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WATCH: UC’s Youngest Learners Join Grand Opening of Campus’ Newest Outdoor Attraction

The PlayScape outdoor play and learning lab is open to children from the UC and Cincinnati community.

Date: 8/15/2012 12:00:00 AM
By: Dawn Fuller
Phone: (513) 556-1823
Photos By: Lisa Ventre

UC ingot  
A natural vine-cutting on Aug. 15 opened UC’s newest campus landmark to preschool children who were all too eager to go exploring. The UC PlayScape is believed to be the first college campus, architecturally designed outdoor play and learning environment to promote learning and fuel a passion to explore and respect nature.

The $401,000 project is a partnership between UC’s Arlitt Child and Family Research and Education Center, Cincinnati Nature Center and the UC Architect’s Office.

A PlayScape is defined as an intentionally designed, dynamic, vegetation-rich play environment that nurtures young children’s affinity for nature. The entire UC PlayScape is wheelchair accessible.

“Playgrounds are evolving because of national grassroots movements such as ‘No Child Left Inside,’” explains Victoria Carr, associate professor of education and director of UC’s Arlitt Center. “Plastic playgrounds caused us to forget that children gain better balance and better coordination when they’re covering uneven terrain. Children need to master these obstacles as part of their learning to succeed by overcoming challenges. Plus, they’ll get to experience what older adults discovered during childhood – it’s incredibly fun to roll down a hill.”

Features of the UC PlayScape include:

  • A tree house to give children a clear view where they play
  • An open lawn for running, rolling and even sledding
  • A controlled water feature for children to drink and use for play and learning
  • A log fort for children to play, hide and look out over the landscape
  • A sensory garden for children to plant, grow and harvest vegetables and herbs
  • A “bird blind,” which is a discreet observation area where children can watch birds in action
  • Gathering decks for children to play, draw, do dramatic work or projects, or rest
  • An observation post for education researchers to examine how this natural setting enhances learning for young children
  • A perimeter fence, providing a safe and secure environment for children to explore within the PlayScape


“The physical campus of the University of Cincinnati has a recent history of a built environment that challenges typical assumptions about the land and the constructed spaces,” says Mary Beth McGrew, university architect. “This newly designed landscape, while specifically designed for the youngest learners on campus, affords similar opportunities for learning by all ages as the outdoor environment is experienced a little differently. I expect the space will be well-liked, and well used by many on campus.”

“This creates a research environment that compliments the university’s academic and physical master plan,” says Leonard Thomas, UC project manager for planning, design and construction. “On the other hand, this whimsical addition to our spectacular campus is an uncharacteristic, unexpected part of the university environment that will be recognized as a noteworthy addition to the university landscape.”

“Cincinnati Nature Center is excited to be collaborating with the University of Cincinnati’s Arlitt Center in creating the Nature PlayScape Initiative,” says William M. Hopple III, executive director, Cincinnati Nature Center. “Through our efforts, we hope to ensure that all children in our region will  have access to nature play by serving as a demonstration site for others to ‘Nature PlayScape’ their own facilities and to educate parents, grandparents, teachers and mentors of the physical, emotional, intellectual and spiritual benefits nature play has to healthy development of all children.”

The “vine cutting” that formally opened the architectural signature landscape was performed by project landscape architects Robin Moore, an international authority on the design of children's play and learning environments, and Rachel Steele Robinson, who also has children who formerly attended UC’s Arlitt Center.

Frank Russell, director of the UC Community Design Center and the Niehoff Urban Studio, provided support in the professional development of the architects for the PlayScape project. The center also helped with site selection and a feasibility study.

The project is supported with funding from the UC Ada Hart Arlitt Endowment Fund, the UC College of Education, Criminal Justice, and Human Services (CECH), The Procter & Gamble Fund and Cincinnati-Hamilton County Community Action Agency. Fundraising for the project continues through the UC Foundation.

UC’s Arlitt Center was previously awarded a two-year, $330,124 grant from the National Science Foundation to explore how children can learn in this natural environment.

The Arlitt PlayScape

Early Findings Indicate PlayScapes Are A Natural Hit With Children