How Nature Play Spaces Build Balanced, Unstructured Activity for Children

By: Holly Henriksen, Senior Landscape Architect

What is ‘nature play’? Nature play is a method that uses the landscape and vegetation to bring nature into children’s play environments.

Why is nature play important?

According to the World Wildlife Federation, children spend half as much time outdoors as they did 20 years ago. This has led to a rise in obesity rates, and a decline in creativity and social skills. Children that spend time outdoors are more physically active, are more creative in their play, exhibit less aggression and show better concentration. (Burdette and Whitaker 2005); (Kuo & Sullivan 2001).

There are many reasons why kids aren’t playing outside as much as they used to. Kids today are involved in a lot more structured activities than they used to be, limiting the amount of time for free play outdoors. Also, due to two income families, children are spending more time at after-school programs and daycare centers that are typically more structured environments.

Perhaps the simplest way to implement nature play is to fence or rope off a natural area and allow kids (and parents) to explore. In this designated off trail exploration area, there are no rules about staying on the trail or not touching things. Kids can pretend to be an explorer. They can turn over rocks or dig holes to find worms. They can stack sticks to create a fort. The possibilities are limited only by their imaginations. In contrast to conventional playgrounds, children have the opportunity to participate in unstructured, creative playtime.

city-of-melbourne-s-nature-play-at-royal-park-crow-1City of Melbourne’s Nature Play at Royal Park crowned Australia’s Best Playground

Another type of nature play is similar to a conventional playground except the equipment is constructed primarily of natural materials. For example, boulders could be used as a climbing structure or a balance beam could be made out of logs. A wood framework could be built for kids to add sticks to build walls.

In both types of areas, plants can provide more exploration opportunities and interest. Plants with interesting smells and those that attract birds, butterflies and other insects can provide up-close interactions with nature.

Children that spend time outdoors feel a greater connection to the environment and want to help protect and preserve it. According to David Orr, “The planet does not need more successful people. But it does desperately need more peacemakers, healers, restorers, storytellers, and lovers of every kind. It needs people who live well in their places…Indoor classes create an illusion that learning only occurs inside four walls, isolated from what students call, without apparent irony, the real world (Orr 2004).” Giving children the opportunity to feel ownership toward their environment, they feel invested in its protection and inherently work toward solving environmental problems.

Research suggests that children are not receiving enough time in outdoor classrooms. Richard Louv coined the term, “nature deficit disorder,” in his book Last Child in the Woods. Although not a documented medical term, nature-deficit disorder explains the importance of the outdoors for the healthy physical and emotional development of children. Louv argues that children no longer have the same outdoor experiences, instead finding pleasure in video games and other indoor activities which leads to a wide range of behavioral problems. Nature, on the other hand, responds to all of the senses, often having a calming effect (Louv 2008). Louv found that nature not only has significant psychological benefits but also can inspire students to be better learners. It is also important for instructors to become aware of important environmental topics and ways in which to offer outdoor experiences to the students. Tailoring lesson plans around field trips and hands-on experiences have a greater impact on students’ learning.” (K. Horine.)

A more naturalistic play area which enhances the connection with nature for children

What should be considered in the design of a nature play space?

Although construction can be minimal for off-trail exploration areas, some initial investigation of the area and periodic maintenance will be required to ensure there are no obvious hazards such as poison ivy, dangling limbs or sharp branches at eye level. Depending on usage, the area may become trampled over time. The beauty of off-trail exploration areas is that by moving the fence to a new area, an entirely new experience can be created, allowing the previous area to regenerate.

Nature playgrounds require the construction of the play equipment and its ongoing maintenance. If wood is used, it will deteriorate over time and will need to be replaced. Boulders and rock structures need to be inspected to make sure the boulders are stable and secure.

seacrest-arboretumA nature based slide at the Secrest Arboretum in Wooster, Ohio

As with traditional playgrounds, safety is of utmost importance. If a play space includes items that children interact with with their feet off the ground, safety surfacing is required, as it is for traditional playground equipment. The safety surfacing must be replenished as it is dislodged and as it breaks down over time.

By creating off-trail exploration areas and nature play spaces in parks, schools, and daycare centers, we can encourage children to appreciate the world around them and to help protect and preserve it.

If you have a vision for a nature play space, Environmental Design Group can help.  Send an email to for more information.

A Balancing Act: The Art of Finding Stability in Work, Life, and Play

By: Renee Whittenberger, P.E. Senior Project Engineer

True story: I came to my first day of work at Environmental Design Group with a banged up chin – we took my head shot at an angle just to hide that fact. I’ve had two black eyes while meeting with a new client. On bridge inspections, I’ve heaved myself up and down icy, wooded ravines with one arm because I was recovering from rotator cuff surgery. Injuries like these happen while I’m having the time of my life playing rugby, and while rugby isn’t all about injury, it comes with the territory.

renee-big-hitter-4This was after I played a muddy tournament in Switzerland

We all have hobbies outside of work and I wouldn’t argue that mine is somewhat intense. Rugby is my workout, a large part of my social life, my stress relief, and another way that I can help make the world a better place. (Yes, really. By founding the Youngstown Steel Valley women’s rugby team, I have been honored to create a place of love, encouragement, support, and empowerment for women that need it…and we all need it.) This type of community-building is a cornerstone of who I am. As a Multi-Modal Engineer, I help impact communities through transportation opportunities such as designing bike lanes, trails, parks, and complete streets. I’m truly lucky that I’ve found a way to weave that need into my hobby and career.

It’s also another way to practice leadership, work with a team, and challenge myself physically, mentally, and emotionally. My personal fortitude is tested as I lead 14-players with varying skill levels to contend with fluctuating agreements about referee calls, to push through 80-minutes of the opponent trying to prevent the team from doing what we want most – to score! These experiences do carry over to my job as they enhance my personality, ability to lead people, perseverance, and problem solving skills.

renee-big-hitter-3My team after our last match of the season. We started with just 3-4 people attending practice in March, and look at us now – 16 people strong

Rugby is a big time commitment. On Tuesdays and Thursdays, I leave work at 5:00 p.m. for practice and I don’t get home until 9:00 p.m. We play matches on Saturdays, sometimes with three or four hour drives. Outside of that, leading the team takes even more time to plan practices, coordinate games and meetings, fundraise, recruit new members, etc.  We have small breaks in November, December, and June, but the rest of the year is, “in season.” I’ll be the first to admit that my body and my schedule need those breaks!

renee-big-hitter-1I’m a big hitter on the pitch and I take that role seriously

When I’m not playing rugby, I’m refereeing it. I like to say, “Refereeing is hard on the heart, but good for the soul.” It’s a fast paced game that challenges my focus, knowledge, speedy decision making, and critical thinking. I make calls to promote the safety and lawful play of the game, despite the sometimes loud criticism from coaches, fans and players. No matter how hard we try, no referee can call a perfect game and even if we could, roughly half of the people present would disagree. Engineers also want to be right all the time. You see the dissonance here?

Playing rugby and working as a professional engineer is not an easy balance. Sometimes the intensity shows up on my face, or is reflected by the way I move several days after a match. Sometimes I need to come back to work after practice to be sure I finish my tasks. Once in a while, I have to miss practice in order to attend an important meeting or conference. Despite the juggling, I make it work because I think it’s the best sport on the planet and I honestly believe it makes me a better person, a better worker, and a better engineer.

For me, It’s all worth it!

renee-big-hitter-2Pushing through the resistance and tackling through three people makes me a stronger person


Community Impact Across the Pond

By: Marianne Senvisky, Business Development Professional

picture-1Hot Air Balloon Overlooking Pulteney Bridge in Bath, England

During a recent trip “across the pond” to England, I witnessed some of the historical engineering roots that ground the current work of Environmental Design Group, and have continued to positively impact communities for centuries.

From Heathrow Airport, we took a train to the beautiful city of Bath, a World Heritage Site with one of the best examples of a Roman bath complex. Talk about water resource management and environmental services!

As the Romans advanced west in England 2,000 years ago, they discovered Bath’s natural hot spring and built a reservoir to control its flow for their elaborate system of baths. Roman engineers also built roads and designed and monitored aqueducts that carried fresh water to the cities and homes of the wealthy, utilizing underground pipes and sewage systems. The warm, mineral-rich waters at Bath were said to have healing powers, and many traveled from all over the Roman Empire to “take the waters.” The site is now a museum with a modern spa next door, where we did as the Romans did and enjoyed a therapeutic soak in the rooftop pool.

bathRoman Bath House

Our train pass took us as far as Swansea, Wales, where we hopped a bus to the Gower Peninsula, designated as the UK’s first Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty. Surrounded by the Bristol Sea and Atlantic Ocean, the Gower is a haven for some of the richest wildlife and varied habitats in Wales and the rest of the UK. The wild moors with grazing sheep, limestone cliffs and Rhossili Bay Beach, along with very brisk winds, made for literally breathtaking views. We joined the locals at the pub for a pint to wait out the storm that rolled in.

bristol-seaRhossili Bay Beach on the Gower Coast in Wales

Our travels involved multi-modal transportation including air, public transit (train, subway aka “The Tube” and bus), boat, private cab, and of course, lots of walking (and looking right instead of left for oncoming traffic)! England’s transportation network is one of the best in the world, and we even came across a “reverse” traffic roundabout in Alton during our visit to Jane Austen’s House Museum.

reverse-roundaboutAn England Style Roundabout

During our sightseeing in London, we were impressed by the melding of historic and modern architecture with green space, as we walked the Thames Path, a 184-mile national trail along the River Thames, and visited St. James, Hyde and Kensington Royal Parks and Kew Botanical Gardens, with the world’s largest and most diverse collection of living plants. Early city planners definitely realized the importance of designing community gathering places in beautiful, natural settings and sustaining London’s more than 8,000 trees.

thames-pathRoyal Park, England

Ten days and 500+ photographs later, I returned to Ohio with an even greater appreciation and respect for my associates and the history-making work they do. In our own way, we’re working to make a lasting impact by designing trails, roadways, and rain gardens to help preserve ecology and enhance Northeast Ohio.