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Designing a Natural Playground

Nature play has been all the rage for quite some time now. Chances are, you’ve likely spotted some fantastic nature-infused playgrounds, while others may have left you questioning their safety and sustainability. It’s a fact that outdoor play, especially when it’s in touch with nature, has remarkable benefits for kids. This includes reducing stress, boosting attention spans, and nurturing an appreciation for our environment.

In this course, we’ll discuss the joys of nature play and the best practices to incorporate nature into a playground. Our spotlight will be on crafting top-notch, inclusive play spaces that merge traditional equipment with natural elements. We’ll also explore some key choices that playground designers make, and how these choices shape the resulting playground in terms of overall enjoyment, upkeep, and safety. Finally, our adventure will wrap up with a virtual tour of a finished nature playground.

By the end of this course, you’ll be able to:

Pinpoint three perks of engaging in nature play.
Decide when to opt for playground equipment or natural elements in a play space.
Convey why safety and upkeep are crucial in the decision-making process for natural playground designs.

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About this course

What will I learn?

Nature play has a profound impact on our childhood that can’t quite be captured by other types of play. Whether it be climbing a tall tree, or building a fort, nature play encourages us to take risks. However, with the rise of urbanization, opportunities for nature play are slowly dwindling. That’s why we must find ways to work nature into our playgrounds.

In this course, Michelle Mathis of Learning Landscapes Design will teach you how to incorporate natural elements into your playground. In addition, she’ll go over the various benefits (i.e. physical, cognitive, social) of free play in nature.

  • Ease of Learning New Topics: Scientists have determined that it takes approximately 400 repetitions to create a new synapse in the brain, unless it is learned with play, in which case it takes about 10-20 repetitions.
  • Building Multiple Skills: When children play in natural environments, their play is more diverse with imaginative and creative play that fosters language skills and collaborative skills.
  • Motor Fitness Benefits: Children who play regularly in natural environments show more advanced motor fitness, including: coordination, balance, and agility. In addition, they are also sick less often.
  • Learning Through Testing: Loose parts help children investigate and actively construct ideas and explanations about physical properties of the nonliving world. Children gather a deeper knowledge of how things work.
  • Social and Mental Health Benefits: Time in nature decreases stress for students. This increases the opportunities for higher brain functioning and increased executive functioning skills.
  • Physical and Mental Health: Evidence overwhelmingly suggests that natural environments have restorative physical and mental health effects, as well as specifically promoting child development.

Who is my instructor?

Michelle Mathis is the Founder and Principal Designer at Learning Landscapes Design, a design firm that specializes in natural playscapes. She is a licensed landscape architect with a Masters in Education. When coupled with her strong design sense, Michelle creates outdoor spaces that are engaging and intrinsically support learning.

For over 15 years, Michelle’s focus has been on creating sustainable outdoor spaces for play, learning, and recreation. Her specialties include design and project management for children’s play spaces, particularly learning gardens and nature-based playgrounds. More recently, Michelle has been focused on designing natural play areas for schools and educational facilities.

However, Michelle balances her passion for play with her strong technical knowledge. She has extensive experience preparing construction documents and permits for cities across the U.S. In addition, she’s an NRPA certified playground safety inspector, ensuring that our play spaces are safe for children to play on.

Outside of her work with Learning Landscapes Design, Michelle is a proud member of several committees and associations. She is the Founder of the Oregon Natural Play Initiative, a network of recreation professionals who advocate for the development of natural play projects. Furthermore, she is also a Steering Committee Member for the National Wildlife Federation’s National Guidelines for Play and Learning.

Who is this course for?

The great thing about our courses is that they’re designed for all levels of experience. Whether you’re a parent on a PAC planning your first playground, or a landscape architect with decades of experience, there’s always something new to learn. Plus, our courses offer a quick way to stay up to date with the most recent trends in playground design.

Our courses take into account multiple groups and audiences, all of whom have different needs for their playground. A few groups that will benefit from taking our courses include:

  • Parents: Parent volunteers will learn the most important aspects to consider when planning their playground project.
  • Teachers: Teachers will learn about the educational benefits of play and how to incorporate them on the playground.
  • Landscape Architects: Architects will learn innovative design ideas that they may use in their upcoming projects.
  • Parks & Recreation: Parks professionals will learn about recent advances in safety, inclusion, and sustainability.
  • Property Managers: Property managers will learn how playgrounds can attract families to live in their neighbourhood.
Michelle Mathis, course instructor for "Designing a Natural Playground."

Michelle Mathis

Principal Designer, Learning Landscapes Design

Michelle Mathis is the Principal Designer for Learning Landscapes Design, a full-service landscape architecture firm. She has designed natural play spaces for over 18 years, and also started the Oregon Natural Play Initiative to bring design leaders together.

More Courses?

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