Kids Together Playground

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.

The beginning of a sand “river” in the preschool play zone includes a wheelchair-accessible table and a “bucket filler” water source.
The sand “river” continues under an accessible bridge in the preschool area.
A climbable dragon sculpture emerges from the hillside.
The playground’s plants have ornamental appeal in the winter, too.
Ramps to the large play structure are surrounded by vegetation.
A terraced sand play area
An intimate space with kid-size seats, table, and play house
Sculptural bench with “talk tube” near the playground entrance

Round Bollard
A playful bollard and colorful plants along a walkway

Photos by Little & Little Landscape Architects, the Town of Cary NC, and Alice Webb

Bringing Nature into Playgrounds

I’m a strong advocate of giving kids opportunities to play in natural settings, and am working on convincing more of my clients to include natural elements in children’s playgrounds that I design. Last year I wrote an article about this topic for the New England Park Association’s spring newsletter, which is abbreviated below.

Many of today’s children spend too much time indoors or in planned activities, which has led to high levels of attention disorders and depression. Unstructured outdoor play is very important for kids, as there is a growing body of scientific evidence that free play, particularly in natural settings, has many cognitive, social, and emotional benefits. One solution is to allow children to play freely in natural areas, but to go a step further, natural features can be incorporated into playgrounds. In contrast to open natural settings, playgrounds can provide a more secure, bounded area which adults may prefer, particularly for younger children. This objective can be met by providing natural settings and elements in the play area, such as grass hills, sand play areas, water, rocks, plants, and wood.

Of all the natural elements that can be provided in playgrounds, plants are one of the most beneficial. Shrubs and tall ornamental grasses are great for hide-and-seek games, and plants of all types can provide loose parts for imaginative play, such as cones, seeds, leaves, and sticks. They can also form the boundaries of play spaces within a playground. Plants help to develop the senses, they stimulate exploration, and they foster appreciation for the natural environment. Other advantages include protection from sun and wind, erosion control, and making the playground more visually attractive for both children and adults.

Including hills and other variations in topography can promote a lot of enjoyment in playgrounds. These provide varied spatial experiences, and encourage climbing, running, and rolling. Slides can even be incorporated into hillsides, and accessible routes can be constructed to the tops of these slides. Bridges can also be built between a hill or higher elevation and the upper level of a play structure, which facilitates wheelchair access into the structure, and adds fun to the play experience. Hills and mounds make a playground more interesting, and are also great for sledding in winter.

Sand areas are very popular with younger children, and they foster creative play since sand can be molded into all types of things. It is important to include a water source in the sand area, such as a button-operated or pump-activated “jug filler”, for this purpose. Sand play areas are also great for social interaction among children. For wheelchair accessibility, raised sand tables can be provided, or an entire sand area could be raised to allow wheelchair users to transfer onto the edge and into the sand.

Water features can also greatly enhance the play experience, particularly if they mimic natural aquatic systems. Devices activated with buttons or pumps could be used to discharge water into a shallow hard-surfaced channel at ground level or a series of raised troughs or terraces. These could be built in combination with spray elements, and all of this water could then be chlorinated and recirculated. If safety is a concern, all of these water play features could be zero-depth.

Rocks and wood are other natural elements that are fun and engaging, and they can be inexpensive to incorporate if obtained on the property. Including these in sand areas, along with plants, creates an even more stimulating play environment.  Some examples of uses for rocks and wood include raised stepping stones and stumps, seating areas, tables, and climbing objects. Several adjacent rocks could also be anchored into hillsides for added challenge and excitement.

When children play in natural settings, they tend to be quite imaginative and create their own games, which makes the whole experience especially enjoyable. Including natural components in playgrounds is a great way to give children this exposure on a regular basis, and it is a relatively low-cost means of adding lots of play value.