A New Kind of Playground
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. 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 offering college students the chance to become mentors, sharing their care for and knowledge of the environment with the next generation. The program is funded by the Service’s “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.
Nicole’s TogetherGreen Youth project aimed to engage children in pre-school or kindergarten, where they can 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 are limited. With help from the school community, local businesses and families, Nicole designed, planned and built a natural playscape. Instead of concrete and man-made play-sets, a natural playscape is composed of trees, shrubs, hills, dirt, rocks, and trails. It mimics a natural environment such as a stream or forest and promotes unrestricted creative play.
Nicole built her playscape at the Mary Evans Child Development Center, attended by 72 students, from infant to age 6. Nicole and the school to came up with design that includes 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 tree trunk slices meander throughout the hills as “stepping-stones” to encourage access and exploration.
The woodland area is with native trees, shrubs, 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.
The other main aspect of the playscape is the play-stream, which begins at the end of the main hill, meanders, and terminates at a catch basin. It is 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.
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 five senses, food webs, butterflies and birds). She is also developing a plant identification handout for teachers.
Many partners contributed to the project. Compost, rocks, sand, trees and shrubs were donated or provided at a discount from local businesses. A local sustainable design contractor helped Nicole design and implement the plan. 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.
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/
By Megan Seymour
Columbus Ohio Field Office