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Let’s Take It Outside: Developing Natural Play Spaces

On June 14th, 23 participants from 14 non-profit early education and care (ECE) and out of school time (OST) organizations across Massachusetts gathered at the Mass Audubon Boston Nature Center and Wildlife Sanctuary in Mattapan for 2018’s Let’s Take It Outside: Developing Natural Play Spaces (LTIO), a one-day training offered through the Children’s Investment Fund (“the Fund”). LTIO provides an overview of creating and maintaining safe, healthy, and developmentally-appropriate natural outdoor play spaces.

The training helps organizations identify potential opportunities within their center’s outdoor areas to create environments that facilitate rich sensory experiences, educational exploration, and physical activity. Participants leave the training with the resources and skills needed to create safe, creative, and flexible outdoor play space for children of all ages and abilities.

Natural play spaces provide children with a full spectrum of benefits, including:

  • Physical: improved sensory awareness and opportunity to improve gross and fine motor skills, as well as encouraging a more active learning environment. The Center for Disease Control refers to unstructured outdoor play as the “magic bullet” for addressing childhood obesity.
  • Social: enhanced communication, collaboration, self-regulation, self-reliance, and empathy among children.
  • Cognitive: increased curiosity, creativity, problem-solving, persistence, focus, and imagination. Children can gain knowledge using a range of learning styles: auditory, visual, logical, verbal and physical (kinesthetic).
  • Mental: increased confidence and independence, reduced stress, and improved memory and concentration for children.
  • Risk Assessment: outdoor play provides a controlled, regulated environment for children to develop their risk assessment skills.

In addition to learning about the benefits of free play and active learning, LTIO sessions cover nationally-recognized standards and regulations for outdoor play; the design process; cost and potential funding sources; and technical considerations. Information includes working with a professional design and construction team and ideas and images to inspire planning for natural play spaces. Additionally, the training features educator recommendations on creating active play and exploration spaces; incorporating natural elements; planning for flexibility and year-round use; considerations about maintenance and storage; importance of educator support and training; and creating an environment that is memorable, fun, and safe.

Sessions were led by the Fund team as well as:

  • Mav Pardee, Consultant and former Director of the Fund
  • Kristin Metz, Education Consultant
  • Erin Kelly, Education Manager, Boston Nature Center
  • Alice Webb, Principal, EarthDesign Landscape Architecture
  • Joanna Hiromura, RLA, Director of Landscape and Outdoor Playspace Design, studioMLA Architects

Participants enjoyed the opportunity to draft blueprint concepts of their proposed outdoor play spaces and received direct feedback from professional landscape architects, leaving the training with specific ideas and cost considerations for their organization’s own needs and goals. As one participant commented, “It has been a great opportunity to hear about many different kinds of projects that are happening. I learned a lot about what you can do with the space you have.”


Thank you to Blue Cross Blue Shield of Massachusetts for funding this training. If you are an OST or ECE provider interested in learning more about the Fund’s trainings and technical assistance, please contact the Fund team or visit

The Children’s Investment Fund is an affiliate of the Community Economic Development Assistance Corporation (CEDAC). Click here to read Tess’s earlier blog post on Building Stronger Centers, another training offered by the Fund.

Categories: CEDAC, CIF

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