Natural Play Areas

Natural play areas have become very popular and can be a welcome addition to schools. Natural plays areas require plan review and approval by Local Health Jurisdictions under the State Board of Health School Rule, Chapter 246-366 WAC.

Though not specifically addressed in the Consumer Product Safety Commission's Public Playground Safety Handbook, CPSC (PDF) or the American Society for Testing and Materials (ASTM) playground safety standards, items that address fall height, surfacing, barriers/guardrails, materials, and appropriate spacing for the intended ages may be applicable. A Certified Playground Safety Inspector should be included in the design and evaluation. 

Inadequate maintenance of natural play areas may lead to injuries. CPSC guidance for playgrounds may also be applied to natural play areas and recommends routine maintenance inspections and repairs to identify issues such as, damaged equipment, litter, insect damage, surfacing problems, vandalism, and wood splitting or rot.  

Additional factors to consider in design:

  • Natural materials can degrade faster than manufactured equipment. Routine inspection and maintenance are key to safety.
  • Drainage – there should be no standing water to breed mosquitoes, etc.
  • If there is running water, ensure supervision and safety considerations.
  • Consider the importance of proximity to the outdoor active play areas and connections to indoor learning spaces to give students access to nature play areas during recess, the option to have quiet time during recess, as well as providing teachers with a well-defined area that they can easily use for learning activities and outdoor flex areas.
  • Nature playgrounds need to consider how to incorporate inclusive design. Natural materials need to blend with accessible and equitable use so that all types of needs are met, including sensory, physical mobility, cognitive function, etc. Accessibility and appropriate ADA Standards apply, see 2010 ADA Standards for Accessible Design, 1008 Play Areas.
  • Appropriate ASTM and CPSC standards and guidelines apply where applicable and include:
    • Public Playground Safety Handbook, CPSC (PDF):
      • Use zones, surfacing, prevention of hazards (entrapment, protrusions, etc.).
      • Visibility/supervision – playground supervisors need to be able to see all areas.
      • Structural support – will play features stand up to an earthquake or children jumping/climbing?
      • Choose surfaces for durability and consider how slick they can become with rain.

National Guidelines: Nature Play and Learning Places - Creating and managing places where children engage with nature (PDF)

Adding Value to Early Childhood Outdoor Play and Learning Environments, Natural Learning Initiative, NC State University College of Design (PDF)

ASTM standards to consider include: 

  • F1487 Standard Consumer Safety Performance Specification for Playground Equipment for Public Use.
  • F1292 Standard Specification for Impact Attenuation of Surface Systems Under and Around Playground Equipment.
  • F2075 Standard Specification for Engineered Wood Fiber for Use as a Playground Safety Surface Under and Around Playground Equipment.
  • F2223 Standard Guide for ASTM Standards on Playground Surfacing.
  • F2479 Standard Guide for Specification, Purchase, Installation and Maintenance of Poured-In-Place Playground Surfacing.
  • F1951 Standard Specification for Determination of Accessibility of Surface Systems Under and Around Playground Equipment.
  • F2049 Standard Guide for Fences/Barriers for Public, Commercial, and Multi-Family Residential Use Outdoor Play Areas.