Kudos to Matthew Urbanksi, the principle landscape architect (Michael Van Valkenburgh Associates) charged with mapping the natural layout of a new $3.8 million Manhattan playground. Urbanski thought to consult experts in cognitive development at North Carolina State University before deciding where to plant trees in the new state-of-the-art park situated in Union Square, home of New York’s most famous famers’ market. Those cognitive development experts told Urbanski that kids respond more creatively to natural environments than to the excessively groomed ones we usually see in parks and playgrounds. The architecture firm took their advice to heart.  

From a mini playground profile in New York Magazine:

“Instead of simply lining the periphery with planters, the firm dotted the playground with Japanese cryptomeria, a skinny evergreen, ‘to provide a more complex layout for imaginative play,’ says Urbanski. ‘Kids can imagine it’s a forest.’”

Encouraging kids to get out and play creatively in naturally disordered environments is something author Richard Louv has been doing for ages. To research his bestselling 2005 title Last Child In The Woods, Louv spent a decade crisscrossing the country, talking to kids and parents about their relationships with nature. What he found is that nature does a body good – not just physically, but emotionally, psychologically, and even in terms of intellectual capacity.

Finally, parents, educators, and apparently even landscape architects, are starting to listen up. Louv’s non-profit Children & Nature Network is a good resource for parents who want to learn more about the benefits of unstructured play time in nature.

Interesting to wonder why we humans seem to want so badly, to our own detriment, to groom nature. Are the Versailles gardens truly beautiful, or merely an impressive feat of landscape architecture? And isn’t the “perfect” American lawn actually doing us more harm than good? It’s a sponge for pesticides harmful to kids and pets, it’s likely introducing nonnative species to the area, soaking up water in a drying world, and not even giving kids the kind of natural environment that would truly nurture their cognitive, emotional, and creative development. Time to rethink playtime.