Natural Elements in Playgrounds | Creative STAR Learning

Natural Elements in Playgrounds | Creative STAR Learning

This is a guest site publish by Frode Svane, an architect and a pedagogue

Frode operates on quite a few projects for parks, community locations, school yards and kindergartens in Norway. He has, for several decades, designed a large variety of applications for involving young children and youth in the preparing approach.

Natural Elements in Playgrounds | Creative STAR Learning

In the early 70’s I designed the belief and put ahead the argument that “a playground can never ever be nearly anything else but a inadequate replacement or substitute for the options small children find in nature”. I continue to feel there is some truth in this, but I now feel there are grounds to modify this feeling. The type of “nature” I had in my mind was inevitably the kind of character I experienced developed up with as a young boy. This was a nature supplying immensely rich activities and opportunities, that kind of mother nature that seemed to me only to exist in the woods shut to my house all over Oslo (Østmarka). These forests had been wealthy in dramatic and attractive seasonal variations, with a lot of snow and ice in winter season, rich in fauna, wealthy with various topography and rich in pure, working water and lakes.

Against this truth it is maybe inescapable to think that the playgrounds in Oslo could not deliver anything at all to equivalent this high quality of participate in knowledge. Sadly in current decades this has turn out to be more true than at any time.

Around the previous 3 a long time journey playgrounds have disappeared from Oslo. The political will to keep them and their staff members and our twelve play centres, alongside with the great adventurous participate in they offered, has fallen away like the leaves following a frost. I do not feel that these disappearances are the end result of a deficiency of need to have of the little ones in these suburbs this need, of class, proceeds to exist. A more plausible rationale for the closures was the deficiency of knowledge of politicians of the demands of small children in city parts. Possibly this is due to the fact a lot of politicians in Oslo just have only a short while ago moved into the city.

The deficiency of political fascination in this article might also have its origin in the fact that Oslo politicians mainly represent a class of men and women who have effortlessly access to the countryside and could be “cabin-owners” by themselves, the two in the mountains and together the shoreline. They do not identify them selves with the real needs of “the metropolis inside the city”, and they have their have “childhood valley” elsewhere in Norway, which they can take a look at both of those in place and intellect. Oslo is like “a tiny village”, even in a European context, – and unquestionably compared to the world’s wonderful metropolises, and some city residents, together with the political class, are equipped to journey out of the city to the spots they may well come to feel are their real homes for the duration of vacations and weekends.<

Adventure playgrounds replicate some essential functions of the natural playscape in that they enable children the important ability to CREATE, CHANGE and IMPRINT. In addition children can take part in a rich social community, learning important skills for communication and developing abilities to care and take responsibility for both animals and others within social groups. The emotional stability of staffed play settings provide a basis for developing lasting friendships, which is a necessary basis for  cultural development and experiences, often in circumstances where adults’ turbulent lives and relationships create poor conditions for durable and creative friendships. Modern city life provides few spaces or opportunities for children to build these positive relationships. In Oslo the adventure playgrounds have gone, but the problems still grow.

Children have fundamental needs in their play, – namely to CREATE, CHANGE and IMPRINT their own environments. I think from my own growing-up experiences that nature provides many of the basic conditions for these processes to happen. I believe it is important to continue to assert that these innate needs of children will be best met in rich natural surroundings.

In nature’s green spaces with trees, bushes and plants, children also have easy access to props, both for their role-play and for their construction play. We can find evidence of this in the cabins, dens and shelters built by children on the ground, and in the trees amongst the forests and along the coastal areas of Norway. Robust bushes and trees which can withstand the demands of children’s’ play and provide materials and fruit, should in my opinion, be an important element in our playgrounds and parks, and especially close to the sandpits for smaller children. One should also deliberately plant more trees and bushes which specifically creates a rich fauna.

Throughout Norway away from the cities, we have many natural environments which combine rich and varied topography and plants of wonderful diversity. When these elements come together in nature, they provide the stimulus for many varied ways of moving, and also create the social spaces which suit children whether alone or together in groups of different sizes.

In my design of schools and kindergarten playgrounds I have always aimed to reflect some of the Norway’s topography and recreate elements of the natural landscape. I drew some of my early projects with inspiration from a day-care centre I discovered 40 years ago, in Gladsaxe (Rødovre) in Copenhagen. Here in a place of uninteresting flat ground were mounds, slopes, banks and terraces and even secret tunnels. In my first major outdoor project of my own in a kindergarten at Eide in Odda (West-Coast of Norway) in 1982, I combined inspirations drawn from the natural landscape in and around Oslo with these early design influences.

In the 70’s the concept of contact with the elements: “fire, earth, air, water” became increasingly recognised as important ingredients of the play environment. We might have hoped over the past 50 years we had made progress in bringing these concepts into reality. Certainly when it comes to water, it’s almost shameful that so many of our school and park playgrounds are lacking running water or small ponds, secure enough for children’s play.

Seventy years ago the parks in Oslo had much more ponds and water installations for play than today, and I think this is also true for Copenhagen. However we can find a much better picture in other areas. Nearly all of the 32 schools in Lund municipality in Skåne, in the south of Sweden, have some kind of water installations ponds for studies on the basis of curricula, running water, small streams and pumps, the resources to enable creative play with water and to combine it with sand. One of the best examples of a park using the theme of water is situated in Malmö, which has used artificial streams, sluice gates and fountains and play equipment in a very adventurous water play environment. Further afield in Berlin there is hardly a park or school playground without exciting water installations!

What then is the reason for the lack of this provision in the parks and schools in Oslo and Copenhagen? Is it lack of willingness to provide finances both for the construction and the maintenance? Or is it a lack of technical competence? Even in the Valby Park’s large, and otherwise, beautiful natural playground, there are no good opportunities for water play.

It might be claimed that nature and natural elements will be worn down quickly in areas where children’s play is very intense, like in school playgrounds. Isolated trees are broken down easily. But trees can be planted in groups and it is easy to establish bushes that will endure and renew themselves over time. Fläming Grundschule in Berlin has a good example of a huge bush area, like many other school grounds in Berlin. They often have rich vegetation, especially shrubs, with plentiful spaces for “a life in the bushes”. Large natural boulders placed as singly or in groups and mounds, give rich possibilities for balance and movements, and could not be more durable!. They are also very beautiful, both in color and shape, and fit very well into almost any natural landscape. I have benefited greatly from the use of many hundreds of large moraine stones and boulders in parks and playgrounds in Norway.

Play has become “big business” for many play equipment producers around the world. The play equipment producers have done their best to establish a focus on safety in children’s play environments however it is not just the design details of the play apparatus which are the main determinates of safety. Many commercial products function very well to stimulate variety of movement and to facilitate opportunities for children to play together in social groups especially when the units are based on a non-linear cluster, inspiring more communication and contact play.

An example of new approaches to outdoor play environments and equipment can be found in Norway. Asbjorn Flemmen’s innovative concept for “jungle-play” provides for many of children’s needs for movement in play and is flexible enough to appeal to girls and boys of all ages. The environments are popular creating varied opportunities stimulate communication and the learning processes but the installations are expensive, require large maintenance efforts and budgets to obtain ongoing safety and in some municipalities the installations have been taken away. In this context “play” also might become “business”, without thinking in new ways.

A lot of quality play products highly durable and will often be preferred by those conscious of maintenance budgets to apparatus made of organic materials. But there are also large manufacturers, especially in Germany, who produce play components made of highly durable tree species such as Robinia. These organic materials can be more “imprintable” for children, – they are asymmetric and unique and can be modified with pictures reliefs and small sculptural features. Trees used in their natural form as construction material will fit much more easily and aesthetically into the natural landscape and terrain than those with screaming colours and artificial detail and in general wood is warmer to the touch for young hands in our cold winter climate.

To sum up what lessons can we learn from the past five decades to ensure we create the play environments our children in Scandinavia need and deserve? Firstly we must become much more skilled at exploring the possibilities of recreating the individuality and endless variations of nature, in terms of topography, planting and green spaces, use of stones and natural materials, and in particular the endlessly changeable elements of sand and water in our school and public play spaces. Secondly as planners, designers and developers of the public realm we must aware of the consumerist and commercial pressures which the ‘play businesses’ always wishes to exert on us.

Finally we must stay true to our ideals and be driven by what best suits the needs of children in our designs and choice of materials. In our planning of new green areas, or our revitalising projects, we always must be aware that children in cities continuous become more cut off from contact with natural areas, due to fact that the traffic always creates new insurmountable barriers, and that the natural habitat itself constantly shrinking in, as building pressure just increases and increases, without adequate >rules for creating payment regions for youngsters.


The text and photos are the copyright of Frode Svane and his authorization ought to be sought if you would like to use any of both. Thanks all over again to Frode for his willingness to share his ideas. This blog publish was originally posted in April 2013

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