Seasons of Play

Seasons of Play: Natural Environments of Wonder by Rusty Keeler

Seasons of Play: Natural Environments of Wonder was written by Rusty Keeler and published by Gryphon House, Inc. in 2016. The book contains over 200 photographs of the natural outdoor environments of three home-based preschools. The author suggested an alternate title for the book could have been A Year in the Life of the Natural Playscape. Part 1 of the book explores how the preschools’ backyards are utilized throughout the four seasons of the year by the children. Part 2 offers construction projects and resources for natural playscapes.

Each of the playscapes was very different from the other two: one was a garden playscape oasis in the city with apple trees, a sand pit, a vegetable garden, grassy areas, and a hill; one was a wild jumble of plants, logs, sand and dirt; and one was a minifarm with chickens, sheep, and cats on a yard with loose parts and hand-built play pieces.

The Seed Center preschool was built and is operated by Jacquelyn Beuchel and her husband Aaron. The backyard of this home on a small lot in the city was flat, open, and totally exposed to the adjacent parking lot and buildings. They quickly installed an attractive wooden fence for privacy and began landscaping the yard with gardens, paths, shrubs, a sand pit, a hill with a hill slide, a paved area for riding tricycles, a tepee, and an area for messy play.

The apple trees in the play area provide several functions: apples to eat, trees to climb, shade from the sun, and limbs to hang fabric to make hammocks to lie in. The gardens contain brightly-colored flowers and edible plants and vegetables. The sand pit is lined with big boulders and filled with shovels, trucks, and construction toys. The messy area has various natural loose parts such as pine cones, rocks, leaves, and pine needles available for constructive play.

In the autumn there are plenty of leaves to pile up and play in. In winter the children bundle up to play in the snow, following the philosophy, “There’s no bad weather, just bad clothing.” Springtime is filled with working in the garden and watering the plants. Summertime makes way for picnics and outdoor art projects.

The second preschool backyard highlighted is Corner of the Sky operated by Valerie Akers. When the school started, the backyard was a square of green grass. With the help of parents, a large hexagonal sand box, two rectangular raised planters for flowers and vegetables, and a smaller raised planter for an herb garden were constructed. Lilac bushes were planted which eventually formed a lilac tunnel, stepping stone paths were created, and stumps and tables were placed throughout. A construction corner, a driftwood hut, and a hideout area among the bushes added to the fun.

What started as green grass soon disappeared after the first summer, so the preschool backyard ground was covered with wood chips. Supplied with child-sized rakes and shovels, the children role play as “worker guys” who rake, dig, and construct projects determined by their own imagination.

Summertime offers good weather to play in the dirt and sand box, make music with pans and spoons, and explore what is found among the plants and shrubs. Dried leaves in the autumn and snow in the winter still give opportunities for digging and raking. The blooming flowers and lilac bushes reappear in the spring and add their sweet fragrance to the area.

LittleLeaf Homestead School was the third preschool examined, and the director is Priscilla Reyer. The rural setting of this minifarm gives children lots of space to explore farm life and the adjacent woods. There are tree hammocks and hand-built swings, a sand pit, a fire pit, balance boards, a garden area, and a straw bale spiral. The sledding hill provides hours of wintry fun.

With the students’ help, a chicken coop was planned and built. Hatching their first chickens from an incubator grew to observing the grown hens hatch their own chicks in years to come. The children gather the eggs and feed and water them each day. Sheep were later added to the minifarm, and the children care for them as well.

The children spend most of their days outdoors. They are allowed free-range exploration on their own with communication and respectful behavior taught to encourage safe play. Tree stumps, garden carts, logs, buckets, rakes, hoes, and shovels are available for constructive play activities.

The author’s purpose in writing this book was to inspire the creation of natural outdoor environments for children’s play. He asserts that every child deserves a safe play to play, supportive adults to watch him grow, and an environment that offers endless possibilities.

In the construction projects section of the book in Part 2, the author gives drawings and suggestions for building straw bale spirals, sand pits, and plant hideouts. He also includes a questions and answers section that provides information such as how to obtain free materials for a natural playscape, kinds of plants and trees to use, and safety standards and costs for building a natural playscape. The resources section includes books, organizations, and blogs for more information.1

  • 1. Keeler, Rusty. Seasons of Play: Natural Environments of Wonder. Lewisville, NC: Gryphon House, Inc. 2016.