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It’s Only Natural – Natural Playgrounds Gaining in Popularity

Fort St. John Child Development Centre
When you think of a typical child’s playground, what comes to mind? Monkey bars, tire swings and slides, powder-coated steel in bright primary colours? If so, you might be surprised by a trend that’s gaining a lot of momentum.

These days, with many of us living in dense urban environments and a movement away from the “wrap-them-in-bubble-wrap” parenting style that characterized the early 2000s, natural playground design is becoming more and more popular. Natural playgrounds involve sometimes unusual and always creative design elements that tie the play experience back to nature. They have a natural look—featuring elements like logs, boulders, hills, streams, scent gardens, streams, trees and more. “I can safely say there are no two natural playgrounds that look alike,” says Urban Systems principal Edward Stanford.

And natural playground design doesn’t just look beautiful (individual elements can sometimes be as elegant as art pieces)—these spaces are also a fabulous way to reconnect kids with nature through play, challenge and imagination. Studies have shown natural playgrounds encourage collaboration and interaction, get kids more physically active and even reduce aggression and bullying.

Special thanks to Chris Larouche, who has been a key part of the design team and who detailed this amazing log tunnel for Fort Chipewyan
A recent study conducted by the University of Tennessee found that kids actually preferred to spend twice the time interacting with natural playgrounds as they did traditional ones. Parents love these spaces too—rather than running behind their two year old with arms outstretched, they can move more naturally through these more open spaces and feel confident that their kids can play in an appropriately challenging way, partly because there’s a lot more variety in the natural obstacles than in a traditional “all monkey bars are exactly one foot apart” type of scenario.

Urban Systems has been involved in a few different plans and builds for natural playgrounds, the most recent of which was the Child Development Centre in Fort St. John. Initially our role was to help establish the CDC itself and as part of that planning, ideas for a natural playground were proposed. Early on there was not enough budget, but over the years, the idea kept coming up again and again, until recently, the design and build went ahead. This space represents the first natural playground in Fort St. John.

“A very high level of design skill is involved with designing these spaces, it’s not just a matter of dumping down rocks and sticks,” says Edward. “Shasta McCoy is quite brilliant at working in this area.”

Shasta with her daughter Luna
Shasta, a landscape architect who is based out of our Kamloops office, has three completed natural playground projects: Birkdale Park in Kelowna, the Placemaking project at Fort Chipewyan and the Child Development Centre in Fort St. John. Several others are in earlier stages of planning and design.

“This seems to be something that people are increasingly interested in,” says Shasta.

“As humans we’re just drawn to natural spaces. I love the very beginning of these projects, when you sit down to work and realize the possibilities are kind of endless. Your mind goes in all directions and there’s so much opportunity for creativity and exploration.”

In addition to working on the playground plans directly, Shasta is also busy doing facilitation, public engagement and workshops with stakeholders, who all want to learn more about this growing trend. She recently hosted a workshop in Quesnel to showcase some of the work Urban has been up to in this area and answer community questions.

And her favourite part of this work? When she gets to play on the playgrounds herself after they’re built.

“Oh! And also watching kids play on them. Yes, that too.” she adds with a laugh.

On the horizon, Shasta says a natural playground has been identified in the recently completed Idlewild Park Master Plan for the City of Cranbrook, and she hopes to one day see a project go forward in Quesnel.

Edward explains that the future could hold more for this trend toward nature than just playground design.

“I see this type of thing happening with trail infrastructure, for example on a regular bike trail with little pull off area, we’re not buying benches from a foundry in Detroit but using local artisans to build benches out of timbers harvested locally. I’d love to find places in a downtown area where we can try this as well.”

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