Edmonton’s First Natural Playground

EDMONTON – Children won’t find new monkey bars and bright plastic play structures at the upgraded Donnan Park.

Instead, the aging playground at 9105 80th Ave. will become Edmonton’s first “natural playground,” part of a growing trend in playground design.

Children in the redesigned Donnan Park will entertain themselves with such time-honoured playthings as rocks, sticks, sand and dirt. The overhauled space will feature a slide built into a hill, a sideways-growing tree, a boulder spiral, a hand pump to pour water into a small stream and plenty of plants, trees and greenery.

It will be “a beautiful garden that everyone plays in,” says Kory Baker-Henderson, co-chair of the neighbourhood committee that worked on the preliminary playground design with expertise from Ontario-based Bienenstock Natural Playgrounds.

“Around us there are already some typical playground structures, so we wanted to have something different that blends in with the (Mill Creek) ravine,” Baker-Henderson says. “Studies have shown imaginative play is much more stimulated (in natural settings) and children actually will play longer and become much more involved than on a typical red, plastic slide structure. Their games will just get much more imaginative. There’s that connection with nature. We have plans for a community garden so it’s a learning and teaching tool too.”

The playground at Donnan Park currently has swings and a slide that will remain for now but won’t be replaced, she says.

Community volunteers have already secured two grants and are collecting donations to fund the natural playground that should cost between $50,000 and $100,000. That’s far cheaper than a traditional, prefabricated play structure which can cost $200,000 or more, says Baker-Henderson.

Volunteers from the King Edward Park neighbourhood will help build the playground that should open some time in the next year and a half, once the money is in place. Organizers are also inviting people to an event that features a tug-of-war and costume contest in the park on April 1 from 2-4 p.m., part of a national healthy communities contest that could win them the playground for free.“We would love to see it in this spring,” says Baker-Henderson.

Natural playgrounds have been cropping up across the country. The Vancouver Park Board announced last month it is opening its newest playground for preschoolers made of all-natural materials and landscaping with no manufactured equipment.

In Hamilton, a community-funded project will establish a natural playground this September at a kindergarten to Grade 8 school.

Bienenstock Natural Playgrounds, which is working on Edmonton’s Donnan Park project, has designed green space across Canada and the United States, including in public parks and at child care centres, hospitals and schools. The company worked on Toronto’s first natural playground, established in September 2009.

The natural playgrounds meet all the regular safety standards, says company founder and principal designer Adam Bienenstock.

“We’re seeing injury rates drop at schools where we’ve made this change from asphalt, plastic and steel to mulch, grass, rolling hills and boulders and logs as climbers,” Bienenstock says.

“If you think about it, a slide that comes off of an eight-foot platform or a slide that’s at the side of a hill, which one has a bigger fall height? There’s zero fall height off of our slides because they’re in the landscape.”

Studies have shown children are also less aggressive and less likely to bully each other when they are spread out in natural settings instead of being clumped together and vying for space at the top of prefabricated play structures, Bienenstock says. “The truth is, you put kids into the woods and they get better. It’s not that complicated.”

Numerous playgrounds and schoolyards around Edmonton, including the ACT Centre in northeast Edmonton, have been adding natural elements for many years now, says Kim Sanderson, a consultant who retired a year ago from the city’s community services department. There, Sanderson worked on an innovation team that examined leading ideas worldwide in creating “naturescapes.” City funding is available for communities that want to establish these nature-rich sites, Sanderson says.

“It doesn’t take much to naturalize the area.”

Efforts to better connect kids with nature have attracted attention as people recognize the benefits that spring from the outdoors, says Kathy Goble, a schoolground design consultant and landscape architectural technologist working in Edmonton for Evergreen, a national non-profit that greens urban centres.

“It’s just so simple. It just allows kids to collect bugs, to find earthworms, to see things grow, to plant seeds and see vegetables grow, to have shade from a tree,” Goble says. “People are sometimes looking for alternatives to the highly technical world kids are in more and more, realizing of course that connections to nature are important and perhaps slipping away.”

Mom of three Trisia Eddy lives about a block from Donnan Park and co-chairs the committee working to install the natural playground. Eddy’s family visited Amsterdam three years ago where she noticed very busy urban playgrounds made of natural materials, some located on the median between roads.

“It was amazing how many people hung out in these playgrounds. Parents would come out at the end of the day and bring their glass of wine and the kids would play. It was so neat how they were integrated into the neighbourhood,” Eddy says.

“People of all ages can enjoy it. It’s not just a structure for two-to-five year olds.”


One response to this post.

  1. Reblogged this on Friends of Riverdale Park East and commented:

    An interesting trend in playground design


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