Natural Play and Learning Areas Guidelines Project

The Natural Play and Learning Areas Guidelines Project is dedicated to “bringing nature back into the daily lives of children” and thus to improving children's health, happiness, and scholastic achievement.1 The Guidelines Project identifies the key design elements of natural play and learning environments for schools, childcare centers, homes, museums, zoos, nature centers, parks, botanical gardens, arboreta, and public lands. Utilizing these elements, the Guidelines Project has also developed natural play and learning sites which demonstrate how children can “connect, play and learn in nature.”2

The Guidelines Project began in 2009 with the firm belief that “children need access to nature the same way they need good nutrition and adequate sleep.”3 The desired outcome is that bringing nature back into play would address the rising problems of obesity, diabetes, rickets, attention disorders, and depression. Additionally the active outdoor play in nature would encourage health, imagination, cooperation, and learning abilities.

Co-led by Allen Cooper of the National Wildlife Federation (NWF), and Robin Moore and Nilda Cosco of the Natural Learning Initiative (NLI) at North Carolina State University, and funded by U.S. Fish and Wildlife Services,4 the Guidelines Project launched a pilot playspace at North Carolina Wildlife Refuges Gateway Visitor Center. Completed in June of 2011, the project involved a three week Learning in Nature Corps training program to instruct young adult “green professionals” how to design and prepare play and learning habitats and then lead children and families in “creative, dramatic play themes linked to refuge wildlife and wildlife habitats.”5 Based on the “playwork” methods utilized in the United Kingdom, the training was developed by NLI and North Carolina Zoo playworkers.

Another milestone was reached in September of 2011 when the Guidelines Project published an online guideline for homes: Nature Play at Home: A Guide for Boosting Children's Healthy Development and Creativity. They anticipate that publication of guidelines for “institutional settings” will be achieved in the fall of 2013.6

In April of 2012, the Charlotte Natural Playscape opened at the Charlotte Nature Museum. As a collaboration between the NWF, Natural Learning Initiative, and the Charlotte Nature Museum, the natural playground was designed “to engage (children) in unstructured play in and with nature” and to be a showcase of the Guidelines Project.7

The Guidelines Project has also been featured at the National Recreation and Park Association National Conference in 2010 and 2012, as well as the US Play Coalition 2012 Conference on the Value of Play at Clemson University.8 Organizations such as the American Society of Landscape Architects, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the Children & Nature Network, Head Start Body Start National Center for Physical Development and Outdoor Play, Keep America Beautiful, the National Arbor Day Foundation, the U.S. Forest Service, the National Recreation and Park Association, and the US Play Coalition serve on their steering committee for developing these guidelines and pilot projects.9

  • 1. “Natural Play Learning Area Guidelines Project.” National Wildlife Federation. < > 10 Nov. 2012.
  • 2. “Nature Play Spaces.” National Wildlife Federation. <> 10 Nov. 2012.
  • 3. Op.cit., “Natural Play Learning Area Guidelines Project.”
  • 4. “Prospectus: Natural Play and Learning Area National Guidelines Project.” US Play Coalition. < > 21 March 2012.
  • 5. Op.cit., “Nature Play Spaces.”
  • 6. Cooper, Allen. Personal Correspondence to Playground Professionals on 18 Jan. 2013.
  • 7. “New Natural Playscape Project Kicks Off in Charlotte.” National Wildlife Federation. Media Center update 29 Jan. 2012. < > 10 Nov. 2012.
  • 8. Op. cit., Cooper.
  • 9. Op.cit., “Natural Play Learning Area Guidelines Project.”