WESPEN Online Order Form print this page
US Fish & Wildlife Service FieldNotes

A New Kind of Playground

Region 3, September 23, 2013
Before construction, the project area was mowed grass.
Before construction, the project area was mowed grass. - Photo Credit: n/a
Many volunteers assisted in construction of the playscape.
Many volunteers assisted in construction of the playscape. - Photo Credit: n/a
The dry stream bed and catch basin after the fall construction period.
The dry stream bed and catch basin after the fall construction period. - Photo Credit: n/a
Woodland trail with tree and shrub plantings completed during the fall portion of construction.
Woodland trail with tree and shrub plantings completed during the fall portion of construction. - Photo Credit: n/a
TogetherGreen Youth student intern Nicole Haas standing in the
TogetherGreen Youth student intern Nicole Haas standing in the "hideaway" area atop the large hill where the perennials have filled in nicely. Nicole designed and built the natural playscape with help from many volunteers. - Photo Credit: n/a

Nature is an important component of life, especially for our youth. Richard Louv pioneered this line of thought with his book, The Last Child in the Woods. This book sparked the nationally recognized children and nature movement. The most notable outcome was the newly described “nature-deficit disorder”—the negative mental, emotional and physical impacts that result from a sedentary, indoor lifestyle which ignores the natural environment. Instead of splashing in streams, building forts and digging in the dirt, more and more kids are glued to their television, laptop, or video game console.
The TogetherGreen Youth program is a national leadership program designed to offer college students hands-on, real-world opportunities to become mentors that apply their environmental knowledge to engage the next generation in understanding and caring for the environment. The program is funded by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service “Youth in the Great Outdoors” initiative and promotes conservation career opportunities for future generations. A portion of the funding from the 2011 program went to the Columbus, Ohio, Ecological Services Field Office to hire Nicole Haas, a student majoring in Forestry, Fisheries and Wildlife at The Ohio State University in July of 2011.
For her TogetherGreen Youth project, Nicole decided to engage young children in a pre-school/kindergarten setting. Because children are at school frequently, they have the opportunity to experience nature on a nearly daily basis and in a safe setting. Nicole selected a school in an urban and residential neighborhood of Columbus, Ohio, to provide a natural experience in an area where other opportunities for interacting with nature are limited.
With help from the school community, local businesses and families, Nicole was able to design, plan and build a natural playscape. A natural playscape is not the traditional school playground. Instead of concrete and man-made play-sets, it is composed of trees, shrubs, hills, dirt, rocks, and trails. It is a play area that attempts to mimic a natural environment such as a stream or forest and promotes unrestricted creative play. The school environment also allows for a direct dialogue with parents. It helps parents to realize that children enjoy and benefit from outdoor play, and parents can be encouraged to incorporate it more into their children’s home life.

icole built her playscape at a Columbus-area kindergarten and pre-school, the Mary Evans Child Development Center. Mary Evans enrolls 72 students, from infants to age 6. They offer year-round daycare as well as a kindergarten program. Nicole worked with the school to come up with a design they liked—a woodland hollow and a play stream. These are connected by a trail that meanders through the area. The soil excavated from the trail was used to build four small hills and one large hill. The trail runs through the hills and 1” thick tree trunk slices meander throughout the hills as “stepping-stones” to encourage access and exploration. Compost for the trail and for topping off the hills was provided for free by a local company, the Kurtz Brothers, and sand was provided by Lowe’s at a discounted rate.

The woodland area is filled to the brim with native trees, shrubs and perennials provided by Scioto Gardens at wholesale prices. The plants were selected for their interesting characteristics that kids could experience with all their senses: spice-bush’s scented leaves to smell, tulip poplar’s iridescent leaves to look at, red-mulberry’s berries to taste, and hackberry’s lumpy bark to feel. Overall 15 different species of trees and shrubs and 29 different species of perennials were planted. These included rattlesnake master, short-toothed mountain mint, Solomon’s seal, Eastern wood fern, wild cranesbill, larch, persimmon and many more.

The other main aspect of the playscape is the play-stream. This area begins at the end of the main hill, meanders, and terminates at a catch basin. It was excavated about 5 inches deep and filled with gravel, medium and large river rock, and drift wood. Large boulders were embedded into the sides and provide seating. Rocks were provided by Outdoor Living by Mr. Mulch at a discounted rate. Currently the school has a long hose that runs to the beginning of the stream. When they turn it on the kids are astonished as it appears to run like a natural stream. Future plans include adding a rain barrel that could feed the stream and building a permanent “bridge” over the shallow stream bed. As an added bonus the school had an old canoe that was no longer usable that was used in the project. The kids enjoyed painting the outside of the canoe while we planted it with native bamboo, switchgrass, big bluestem and horsetail.

Nicole is developing pamphlets for teachers with lesson plan ideas and ways to effectively use the area for education and recreation (for example: exploring your 5 senses, food webs, butterflies and birds). She is also developing a plant identification handout for teachers.

The design and building of this playscape were done in collaboration with many people. A local sustainable design contractor, Amy Dutt, owner of Urban Wild, helped Nicole plan the design and implementation. Local businesses donated materials or sold them at a reduced price. Parents at the school provided additional funding, and parents, students at The Ohio State University, and coworkers at the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service donated their time and energy to build the playscape. The total cost of materials to build the project was $2,523. The Together Green Youth budget was $1,600. Local companies donated a total of $1,045.24 of materials (Scioto Gardens, The Kurtz Brothers, Outdoor Living by Mr. Mulch, and Lowe’s). Parents from the school donated a total of $400. When factoring in all of the generous donations, the actual project cost was $1,478 (coming in at $122 under budget). Construction took 5 days with 23 volunteers donating varying amounts of time. This included a day of shrub/tree planting in the fall and a day of perennial planting in the spring. Planning and design took approximately 10 days. This was relatively short since the school had a clear vision of what they wanted from the beginning. From start to finish, the entire process of finding the right school, designing, planning, and completing the building/planting took 1.5 years. This included lag time during winters. All parts of this project were completed while Nicole was attending school full-time and working part-time.

Throughout the project there were multiple challenges. Finding a school was one challenge. Many schools felt it would be too difficult to get their teachers and parents on board, or worried that kids would be difficult to watch or get dirty. Nicole’s solution to this issue was to be positive, informative, persistent, and to reach out to multiple schools until the right partnership was achieved. Another major issue was figuring out how to design the project. This was addressed when Nicole joined the “Leave No Child Inside Central Ohio Collaborative” and found a member (Amy Dutt of Urban Wild) with sustainable design experience to help guide her. Another issue Nicole faced was a delay in project implementation due to seasonal changes. Ideally, planning would have been completed in the spring and all planting could have occurred then. But timing was such that planning and design were completed in the fall of 2012. At that time, shrubs and trees were planted but perennial planting had to wait until spring. This lag time during winter could have created a loss of focus in the school community. It was helpful to continue to contact and update the school officials and send out emails to parents during periods of time when on-the-ground work was not occurring.

The school, children, and parents are very pleased with the natural playscape. The children are amazed most by the play stream. They stare in excitement when the flowing water begins to cover the rocks. Another favorite spot is the path across the large hill. The large hill has filled in with tall grasses and perennials which create a fun little hideaway for the kids to gather in. Jamy Zambito, the school’s director, described how the area is used, “Before we put in the woodland path and play stream this was just a flat piece of yard and the kids would use it to get from one place to the other but they didn’t really engage in purposeful play [in this area]. It was just a transportation area. After we put [the playscape] in, the kids run on the path. They design things to float in the stream. They run up in through the hill and hide. They are more physical here. They are thinking about things on a deeper level and it has just been really fantastic.”

The natural playscape is good for both the children’s health and their environmental connections. A child who has positive experiences with nature should be more likely to protect it in the future. This playscape will provide kids with positive nature experiences for years to come, and can foreseeably impact thousands of children, their families, and their community.

This project also supports Service priorities such as using native plants in urban landscaping while also providing habitat and food for native wildlife, such as migratory birds and pollinators. The play area can also be used as a living science laboratory where young children can observe butterflies, birds, and other critters and begin to understand the web of life--how all of nature is interconnected. Use of edible plants also helps children to understand that nature provides food for people, linking humans to the web of life too.

Overall, Nicole thought this was a great experience and felt that she made a positive environmental and educational impact in her community. On August 4, 2013 Nicole graduated from The Ohio State University with a Bachelor’s of Science in Environment & Natural Resources. She continued to work for the Service's Ohio ES Office until graduation and is currently seeking a career in environmental education.

Nicole’s website showcasing photos of the natural playscape construction and final product can be viewed at: http://flic.kr/s/aHsjJoJ1yK.

More information on the Together Green Youth program can be found at: https://www.youthgo.gov/news/togethergreen-youthgrowing-next-generation-conservation-leaders

To view similar opportunities, projects and other online resources related to jobs in the federal government go to: https://www.youthgo.gov/

Contact Info: Megan Seymour, (614) 416-8993 x 16, megan_seymour@fws.gov