Outside Inclusive and Natural Free-play, for Children and Adults Alike.

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Inclusive and Natural “Freeplay“ for Children and Adults Alike.

Blog copyright 2017, Charles M. Schwab Architect & Author

This blog topic is a reprint from an EP Magazine article, www.Eparent.com, Published July 2014, reprinted with permission.

EP Inclusive and Natural Freeplay, July 2014 pg. 1
Page one of the article by Charles in Ep Magazine ,July 2014. reprinted here for you.)

Let’s discuss ways that you can affordably incorporate free and safe play in your own yard or community. Let’s not delve into the ADA so much as that mostly specifies getting into and around a playground, although the new standards greatly improve on the older version. Getting a child onto the playground doesn’t necessarily enhance their play experience. Simple physical access also does not consider children with sensory deficits and other developmental disorders. So I’d like to share with you some of the thoughts I arrived at while researching this article.

Last weekend, while I was playing in the garden, I realized that  was exactly what I was doing. Really, I’m just an adult playing in the dirt. When in the garden I am relaxed and generally not thinking about office work and other tasks that need to get done. It is a form of escape and assists me in the creative process. Often design ideas arrive to me when I detach from trying to solve them! This occurs often while playing in the garden or taking a river walk. In both cases I am relaxing and in a sense “getting back to nature

So I was delighted to learn that there is a new trend toward natural play for children with the same end goal and that serves the same purpose, relaxing and connecting with nature. It then occurred to me the similarities between inclusive play and inclusive gardening and so why not combine the two? I am mostly thinking about in your own back yard here. Could there be a natural connection there?

After all one of the virtues of truly inclusive Universal Design is not only design for people of all abilities but also design for people of all ages. So why can’t children and adults actually “play” together in the same environment? This could also encourage multi-generational understanding and social growth. First, let’s look at children and their ideas of play.

For Children with Sensory Processing Disorders

Lucy Miller (founder of the SPD, Sensory Processing Disorder Foundation) states: “ unfortunately children today are spending more time immersed in the 2-dimensional electronic world inside and less time exercising, moving their bodies and genuinely engaging in the world around them. This can mean fewer opportunities for their underlying neurological foundations to mature, and less chance that their higher brain centers will develop efficiently”

Today at least 1 in 20, and perhaps as many as 1 in 6 children is affected by (SPD), a condition where sensory signals are effectively interrupted in the brain. This can lead to inappropriate responses such as aggression, hyperactivity, poor engagement and emotional distress that can upset daily routines and compromise a child’s ability to learn and work with others. With so many children affected by SPD, it’s essential that playgrounds do more to encourage healthy sensory development. A well planned inclusive play area will not only entice kids back to outdoor play, but will also allow children of all abilities to develop the strong sensory and motor systems that are so vital for their futures” (1)

Children’s freeplay is a concept that is complex and eludes an exact definition. But keep these ideas in mind, as we will look at the Principals of Universal Design in a bit. The idea of free play is play that is typically self-motivated, pleasurable, imaginative, non-goal oriented, spontaneous and active. Free play means removing adult rules and pre-determined notions of what a play area and its pre built features should be.

The entire being of the child is involved in genuine quality freeplay. This includes the child’s senses, emotion, gross motor, fine motor intellect, individual growth and social interaction. (2) Involvement of the entire being is important here, as this is different from simply being present at the play area.

For example, a playground that meets the minimum ADA requirements ensuring that a child using a wheelchair can reach the play equipment easily is not enough and does not come close to providing the opportunity for free-play. The play area must be inclusive in the sense that children of multiple abilities can actually interact and play with each other with their whole being, not just play beside each other.

Universal Design (UD) then is the framework for the design of environments and products, buildings and ideas with the goal that they are usable by the widest range of people with the widest range of abilities. These principles are:

  • 1) Equitable Use
  • 2) Flexibility in Use
  • 3) Simple and Intuitive Use
  • 4) Perceptible Information
  • 5) Tolerance for Error (Design for Safety and Fail-safe Design)
  • 6) Low Physical Effort
  • 7) Size and Space for Approach and Use

I see these universal design-ing principles when applied successfully to the built environment, to be similar in the built world as free-play is in the imaginative world. That is, as stated above, self-motivated, pleasurable, imaginative, spontaneous and active.

EP, Freeplay by Schwab, Pg 2Universal Designed Play Environments are Flexible

UD play environments function for people of all ages in much in the same way freeplay play areas can work for children. They are a delight and are pleasurable to use and to live in. They are simple, intuitive and active yet require low physical effort. They can be flexible in use and non-goal oriented. They can be intuitive that is tantamount to perceptible information as stated in UD principle 4. The point is universal design applied to a freeplay environment is an ideal and natural combination.

So then why natural and what are the benefits of the natural play environments for children? Research shows that if children were to design their own play areas they would be filled with plants, trees, flowers, water, dirt, sand, mud animals and insects and would also include a variety of play opportunities of every type embodied within those natural elements. Children want and need to experience the entire natural outdoors that includes all of the above not just the sun and air that a playground with manufactured play equipment may offer.

Dozens of studies of outdoor experiences in natural areas and the wilderness show that natural environments produce positive physiological and psychological responses in humans, including reduced stress and a general feeling of well-being. (3) Children have an intuitive connection with nature and that is demonstrated by the attraction they have with fairy tales in a natural setting and that is populated with animal characters. The Shrek movie series comes to mind as an example. More evidence is that more children and adults visit zoos and aquariums than attend major professional sports combined. The natural world is essential to the emotional health of children and early experiences with the natural world have been positively linked with imagination development and the sense of wonder (4).

The natural setting and freeplay within it is a sensory activity. A sensory-rich inclusive play environment can bring children together while providing each one with the sensory experience they seek.

So the goal here when designing outdoor environments for children is to use the landscape and vegetation as the play setting and nature as much as possible as play materials. (5) Things children like in their outdoor environments resemble things that can be included in a garden area and consist of but not limited to: Water, vegetation, animals, natural color diversity and change, places to sit in on and under and give shade, nooks, and crannies to name a few.

A child’s natural play area can include simple gardening at a very basic level and as an opportunity to learn and grow with nature. This can be included in a rear yard and to be enjoyed by all family members. Why not granddad come over and dabble in the garden while Grandson plays nearby?

In the words of Robert Steffen, farm manager for a boys home observes “Gardening is good therapy for young and old. The earth has great healing power. It is the plant of course that makes it all possible. Plants are a source of great hope for those who are disturbed, frustrated and concerned about the future.” (6)

EP Freeplay Pg. 3For Children with Visual Impairments

There are other features in gardens that can be introduced into a freeplay garden area. Children who are blind or have visual impairments will enjoy the sent of plants and herbs and other aromatic plants. Aromatic plants can also be beneficial for children with SPD. Ornamental grasses will be a fun place for kids to play and provide soothing sounds as will the sound of a water fountain. Kids love to play in the water and remember in a freeplay area kids are encouraged to interact with the environment and yes, even get dirty.

The same design concepts for raised planters apply to raised sandbox’s. And play decks. Make sure there is water near a sandbox but never allow a hose to cross a walking or rolling path as this can be a tripping hazard. The raised sandbox should have a min. 27” open underneath for wheelchair or chair space. This will allow 7” for structure and sand space as the top of the raised box should be no higher than 34” for maximum access.

These raised sandboxes can be formed into zigzag or clover leaf patterns, so kids can move themselves into the “U” shape of the clover if they wish and be surrounded on 3 sides by the sand box, thus immersing them in the sandy area without sitting in or on it. Waterproof electrical outlets should be provided for those using ventilators or other machines.

Shade should be provided over the play area and preferably by trees as children’s tolerance levels to the sun can vary greatly. Border and the garden and play areas with trees. Fencing may also be necessary and help define and contain the activity.

Pathways to and within the play area deserve special attention. Easy access to and within the area is essential to reach the free-play garden area withthe least difficulty and the most safety. If sloping paths are required they should not be steeper than 1:15 gradient. 1: 20 is even a better slope. ( 1 foot rise for every 20 feet long) and less is more in this case.

Grass alone is uneven and difficult for a person to navigate. Never create a path with bare dirt in an inclusive area as it may become slippery and dangerous when wet. Public playgrounds often use a rubberized ground surface but this may be unrealistic for a back yard play or garden area. All kinds of great products offer accessible and safe pathways. Plastic mesh products by the brand name of Grasspave have an open area that allows grass to grow between but still provides a solid level walking and rolling surface.

An inclusive path should be a minimum 4’-0” wide for wheelchair use. ADA requires a path to be 5’-0” wide so a person can walk along side or two wheelchairs can pass each other along the way. A 5’-0” diameter will also allow space for a wheelchair user to turn around and return the other way.

EP Freeplay,By Schwab July 2014 Pg 4So remember work is child’s play.

When I would go up to tend to and play in my Grandfathers garden he use to jokingly say, “Charlie, if you enjoy your work, I’ll sure show you a good time”. And so as the TV advertisement would so truthfully spout, “Don’t underestimate the power of play”, Just remember to always think inclusively and naturally so the freeplay garden can be enjoyed by the widest range of children and adults alike.


  • Miller Lucy, “A case fir sensory play”2013, Intro letter in a handbook by Landscape Structures, issue # 4
  • White Randy & Stoecklin Vicki, Children’s Outdoor Play & Learning environments: Returning to nature. White paper thesis. No date given
  • Lewis, Charles A, Green Nature, Human Nature: The meaning of plants in our lives. Chicago, University of Illinois Press, 1996
  • Wilson, Ruth A, PhD. “The Wonders of nature-Honoring Children’s Ways of Knowing”. Early childhood news, March April 1997
  • Francis, Mark (interview) Ellen Rumpell, “Kids don’t Need Equipment, They Need Opportunity, Smithsonian Magazine,v25,n4,pg78-87,july 1994
  • Venolia Carol, Healing Environments, 1988, Celesteal Arts Berkely CA.

    I’d love it if you would leave a comment. Thank You so much for reading. And feel free to share!

Author: Charles

Mr. Schwab is a home designer and licensed Architect specializing in universal and accessible design that is also sustainable and healthy. He also designs light commercial buildings.