SAIIER 2016:Green Playground Spaces

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Arulvazhi Education Centre
Green Playground Spaces
A project of Aranya

Research on green playground spaces

The first step that we (the team at Aranya) took in starting the project is to order certain books recommended to us by Heidi Watts, Professor Emeritus on this topic. We received the following books:

  • Wild Play by David Sobel
This book is largely autobiographical where Sobel describes his experiences with his own children and the connections with nature.
  • Forest Kindergartens by Erin K. Kenny
This book is a description of an actual Kindergarten within the Forest. It talks about creating a Kindergarten rather than green playground spaces.
  • Establishing a Nature-Based Preschool by Rachel A. Larimore
This book is about creating a Preschool in nature. It is very interesting but has no direct bearing on the subject of creating green playground spaces,
  • Risk and Adventure in Early Years Outdoor Play by Sara Knight
In this book the issue of risk in nature play is discussed. The book also talks about the primary elements of earth, water, air and fire. It talks about seasonal changes of natural creativity in relation to outdoor play spaces. A good case is made that the element of risk should not prevent nature play spaces.
  • Childhood and Nature by David Sobel
In this book David Sobel makes the case that concern for protecting the environment and nature is best served by a love for nature, which comes directly from “many hours spent outdoors in a keenly remembered wild or semi wild place in childhood or adolescence and an adult who taught respect for nature”.
He also makes the point that it is not a question of making a curriculum out of nature, learning names of plants etc., but experiencing nature. He says that one transcendent experience in nature is worth a thousand nature facts.

Sobel cites many studies which confirm that the experiences of children in nature can be transcendent. He quotes a passage from Wordsworth:

“There was a time when meadow, grove and stream,
The earth, and every common sight,
To me did seem
Appareled in celestial light,
The glory and the freshness of a dream”

Sobel believes that the age between 5 or 6 to 12 years, the middle childhood, is the most sensitive for nature play. He cites design principles for nature play:

  1. Adventure. He says that environmental education needs to be kinaesthetic, in the body. Children should stalk, balance, jump and scamper through the natural world.
  2. Fantasy and Imagination. Young children live in their imagination. Stories, plays, puppet shows and dreams are preferred media in childhood. For nature play we need to create situations in which students can live the challenges rather than just study them.
  3. Animal allies. Children feel an inherent empathy with wild and domestic animals. Researches found that the period from 2nd to 5th grade most significantly characterized a major increase in emotional concern and affection for animals. Sobel points to research suggesting that educational efforts for students of 6-10 years of age might best focus on the affective realm, mainly emphasizing emotional concern and sympathy for animals. He also says that hands-on experience at the critical time is better than systematic knowledge in the making of a naturalist. It is better to spend long stretches of time just searching and dreaming. One goal, especially for ages 9-10 should be to foster close allegiances between children and animals.
  4. Maps and Paths. Finding shortcuts, figuring out what is around the next bend, following a map to a secret event – children have an inborn desire to explore local geographies.
  5. Private places. There appears to be a universal tendency for children to create or find their own private places, especially between the ages of 7-12.

Sobel warns against what he calls 'ecophobia'. He discusses how to teach ecological concerns to children without frightening them.

We also found on the internet an interesting article from the Green Hearts Institute for Nature in Childhood ( The article describes design principles in nature play spaces. This essay was very useful for us to learn others' recommendations for creating nature play spaces. Some of the observations in this essay are:

  • The best places for nature play have already been designed by nature.
  • If you intend to design or significantly augment a site for nature play, choose designs that are close to replicas of local habitats. Aim to create a natural area for play, not a playground with a nature theme.
  • Children’s nature play is a powerful conservation strategy intended to help create a larger, stronger future constituency for the environment.
  • All nature play will inevitably involve learning, but it will be spontaneous and unpredictable, not the kind of learning that fits neatly into curriculum standards and grade levels.
  • If kids fall in love with nature, they will want to learn about it, and that learning will be likely to endure.
  • In the words of John Burroughs, “Knowledge without love will not stick. But if loves comes first, knowledge is sure to follow.”
  • Outdoor play with a frisbee is a great activity for young kids. But it involves nature in only the most passive of ways. This is outdoor play not nature play. Real nature play actively engages kids with nature: catching fireflies and tadpoles, digging holes to China, building their own den, climbing trees, finding mini-beasties under rocks, collecting leaves, curling up in a secret niche to watch the clouds, etc. Every major activity in your nature play area should facilitate authentic interactions with real nature.
  • The visit to a nature play area once or twice a year may be a transformational experience and a lot of fun. But deep and lasting impacts on a child’s emerging conservation values are much more likely to arise from frequent nature play. The goal is to create a powerful personal relationship with the outdoors, and like all strong relationships this is best achieved through frequent, intimate experiences.

After discussing the above principles and looking at the spaces at Aranya, the group made the following brief for Dorothee, our architect, to work on a plan.

Brief for architect: Elements for natural play spaces in Aranya

  1. There is a need to earmark a relatively similar place for the smaller children, possibly with some fencing which is natural.
  2. We will need a larger space with trails, roads, strings and cycle path for bigger children.
  3. We may need to use big boulders or broken trees to create structures for multiple use.
  4. Restrooms and drinking water should be provided at an appropriate location. Similarly vehicle access and parking should be thought about.
  5. We can use turf grasses to shade the areas from view and create small and closed space. In one of the spaces, we could use hammocks, some kind of chairs and benches.
  6. We can have a supply of loose parts to build structures. These parts should be used by children to build structures.
  7. We need a climbing structure. Wherever there is a climbing structure, below that we need to provide a deep soft tall grassy walls, slanted climbing material, all in natural appearance.
  8. We need to have a digging pit with loose soil, or somewhere soil is stuffed for children to play with mud.
  9. We need to have a safe pond with water for swimming and a stream.
  10. We need mud balls, mud holes, nesting boxes.
  11. We could plant a few fruit trees and the children could enjoy the fruits.
  12. We should have a grassy patch where children can lay around, sit and talk, etc.
  13. We need to identify existing trees which can be climbed by them. We can attach a sloping climbing net or wooden cleats finely bolted into a trunk – good surfaces.
  14. We will need tools, soil relevant to mud play, etc.
  15. For the big children's play area, there should be some natural fencing also.

Proposed construction projects

We invited our architect Dorothee to study the landscape at Aranya and propose how to incorporate some of the features that we want to materialize there. She proposed a list of civil works that can be done to enhance facilities at Aranya to create a nature playground:

  1. Place for small children with natural fencing. Grassy spaces, place to play with mud, in the main area.
  2. Cycle paths and footpaths, of different length and difficulty, possibly round ways. One path that leads up to the lake. Sign boards along the paths to indicate features (trees, animal habitats…).
  3. Structures for multiple use in main area. There is one structure existing; one is to be added as dormitory and restrooms.
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Dorothee also made a drawing of the proposed pathways at Aranya for nature walks.

We will pursue the continuation of this project in the coming year.