New National Guidelines for Nature Play Areas

September 1, 2014, Department, by Allen Cooper and Robin Moore

New national guidelines help support park professionals to offer safe, educational and fun opportunities for children visiting their facilities. There is intense interest across the country in the development of nature play areas for kids. Parents and park and recreation professionals alike are seeking more challenging and creative ways to connect kids with nature and the outdoors. However, as with many innovations in the field of parks and recreation such as dog parks, skateparks and now nature play areas, new approaches present new challenges in the planning, design and management of innovative play areas. 

In recognition of these challenges, a blue-ribbon group of experts knowledgeable in landscape architecture, connecting kids with nature and developing safe play spaces for kids have been working on developing a comprehensive set of guidelines for nature play areas. The long-awaited guidelines, titled Nature Play & Learning Places: Creating and Managing Places Where Children Engage with Nature, have just been released, and they provide a road map on how park and recreation agencies and other providers of children’s play spaces can address the challenges of planning, designing and managing quality natural play and learning areas.

Nature Play & Learning Places is a project of the National Wildlife Federation (NWF) and the Natural Learning Initiative at the College of Design, North Carolina State University. The project was funded by the U.S. Forest Service and the guidelines were developed with substantial assistance from NRPA staff and member agencies, including Chicago Park District, Houston Parks and Recreation Department, Five Rivers MetroParks in Dayton, Ohio, the Pennsylvania Department of Conservation and Natural Resources, and other experts. The guidelines draw from principal author Robin Moore’s extensive landscape design experience, case studies of 13 existing nature play areas across the country, and the contributions from the members of a national steering committee and a technical advisory committee that consisted of representatives from more than 20 national organizations. 

“Encouraging kids to play in nature is vital to the mission or park and recreation agencies,” notes Rich Dolesh, NRPA’s vice president for conservation and a member of the steering committee. “Parks are the places that kids and adults go to experience nature, and the public increasingly wants close-to-home safe places for kids to play in nature. And, as kids become more and more disconnected from nature and the outdoors, park and recreation agencies are increasingly looking to provide high-quality, interesting and interactive places designed with nature in mind that are accessible to kids of all ages and abilities,” says Dolesh. NRPA CEO Barbara Tulipane, a longtime supporter of connecting kids to nature, says, “These guidelines will be immensely helpful in providing practical knowledge that will give park and recreation agencies the confidence on how to design, build and manage successful nature play areas.”

“It is more important than ever that we work in every community to reconnect people with wildlife and nature,” says NWF CEO Collin O’Mara. “NWF and NRPA have a great partnership to connect 10 million kids with nature, and I am pleased that NWF, the Natural Learning Initiative, NRPA and all of our partners can offer this tool to park and recreation professionals across the country.”

The guidelines focus on design and management of settings that facilitate hands-on engagement with nature in the everyday life of children and families. We define a nature play and learning area as: 

A designated, managed place in an existing or modified outdoor environment where children of all ages and abilities play and learn by engaging with and manipulating diverse natural elements, materials, organisms and habitats, through sensory, fine motor and gross motor experiences.

Nature Play & Learning Places is a tool for those working in the field including advocates, policymakers, system managers, site managers, educators, program developers, design professionals, urban planners and developers. Three key topics are addressed in depth:

  • Designing nature play and learning areas. An effective nature play and learning area includes multiple activity settings offering varied play and activity opportunities, and makes full use of the designated area. The guidelines explain how to design a nature play and learning area and provide detailed descriptions of activity setting designs.
  • Managing nature play and learning areas. Effective management is a balance between the needs of children to engage in exuberant play and the need to protect natural resources from excessive wear and tear. Management should be guided by ecosystem thinking that focuses attention on the quality of water, soil and plants. Effective management strategies will vary depending on the level of supervision, age of intended users, intensity of use and resiliency of plants, soils and other natural resources. 
  • Risk management. Nature play areas present a challenge to risk managers because, while generally speaking there are no design standards for nature play features, the standard of care for risk management purposes is the same as any other setting modified and intended for children’s play. 

“In NRPA’s playground safety training program, we regularly get questions about risk management of natural play areas, and uncertainty about that issue has kept some agencies from developing them,” says Caroline Smith, NRPA’s former playground safety manager and current online learning manager, as well as a Nature Play & Learning Places steering committee member. 

The guidelines offer a risk management protocol for nature play and learning areas that accomplishes the dual goals of providing a stimulating nature play environment while ensuring that children are not exposed to an unreasonable risk of harm. The guidelines recommend an eight-step risk management assessment protocol that includes determination of applicable design and liability standards, engagement of risk managers and insurers, implementation of an inspection routine, elimination of hazards that may cause serious injury, documentation and evaluation of all incidents, maintaining records of inspections and incident reports, regular staff evaluations and systematic records of responses, and effective communication with users.

“The guidelines offer a thoughtful and innovative approach to risk management, which is based on assessment of actual risk. We plan to draw from these guidelines in our treatment of nature play areas in future training offerings,” says Smith. 

C;lick here to learn more and for download of the full text of the guidelines. 

Robin Moore is a Professor of Landscape Architecture at North Carolina State University and Director of The Natural Learning Initiative. Allen Cooper is the Director of State and Local Education Advocacy at the National Wildlife Federation.


 Join Robin Moore and Allen Cooper to learn firsthand about the Nature Play & Learning Places guidelines during NRPA’s 2014 Congress, held October 14–16 in Charlotte, North Carolina. 

The pair will host an education session titled, “National Guidelines for Nature Play and Learning Areas” from 8:30–9:45 a.m. on Thursday, October 16, in room 207A. The workshop will also be live-streamed. Click here for information on Moore and Cooper’s session, as well as other education sessions at 2014 Congress.