structures, sand and water play areas, logs, plants, and other fun and unusual components. It includes many elements that help define a successful playground – one modeled on natural features that fosters imaginative, open-ended play. Although there weren’t many children there when I visited (likely due to cold weather and other plans on Easter Sunday), I could tell that the playground is well-used and loved, with sand tracked all over the place!
A challenging wooden climber
Sand play station
Swings, plants, rocks, and a wheelchair-accessible merry-go-round
Climbing net on a hillside
A custom wooden structure, slide, and tunnel
Water play station (too cold in March for the water to be turned on yet)
Kids from impoverished sections of my city don’t often get to play in natural settings, since they typically live in apartment houses and buildings with little to no yard space. That has recently changed for some lucky preschoolers at the Webster Square Day Care Center here in Worcester, Massachusetts.
The center, which operates out of the lower level of a church, wanted to update their playground, which then consisted of scattered equipment within a sand surface. Originally their goal was to simply change the surfacing to a safer material that would be acceptable under current state requirements for day care centers. However, I convinced them to take the renovation a step further and add some nature-based features for a more enriching play experience.
My firm developed plans for this playground, and the day care center received several grants which funded the improvements over a period of a couple years. Since the budget was fairly limited, we retained the existing play equipment, keeping the larger pieces in their pre-existing locations and moving the smaller items. Plants, rocks, stepping stones, logs, water and sand play tables, musical chimes, and a vegetable garden were added to the space.
Although the playground is used exclusively by the day care center during the weekdays, it is open in the evenings and on weekends for use by neighborhood children. The kids get a lot of enjoyment out of this space, and I’m told that the natural features are particularly popular. A few “before” and “after” photos are included below to illustrate the improvements.
BEFORE: A couple of play panels, sand surfacing, weeds, and an ugly fence (owned by the neighbors) were all that existed on the west side of the playground. The wooded area behind the play area is on adjacent property.
AFTER: Relocated play house, plants (including shrubs which will grow to hide the fence), stepping logs, & chimes. The drums are portable, stored in a nearby shed.
BEFORE: West end of the playground
AFTER: Lots of enjoyment from a few simple features
BEFORE: East end of the playground
AFTER: Rocks and plants create a space for imaginative play.
BEFORE: Central section of playground
AFTER: Existing play equipment was retained, engineered wood fiber safety surfacing was installed, and a sand table was added. An at-grade sand play area is situated behind the table.
BEFORE: Unused, weedy area west of the existing shed
AFTER: A raised vegetable garden for the children to learn about growing food
Photos by Alice Webb and the Webster Square Day Care Center staff
On a recent March weekend while visiting New York City, I had the opportunity to walk the newest section of the High Line that opened last September. This half-mile long segment wraps around a large storage yard for commuter trains, between West 30th and West 34th Streets, with a nice view of the Hudson River along part of its length. The final 1/3 mile of this new phase is currently open as an interim walkway, to be completed once the neighboring Hudson Yards mixed-use development is built on a platform over the train yard.
One can now walk the entire 1.5-mile length of this former freight train trestle. It’s become a very popular place for both locals and visitors, with a steady stream of walkers even on the cool and windy day when I was there. The High Line ranks as one of my favorite urban parks, with a creative design that incorporates many references to its historic railway usage. I also enjoy the numerous interesting views of the city from 30 feet above the streets.
The Grasslands Grove features a variety of “peel-up” furnishings, including benches, a picnic table, a see-saw rocker, and a chime feature for children. This signature style of site amenity can be seen along many parts of the High Line.
Stacked seating borders the section that parallels West 30th Street, near a new building that is under construction to the north. The landscape near the High Line in this area will be changing over the next few years as tall buildings transform the low-lying rail yards site.
The high line’s original rail tracks are exposed and now function as walkways in three places along the route, referencing the park’s former use. Aggregate bonded with an adhesive was installed between the ties, creating a very firm and level surface, accessible to wheelchairs.
A row of benches flanks the 11th Avenue “Bridge” (to the left of the photo), a section of walkway that arches somewhat above the surrounding surfaces. The rail yards can be seen to the right.
The Pershing Square Beams: A children’s play area featuring an exposed portion of the High Line’s original framework, and also including entertaining elements such as periscopes and a “gopher hole”. In the warmer months, perennial plantings sprout up in the spaces between some of the beams.
The interim walkway includes the original tracks with self-seeded plants (as the High Line had appeared for many years after the trains stopped running in 1980). It becomes a lush green linear meadow during the warmer seasons. The walkway portion is surfaced with bonded aggregate, flush with the intersecting rail lines. The High Line curves to the right to run parallel with the Hudson River in the distance.
Large stacked timbers serve as seating at this section of the interim walkway, somewhat reminiscent of oversized railroad ties.
The interim walkway slopes down to its terminus at West 34th Street.
Starting in the 1950s and extending into the ‘70s, playground design took a creative turn, away from the galvanized steel structures of yore. Instead of specifying manufactured pieces, designers began to customize entire play areas. Concrete, brick, and other hard materials were used extensively. Several playgrounds built in this style can be found in Central Park, New York City, (photos below). Some of these have been upgraded, maintaining the integrity of the original designs, while complying with today’s safety standards. I like the sculptural qualities and connectivity of the climbers and other features, in addition to the water play areas incorporated in several of the playgrounds. However, I found the spaces to be rather cold and drab in appearance. In my opinion, interspersing some low- and mid-sized plant materials throughout these playgrounds, (not just along the perimeters), would turn them into more inviting spaces and add play value to the sites.
Ancient Playground in Central Park, NYC, next to the Metropolitan Museum of Art
Ancient Playground in Central Park, NYC, next to the Metropolitan Museum of Art
Adventure Playground in Central Park, NYC
Water play in the Adventure Playground
Water play in the Adventure Playground
Hecksher Playground in Central Park, NYC
Hecksher Playground in Central Park (water play section)
During a recent trip to lower Manhattan in NYC, I had the opportunity to visit Teardrop Park. This little urban oasis in the Battery Park City neighborhood is situated between several high-rise residential buildings. It includes natural play areas in its southern half, and lawns and walkways to the north.
Much of the park was designed to represent a northeast forest environment, with rock outcrops, rolling hills, and lush (mostly native) vegetation. One of its prominent features is a vertical wall of stacked bluestone, arranged to resemble natural rock strata. This design includes water seepage through a section of the wall, forming icicles in winter.
In the middle of the children’s play area, a long slide is anchored into a rocky hillside and terminates in a large sand area. Nearby, there is a small sand play area for pre-school children, in addition to a water play zone for kids of all ages. Children and adults alike can also explore a wetland play path, where I observed a number of birds during my visit.
The sloping lawns to the north of the play areas are pleasant spaces for relaxation, and include several seating areas along the perimeter. There are also some more isolated seating/gathering spots along paths throughout the park. Despite the secluded nature of those areas, I felt very safe while there.
I was at the park on a Tuesday morning, so it was not packed with visitors. I would imagine that it attracts a lot more users during weekends and summer evenings, especially residents of the surrounding high-rises. The park provides many opportunities for imaginative play for kids, and serves as a pleasant environment for all.
Hillside slide with rock steps and overlook
Pre-school sand play area
Water play area
Wildlife in the water play area – the robin and the littlest boy are color-coordinated!
A seating area above the water play zone
Rock wall resembling natural strata
Portal through the rock wall
South (back) side of the rock wall portal
People relaxing in one of the lawn areas
The northern-most lawn area slopes toward the south to take advantage of the sun.
A small nook for imaginative play at one end of the wetland path
Early in the spring, I visited a creatively-designed playground at the Pier 6 section of Brooklyn Bridge Park in New York City. The day of my visit was unseasonably warm, so the playground was swarming with people. This play area is divided in several zones: an active area for school-age children with slides and climbers; a sand area for younger children with small climbing sculptures, play houses, and other elements; an area featuring numerous swing-sets situated between small hills; a water play area; and a natural vegetated area. I was pleased to see that much of the playground includes lots of plants – great for play, shade, and beauty!
A play structure and stepped seating are included in the school-age children’s zone, which is called Slide Mountain.
This is the longest of several slides located in Slide Mountain.
Play sculptures and wooden seating areas in Sandbox Village
Interactive play piece in Sandbox Village
Kids enjoy wooden play houses and other fun features
One of several swing-sets in Swing Valley
Swing Valley includes grassy hills along the walkways.
Unique water devices in The Water Lab (closed for the winter)
Another view of The Water Lab (closed for winter)
This natural area, which includes several paths and seating areas, is rather isolated from the other play zones. Very few people were visiting it when I was there. Fencing off the vegetated areas from access makes it less inviting to children also.
A children’s playground doesn’t have to be a boring flat area of safety surfacing with a couple of climbing structures plopped the middle. Interesting elements can be included that don’t add a lot to the cost of the project. Below are examples of a few fun features that enhance play environments by providing more of a variety of activities, fostering creative play, and adding visual appeal.
Two-dimensional brick/turf maze (Dunham Park, Cary, NC)
Slide situated on a mound (Colombo Park, Worcester, MA)
Slide on a hillside, surrounded with plants; and interesting series of archways along a walk (North Cary Park, Cary, NC)
Water trough and rocks in a sand play area (Forest Hills Park, Durham, NC)
Play houses add fun to this sand area, and a blue “river” flows from a water trough (Forest Hills Park, Durham, NC)
An original dragon sculpture used for climbing (Marla Dorrel Park, Cary, NC)
In my former position as a landscape architect for the Town of Cary, North Carolina, I had the pleasure of managing the design and construction of a unique and extensive play space, called Kids Together Playground, which is located in Marla Dorrel Park. The playground is two acres in size, and was completed in 2000. Its defining features include a universally-accessible design, in addition to many natural elements, including plants, sand, rocks, and rolling hills. It includes both active and passive (“discovery”) play zones, as well as separate school-age and preschool-age areas. The park and playground were designed by my friends at Little & Little Landscape Architects in collaboration with Robin Moore, Director of the Natural Learning Initiative, both in Raleigh, NC.
Integrating play opportunities for children of all ability levels was the original goal behind the development of this playground. It consists of many accessible pathways throughout the site, and more than half of the raised decking on the largest play structure can be accessed by wheelchairs via two ramps. A raised, terraced sand table also accommodates wheelchairs, and swings with back support are mixed in with traditional belt swings. Changes in walkway surfacing provide textural cues for the visually impaired at intersections and steps, and plants stimulate the senses of sight, touch, and smell.
Natural elements in this playground are plentiful, and provide many creative play opportunities. There is a large variety of lush plantings, including ornamental grasses, shrubs, trees, groundcovers, and perennials. The plants were chosen to provide a diversity of colors, textures, and fragrances through various seasons, and all are non-toxic. Trees provide shade in this warm climate, and many of the plants offer loose parts for imaginative play. Shrubs and tall grasses also form the boundaries of play spaces, and are perfect for hide-and-seek games. In addition, there are three sand areas in the playground, including a sand “river” that runs under a footbridge, a zone with sand diggers, and the terraced sand table mentioned above. Also, rocks are set into hillsides for climbing and sitting, and grassy slopes are provided for running, rolling, and relaxing.
Playful pieces of original artwork can be found throughout the site. A climbable dragon sculpture emerges from a hillside, and matching benches that flank the entrance area invite kids to talk to each other through winding tubes. Benches with botanical and dragon themes also can be found along several of the walkways.
Kids Together Playground continues to be very popular, since it provides such a wide variety of play opportunities for kids of all abilities. Although traditional climbing, sliding, and swinging structures are included, this playground also offers many settings for creative play, ranging from sand areas and playhouses to winding paths and hills. Plants, however, are the dominant features of this site, and add a tremendous amount of play value and visual appeal.
Photos by Little & Little Landscape Architects, the Town of Cary NC, and Alice Webb