What is a Playscape?

A playscape is a natural landscape that supports children’s selfdirected play. Trails, forests, farmlands, and caves—all places that many adults have fond memories of but many children have not had the opportunity to explore—are the inspiration for all nature playscape for children’s free play.

The Children & Nature Network (childrenandnature.org) is a national movement with a strong base in Cincinnati. The founder of the national network and author of the provoking book Last Child in the Woods, Richard Louv, as well as educators and nature advocates, are deeply concerned that children today spend up to six hours each week watching television and only 30 minutes in unstructured outdoor play. Adults are likely to remember youths spent exploring woods, building forts, looking at bugs, and a special, secret spot away from parents. However, today’s children are more likely to be scheduled in organized sports, lessons, and preparatory activities leaving little free time to discover the world around them. Abundant research supports the statement that children need access to the outdoors for healthy physical, cognitive, and emotional development (Moore & Cosco, 2006; Rivkin, 1997; Wilson, 1995; Hart, 1979; Taylor, Wiley, Kuo, & Sullivan, 1998).

The No Child Left Inside Act was reintroduced to Congress in April 2009. The bill counters the No Child Left Behind program by proposing $500 million in five years to add “environmental literacy” to the curriculum of public schools. The bill is backed by a coalition of over 1,300 Leave No Child Inside supporters. The movement is spearhead by the Chesapeake Bay Foundation with local support organizations in many cities, including Cincinnati (www.lncigc.org).

The primary goals of the Children & Nature Network and Leave No Child Inside coalition is to make natural environments available to children and allow them the time and opportunity to explore, ask questions, and develop their innate sense of wonder. Several factors make indoor play attractive to children. There is the pull of toys, television, and computer games all backed by a dominant marketing industry that has every incentive to make children into consumers. At the same time, adults “push” kids inside either by restricting their free time or access to the surrounding neighborhood. Strangers, traffic, and tragic accidents are all modern threats to children’s safety and cause many parents to usher their children into highly structured and supervised activities. In response, landscape architects and urban planners (see Robin Moore, Kevin Lynch, Roger Hart, Joe Frost, and Louise Chawla) have a vested interest in making public, outdoor space accessible and safe for children. Richard Louv posits that by “protecting” children from risk we are exposing them to the risks of a sedentary lifestyle and do not prepare them for real world challenges they will face in their future.

The majority of playscapes in America are located at organizations with a mission of preserving natural environments including zoos, botanical gardens, arboretum, and nature centers. Childcare centers and some schools are showing interest in “greening” their outdoor play spaces. In the future hopefully city park systems will add natural features that inspire and engage young children. Perhaps future public and private housing developments with include areas of natural space amid the new construction.