The Play Environment, Part 3: Site Context

Posted by Gregory Miller on January 19, 2018 9:53:24 AM MST
Gregory Miller

To read more about Play Environments go to Part 1 and Part 2.



Humans also have an innate need to connect to nature. The therapeutic value of nature is well studied and documented and influences the designs of hospitals, schools, parks and essentially every other public open space. Connecting to nature has also been proven to be a critical component of childhood development. Books like "Last Child in the Woods" by Richard Louv present the case for "nature deficit disorder". Without meaningful interactions with nature, we're basically turning a blind eye on millennia of humans evolving in the natural world. Nature is unpredictable - it moves, it evolves and adapts. It is dirty and wet, cold and hot, sharp and smooth, and has other critters. All these attributes (and countless more) require us to engage all our senses, allowing us to feel fully alive and connected with ourselves, others and our environment.

Underlying the development of any site is the need to recognize and respect the natural systems that ultimately determine the long term success of a site. Utilizing systems like stormwater management, soils and wildlife in the planning and design of a site not only ensures that mother nature doesn't undo everything, it also broadens our collective understanding  and appreciation of the natural world around us. Coupled with an understanding of and intentional use of built systems, the play environment becomes a layered and vibrant setting for enrichment, development, learning and socialization.

The following are some primary site context considerations for developing this dynamic play environment.


1. Blurred Edges

Four Hills Park zero edge play surfacing boulders

Play is essential to stimulate movement and free flow of energy through our bodies and minds, and delineating boundaries to the space that is "designated" for play is counterproductive. Our historic play environments (woodlands, streams and meadows) naturally blend together, creating continuity with their surroundings instead of compartmentalizing the space.

The use of loose safety surfacing materials (engineered wood fiber) often triggers the perceived need for a rigid containment edge. Outside the designated use zone around play equipment, the edge does not need to be rigid or restrictive. Containing loose surfacing (as well as establishing an edge for unitary surfacing) definitely helps resolve certain maintenance concerns, but these edges can become a playful element in their own right. Blurring edges also allow a more natural integration of plants and other materials around the designated use zone, effectively extending the functional play environment.

2. Intertwined ActivitiesOfficer Daniel Webster Park inclusive

Play opportunities need not be kept separate and distinct. The actual movement between activities may be itself a chance for play, resembling the flight of a bumblebee as users move over, under, through and around, exploring the spaces and things that comprise the play environment. This movement may be direct or circuitous,  but it allows choice, variety and the use of imagination.

3. Multiple Interwoven Routes

Access to and through the play environment can create multiple additional possibilities for recreation. ADA accessible routes form the basic framework for use by wheelchairs, scooters, walkers, strollers and bikes, while other routes can provide challenges in the form of different materials underfoot,  varying steepness of grades and difficulties of passage. 

intertwining paths Officer Daniel Webster Park hand sketch

Having a variety of paths that cross one another offers the enticement of testing new movements and exploring the unknown. These paths may exploit site characteristics such as rocks and hills, while flatter, wider paved paths can be transformed into designed play elements with color and pattern. Proprioception (body awareness) and vestibular sense (balance, gravity) are also stimulated by diverse surface textures (brick pavers, wood slats, turf, metal mesh, cushiony poured in place surfacing, wood fiber) and special physical conditions (through a tunnel, over a bridge, between trees). Choice of routes also encourages exploration, motor planning, and mastery of difficult obstacles. 

4. Various Levels of Oversight

parental oversight four hills park

A small child with an adult caregiver is a common duo in play environments.  Each has their own needs and desires. The child will be developing a sense of independence, while at the same time the caregiver is responsible for the child's safety and well-being. By placing clear line-of-sight seating at varying distances from areas of play, the child may have close support or discreet supervision. This allows the child the sense that they are on their own, while still feeling secure.


tall play structure vertical height

5. Go Vertical

There is a powerful urge in humans to go up - to reach a place of prospect and take in the view. This sense of control is imparted by even small moves upward - standing on a stone, or climbing a low wall. It is more difficult to make these experiences universally accessible, but they are even more valuable to those for whom these occurrences are infrequent. Ramps allow the user to move up, or, conversely, the ground plane can drop away. For a person confined to an assistive device such as a wheelchair, the opportunity to roll over a bridge, to hear the hollow sounds, to feel vibration and perhaps a little sway, and to see down below the ground plane are rare and exciting experiences.


 6. Mystery

Although safety concerns dictate easy observation of activities in play environments, this does not preclude incorporating a sense of discovery that draws users through the site with a feeling of anticipation and excitement. 

discovery nature mystery

Sudden unexpected changes, on the other hand, may lead to a fear response. Studies have shown that the strategy that leads to pleasurable expectation will place the turns  in paths and the obscuring of  views at a little distance from the user. This way they may prepare and look forward to the next new thing.

Not revealing the whole site at once also can make a small space seem larger and more complex, leading to more time spent in adventure and exploration. It also allows the masking of undesirable sights (adjacent buildings for example) which can help create the experience of the play environment as a magical, separate world in an urban environment.


7. Nature

Natural environments, or at the very least,  natural elements, have been found to have profound beneficial effects on health and welfare. 

Sandia-Vista-Park nature-play.jpg

The extent of these outcomes is the subject of ongoing study, but it is clear that our human biophilic response  to our surroundings plays a large role in overall well-being.  Vegetation (such as trees) is constantly changing - growing, dying, moving in the wind, producing flowers and seeds and exhaling oxygen. Natural raw materials, like boulders, have greater irregularity and variety than manufactured ones, providing further haptic experiences and more exploratory thrill. Natural materials are often 'loose' (pebbles, branches, leaves), encouraging free play and imagination, while natural surfacing materials offer different sensory and visual stimulation.

8. Variety of Spaces and Scales

Highland_Park variety of spaces playground Different people have different needs, and the same person can have different needs at different times. Our experience of a place is not from a constant state of motion or rest, in groups or alone. We variously need or desire quietude or noise, fast or slow movement, enclosed or open spaces. Providing a multiplicity of settings, arrangements, materials and activities ensures the richest and most varied experiences for the greatest number of users over a longer period of time.


These spaces should foster the primary connections: people to people; people to nature; and natural systems. Humans are hard wired to seek companionship in large or small groups. We also create tight bonds with family and friends (and make new friends) through play and recreation. The ways that we interact vary based on our individual personalities and abilities. Play environments are the common grounds that erode barriers and let us experience the joy of life. 

To read more about Play Environments go to Part 1 and Part 2.



Tags: News, playgound design, nature play, inclusivity, parks, sensory play, universal design, nature


Greg Miller


Immediate Past President of ASLA National and little league baseball coach.  If he wasn't mixing art and science as a landscape architect, he'd be mixing ingredients as a chef.