Anita Van Asperdt is a Dutch landscape architect who graduated from Larenstein College. After her graduation, she moved to the United States, where she completed her studies at the University of Oregon and raised her two children. In her spare time, she goes on hikes and backpacking trips with her family. She has worked as an adjunct professor at the University of Oregon, and runs study abroad classes to her home country. Ms. Van Asperdt also specializes in natural playgrounds and has been designing natural playgrounds with LandCurrent for several years. Though she has been working in the U.S for over a decade, she remains influenced by Dutch design, and the unique ways in which natural playgrounds are designed in the Netherlands inspire many of her own ideas.
In the past decade, the Netherlands has shown an increased interest in providing various spaces where children can interact with nature – it was the first country to translate Richard Louvs’ book Last Child in the Woods (2005), and has built dozens of natural playgrounds. Dutch designers have brought many creative new ideas to the drawing table for natural playgrounds. Though some of the ideas from the Netherlands might not be applicable in the US given our more litigious environment, I believe that not all needs to get lost in translation. Many ideas found in Dutch natural playgrounds, such as the Speeldernis, would benefit American playgrounds – making them more stimulating, educational, and safer environments.
The first natural play area I ever visited is the Speeldernis (which literally translates to Playderness ) in Rotterdam . This play area is located adjacent to an inner city neighborhood, and was originally a regular playground. In 2000, local parents, together with the owners of the facility, and the public Sports and Recreation of Rotterdam took the initiative to transform approximately two acres of vacant flat land into a willow wooded landscape of small hills and ponds . This landscape was designed by Sigrun Lobst, who also incorporated ideas posed by parents into the landscape. When I visited this landscape for the first time in 2009 it was green and muddy; there were slippery slopes everywhere and the water had the same color as the surrounding mud….. and it was wonderful! Not only did the kids have a total blast but they were also helping each other in ways that I have never seen on a “normal” playground. They warned each other for slippery spots, held each other’s hands to navigate over a slippery tree trunk all the while marveling over how disgustingly muddy everything was. It was clear to see that this playground sparked a fascination for the outdoors in many of these children, and provided the interesting challenges that turned their otherwise normal day into an adventure.
To me, the Speeldernis is one of the best nature play areas, despite the fact that it might seem dangerous to the American eye. Instead of covering all areas with soft wood chips to avoid injuries, environments such as the Speeldernis help children gain their own sense of caution and safety. In fact, teaching kids caution may actually be more valuable to provide safety than overly-safe environments – this is exemplified by the fact that the Speeldernis has only reported one serious accident ( a broken color bone), in ten years. In addition to teaching kids safety, such environments may help kids learn empathy and encourage them to take care of one another, by providing challenges which encourage teamwork. This means that the children’s safety is not only enhanced by their own sense of safety, but also by an increased willingness to help one another. Such empathy, trust, and teamwork are valuable for every child’s development.
In addition to providing a more challenging, engaging space for play, the Speeldernis provides an opportunity for urban kids to learn about the environment. Rotterdam is a very large city, and natural playgrounds and parks provide relief from this constant urban setting. The Speeldernis runs classes about the environment in collaboration with many of the local elementary schools so that kids can learn more about nature. Equally important, kids placed in a natural environment will discover much about nature by themselves, by interacting with it, and observing the different plants and animals around them. This automatic education is one of the many benefits of natural playgrounds.
Unstructured natural playgrounds such as the Speeldernis also allow kids to interact with their environment in more creative ways. In normal playgrounds, play structures are focused – there are limited ways you’re supposed to interact with the structures, and these ways are obvious in the design of the equipment. This is not the case in natural playgrounds – instead, kids get to decide how they want to interact with their environment, and discover new ways to manipulate the world around them in creative play. This lack of structure may provide cognitive benefits for kids, enhancing creativity and independent thought.
Today there are many nature play areas in schools and parks around the Netherlands. There are even play forests managed by the Dutch forestry service (Staatsbosbeheer). These playgrounds are very plentiful – I was able to find over five nature play areas just biking around with a friend in her hometown of Apeldoorn one afternoon. This indicates how popular nature play areas have become in the Netherlands – and the Speeldernis is one of the most popular, having to limit its capacity to 250 visitors per day to maintain sanitary conditions. Other nature play areas have different benefits and designs, and I will explore many of them in the following blogs. Hopefully, such play areas will expand similarly in the States, so that many children can have access to the cognitive, creative, educational, and teamwork benefits of nature play. I’m sure they will all appreciate the new adventures such spaces encourage.
For images of Speeldernis download: