Get Out and Play!

Natural Play Areas
Designing Natural Play Areas to Engage the Whole Child
by Gabrielle L. Wheeler

While I am at the office working, my children bottle-feed baby goats or help find chicken eggs at the home of our registered day care provider Arlene Martin. They use retired pots and pans to make mud pies in the sand box or crawl under the branches of the hideout bush to eat a snack. Martin offers the children gardens and farm animals, hills to climb, tunnels to crawl through, and a small fountain-creek with a closed-circuit electric pump.

There is no television at Martin’s and the children are expected to go outside every day. While she has always had a spectacular, child-friendly location, over the past few years Martin has been putting extra effort into developing her outdoor play area into a landscape that the children don’t just play on but are a part of.

Inspiration in Nature

Many of Martin’s ideas were derived from the books and work of Rusty Keeler, artist and designer of natural playgrounds. A native of Skaneateles, Keeler worked as an industrial architect in the Netherlands for a playground manufacturing company and returned to the U.S. in 1996 with the fledgling idea of creating landscapes for children to play on, called “playscapes.”

Keeler speaks enthusiastically, as though he continues to hold onto a child-like wonder. “I wanted to switch gears and create spaces for children that had those connections to nature. And for me the connections to nature were there in the Finger Lakes Region, where there is snow and mud and beautiful autumn, the exciting spring and the whole thing. I wanted the kids to be a part of the cycle of life in their own backyard, as well as child care centers, schools, and parks.”

Keeler’s playscape designs emphasize making sure that all of a child’s senses are engaged while they are at play in nature by using hills, water, art, items that make sounds, gardens, stages and pathways and hideouts. A natural playground that supports the whole child is expressed by the crunch of a freshly picked green bean from the garden, the tickling trickle of sand falling through fingers in the sandbox, or sharing secrets with a friend in a sunflower fort.

Benefits of Free Play Outdoors

Without a doubt we live in a digitized world. In response, experts have begun singing the praises of the benefits of allowing for more independent active free play as well as more time outdoors for children. Free play in nature is associated with reduced obesity and related health problems, an increased ability to concentrate, and reduced tendencies towards depression and anxiety.

Overall, what our parents and grandparents inherently knew is true: it’s healthy to go outside and play. Martin’s observations of the children she cares for support this theory, “I think their play is more focused and at a higher level, and they are engaged for a longer time without having an adult lead their play. They can just go ahead on their own and they are happier for a longer time.”

Designed for the Whole Child

When approached to do a project, Keeler works to assist the group in dreaming up in the design of the playground. “Every playscape should be a reflection of the community it’s in, the school that it’s in, the philosophy of the school and the people that live there,” says Keeler. The development of a natural playground includes identifying ways the organization can use the existing landscape as well as identifying local natural resources.

Keeler doesn’t stop with helping the adults imagine their dream playground, but takes it a step further by involving the children in the planning. He finds that if children are asked what they want on a playground, he hears the usual ideas of monkey bars and swings. But if children are asked what they do when they play, Keeler says, “Then you start to hear all the different things they do: ‘Oh, I climb, I run, I hide with my friends, I like to build stuff, or I like to dig.’” Keeler takes those ideas and helps the group imagine and build a playground where children can do what comes naturally.

The Future of Play

For 20 years, Keeler has been helping others dream up their natural playgrounds across the Finger Lakes Region and around the world. Recent projects have included helping to design an autism nature trail at Letchworth State Park, helping a group of youth design their dream playground in the city of Ithaca, and the Just Play Project to reimagine recess and make the entire city of Ithaca play-friendly. The author of two books, he is currently working on his latest about risky play. For more information on Keeler’s work or to contact him, go to For information on the Just Play Project, visit

If you would like to experience a natural playscape Keeler assisted in designing, the Ithaca Children’s Garden is a 3-acre public garden designed to engage the whole child. The Garden is located at 1001 W. Seneca St, Suite 101, Ithaca, NY 14850.

Call 607-319-4203 for more information.

For more information visit:

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