How natural play helps children

Metal and plastic swings, slides and roundabouts have their place and can be great fun, but there is a growing body of scientific and anecdotal evidence supporting the view that natural play areas are more inclusive of different ages, better at stimulating the imagination and less likely to provoke negative responses.

In particular, Design for Play, a DCSF and Play England document by Shackell and others, published in 2008, highlights ten key principles of successful play spaces which, according to Play England’s advice document Better Places to Play through Planning, should be considered alongside quality assessment. Set out in the panel below, starting with the natural play approach makes it much easier for any scheme to meet these common-sense, appealing guidelines.

Natural play areas fire the imagination. A mound can be a castle one moment, a ship the next. A raised path a runway for a large child, a tightrope for a small one.

By their size alone, natural play features tend to attract children of one age range, without rejecting those of others.

By the nature of their shapes and the materials used, natural play features are less inviting of vandalism, and harder to damage.

By working with the landscape, natural play areas are more likely to be special places in their own right, valued by children and the community at large.

The Design for Play principles (Shackell and others, 2008)

The golden rule: A successful play space is a place in its own right, specially designed for its location, in such a way as to provide as much play value as possible.

  1. Successful play spaces: are ‘bespoke’ - designed to enhance their setting
  2. Are well located - in the best possible place for children
  3. Make use of natural elements - close to nature
  4. Provide a wide range of play experiences - where children can play in different ways
  5. Are accessible to both disabled and non-disabled children - where they can play together
  6. Meet community needs and are loved by the community
  7. Allow children and young people of different ages to play together
  8. Build-in opportunities to experience risk and challenge - where children can stretch and challenge themselves in every way
  9. Are sustainable and appropriately maintained - maintained for play value and environmental sustainability
  10. Allow for change and evolution- evolving as the children grow