Wildlands for Children: Consideration of the Value of Natural Environments in Landscape Planning

by Rogert A. Hart
Children’s Environments Research Group
Usually landscape planners think of gross motor activity when they think of planning and design for children: running, jumping, swinging, and climbing. This is seen as important to the physical health of children. If one simply reflects upon ones own childhood, however, it becomes clear that this is a limited view. It is equally important to consider opportunities for diversity of sensory experience and aesthetic development; the development of competence and autonomy through freedom to explore and manipulate the environment; cooperation with others; and experience with other living things for their psychological and existential value.

The type of residential environment (that is, housing layout and landscape design) can have a marked impact on the range of freedom of movement a child has. More important… how do children use the environment and what do they value in it? That is what types of landscapes should be accessible to children. In this respect… suburbs do not usually score highly at all.
The best landscape for children is often one which has been left to the power of nature. Some of these most valued features are: Water, sand or dirt, trees, bushes, and tall grass. Children place great value in being able to find and make places for themselves.
Rural areas, particularly small rural towns and villages, have most of the physical landscape qualities valued by children, and commonly offer great freedom to explore and utilize these spaces. They even offer gardens for many children- too difficult to provide in urban areas in large numbers for children. But rural children complain of the lack of some of the qualities of city environments: streets or other flat, hard-topped surfaces for cycling and ball games, sports fields and a shortage of other children to play with.
[Suburban landscapes] are dominated by adults: the water is drained or covered, sand and dirt are covered with carpets of manicured grass, mature trees are removed and replaced with delicate shade trees, topography is flattend, all loose parts are removed, and much animal life is restricted by creating a monoculture of lawns.
Suggestions for “natural” spaces in urban areas are difficult primarily because of the high density of the population. “Adventure playgrounds” and “urban farms” satisfy a lot of the requirements but both require management by adults and cannot be provided in sufficient number for easy access by all. Large urban parks are not sufficiently accessible, and in them there are growing fears of crime.
Landscape planners should leave small spaces “unplanned” close to housing areas. These spaces would be neither parks nor nature conservation areas but something in between: “common lands” or “wild lands.” One possibility is the creation of small common lands next to community managed space, such as a community oriented elementary public school or a community garden.
Related Resources:
Wildlands for Children- Read the full article. (PDF)
Washington Environmental Yard in Berkeley, California. (PDF)
American Society of Landscape Architects
Place and Play: Transforming Environments. (PDF)