Reimagining Play in Natural Spaces

February 12, 2024

KABOOM! is on a mission to end playspace inequity and we recognize that addressing limited access to nature is a key part of this work. We are focused on ensuring that we acknowledge environmental concerns that affect the communities we work with by supporting sustainability and creating opportunities for nature-based play.

Recently, Eunice Cho, Community Engagement Manager, and Alyssa Young, Program and Partnership Manager, participated in courses designed to teach them more about the design and benefits of nature-inspired playspaces.

Eunice works with our partners in Oakland – including Stephen and Ayesha Curry’s Eat. Learn. Play. Foundation and Oakland Unified School District – to transform spaces into beautiful schoolyards that include traditional playgrounds, nature environments, and outdoor learning opportunities. She was inspired to learn more about nature-based play because she recognizes it’s a vital part of achieving our mission.

“When you think about KABOOM!, you think about playgrounds. But we aren’t only thinking about traditional playgrounds that most people know and love. We are also considering new ways that kids can experience the benefits of and various ways to play, and we know that nature can have a calming effect.”

Volunteer watering garden

Thinking about play differently also means that we must work with communities differently. Sourcing natural materials, determining what outdoor spaces are available and what the school and community wants to do with those spaces, and even learning what trees are appropriate to use in a specific environment takes effort beyond building a traditional playground. “It’s a much more involved process, but the community wants these playspaces. They’ve seen how their kids’ development stunted during COVID because they were forced to stay inside. Now, we can bring nature into how kids play.”

In Atlanta, KABOOM! partners with Atlanta Public Schools, the City of Atlanta, Children & Nature Network, and Trust for Public Land through the Atlanta Community School Parks Initiative. The Initiative is focused on creating more environmentally resilient schoolyards that support kids’ mental and physical health and academic achievement. This level of collaboration among systems is a new model of work for KABOOM! that allows us to hyper-customize playspaces to reflect the needs of a particular school or park.

As a former elementary school teacher, Alyssa knows a thing or two about the benefits of nature-based play. At her school, there was an outdoor play option that included natural materials such as boulders and logs, a mud kitchen, and a giant slab of rock that formed a courtyard with amphitheater-like seating. Alternatively, an asphalt field provided fewer options for play.

Kids read the natural landscape and create their own games. Traditional play equipment is designed to guide kids through a play experience. Nature isn’t as directive. There are no limits around how to use or engage with natural materials.”

The developmental benefits, environmental advantages, and community outcomes of nature-based playspaces are numerous. From promoting social-emotional development to using sustainable materials, and decreasing what has become known as the “Nature Gap,” combining play and nature provides kids with new opportunities to learn. Redefining play to include access to nature is a priority for KABOOM! and something kids often desire.

“There’s such a wide spectrum of what looks and reads like play. Adults don’t necessarily see logs arranged in a line as play. When kids see that, they read that as, ‘I can climb on that. That’s for me.’ That’s a different form of play.”

The varied spaces of a green space can also support kids’ mental health needs. Kids that are seeking out a lower-sensory environment or a space to decompress have an opportunity to do so. The mental health benefits of being absorbed in nature are palpable to observers. In Oakland, school officials report lower levels of aggression and bullying with the installation of nature-inspired playspaces.

Laurel Elementary ELP nature area

KABOOM!, the Eat. Learn. Play. Foundation, and local partners transformed a schoolyard to include a nature-inspired playspace at Laurel Elementary School

Alyssa recalled her students playing harder, being more physically engaged, and exerting more energy on the natural playground. Even kids who previously used recess time to color or read found themselves engaging with nature.

Access to nature at school benefits teachers as well. “It’s not only an oasis for kids, teachers need it too.” Alyssa laughs.

KABOOM! continues to learn and innovate to increase access to nature and protect our environment and its natural resources so that kids can enjoy the benefits of nature everywhere they live, learn, and play.

Want to learn more about the courses Alyssa and Eunice took? Check out the resources below!