The world of natural playspaces and designers

09/06/2011 7:07
 Teardrop Park, New York City, New York
Experiencing natural environments is widely recognized as an important part of early childhood development, and yet most urban playgrounds have banished plants in favor of equipment. Teardrop Park is designed to address this gap, offering adventure and sanctuary to urban children while engaging their minds and bodies. Site topography, interactive water fountains, natural stone, and intimately-scaled plantings contribute to an exciting inner world of intricate textures, intense scale differences, and precisely choreographed views.

Specific features, like the Ice-Water Wall, the Marsh with its access path scaled to children, the steeply sloped planted areas, groves of trees, and the Water Play rocks, as well as the stone Reading Circle placed where there is also an outward view to the Hudson River, celebrate the expressive potential of the natural materials of landscape construction while reinventing the idea of nature play in the city. 

(Description and images from 2009 Awards)   


Helle Nebelong

(Text from Helles’ site

Helle Nebelong is a Danish landscape architect MAA, MDL and Master of Public Management. Since 1994, she has worked for the City of Copenhagen and more recently, as a private consultant initiating and coordinating events relating to roads and parks, urban planning and design.

Helle is especially passionate about designing spaces for children and how to adapt and improve the city for everyday life, currently being responsible for developing an action plan to improve accessibility in Copenhagen. She has had her own private practice since 1990, with emphasis on the design of healthy, inspiring natural spaces for children, the young disabled as well as elderly and senior citizens.

Valbyparken, Copenhagen

Valbyparken is the second biggest park in Copenhagen. From 1994-2004 it has been totally renovated. A 1 km long avenue was planted across the park and a support area has been laid out with water holes, meadows of wild flowers and hills. In 1996, when Copenhagen was European culture city, 17 circular theme gardens were constructed.

In 2001 a nature playground designed by Landscape Architect Helle Nebelong was opened to the public. The constructions work was a project for the unemployed.

 As Valbyparken is an old rubbish dumping area, the environmental authorities demanded that ½ meter earth had to be removed from the whole area and replaced by new, clean earth. The rubbish dump earth must not be removed from Valbyparken and it was therefore built into a row of little hills, which separate the playground from the rest of the park.

The playground’s most important elements are: The original woodland, the new hills and the wide stretch of meadow outside the playground.The plan is made up of organically formed elements: A large area with sand and gravel, small green islands, winding paths, a village of woven willow huts and plaited fences, an area with wild flowers and a very big snail-shaped mound with a path spiralling up it to a look-out point. The whole playground is pulled together by a circular 210m wooden bridge, which “floats” ½ meter above the ground.

The planks in the bridge are from the many elm trees, felled in Copenhagen due to Dutch elm disease.

Landscape Architect Helle Nebelong worked well together with four students from Denmark’s design school. They designed six towers for the playground of which five were constructed. The towers are placed as precise points on the circular bridge. Each tower has its own theme: The light’s tower, The wind’s tower, The green tower, The bird tower and The tower of change.

The ambition is that the playground should become a good alternative to the many commercial amusement parks, which are appearing everywhere.

Garden of Senses in Faelledparken, Copenhagen
In 1996 a special place for children, The Garden of Senses, was opened in Fælledparken in Copenhagen. It is the largest sensory garden in Denmark and was the first to be open to the general public.

The Garden of Senses is designed like a maze with winding paths, leading the visitor past many different experiences:
Several Wonder Spaces with Tangible Sculptures – one sculpture to each of our senses. Crossings, a Riverside Scenery with rocks and a lake, Scenery without water, a Lavender Island, a Maze of stakes. A Bamboo shrub, a small Garden of Fragrance with a fountain, prickly evergreens, shrubbery with old, crumbling sculptures, a Pavilion Garden, a grove of ginkgoes, a Butterfly Garden and a lot of other elements to discover. Round stones of granite are placed outside the garden and make a sort of connection between the garden and the park.

The idea behind the Garden of Senses is to give children a glimpse of the richness of nature, in order to awaken their interest, help them to learn about nature and to respect it. The first Gardens of Senses were created in connection with homes for children and young people with multiple disabilities, who were unable to go out and experience “real” nature. These gardens are usually small plots just outside the doors of the homes. The Garden of Senses in Fælledparken has been designed to be explored and enjoyed by adults and children of all ages. It has become a popular place and has many visitors. Many blind and handicapped people also visit and use the garden. Children of all ages come and train – although they do not realise it – their mobility and concentration.

The garden is full of contrasts. The stones are also varied: rough and smooth; round and angular; small stones that rattle in your hand; big rocks for climbing. An experience in itself is the sight of Hercules and the goddesses surrounded by all the greenery. This old sculpture group used to stand in Nørrebroparken in Copenhagen, but it was vandalised so it was taken down and declared unsuitable to be reinstated. In the Garden of Senses it does not matter if it is missing a nose-tip and half an arm, so now the sculpture group has been reinstated to be honoured and valued. Decay is suddenly beautiful and mystical in this green setting.

Children’s Millenium Garden
In 1999 Copenhagen municipality asked the state schools in the local area to take part in a competition about the Children’s Millennium Garden, a new theme garden in Valbyparken.

The schools were asked: Do children have a relationship to or interest in garden culture. Can they, who will design the future, design a garden of the future, and thus celebrate the millennium? Today, we know the answer is ”Yes”. Although the children are on the brink of a new millennium, which is characterised by a fast technological development, they do have a relationship to garden culture. Fortunately!

It was a year 3 class from Valby School, which won the competition. They designed a garden, which is split into 2 different areas. One part of the garden is full of shadows and has a jungle-type character. The other is a garden full of light and flowers.

There is a heart-shaped path and small nooks with love seats. Here you can meet your loved-one and be romantic. A lake separates the two halves of the garden, but the two worlds are connected by – or linked together by – a bridge over the water. The bridge, and all the life-strengthening thoughts, which lie behind this suggested garden, symbolises a fine crossing to the new millennium.

The children’s model of the garden was transformed into architectural drawings and the construction work got under way. At the beginning the children couldn’t recognise their garden design, they were surprised to see, that so much work had to be done, before the garden was finished. The realized garden is very close to the children’s ideas and design. They wanted a mushroom table and mushroom chairs. So the concrete mushrooms were found in a private garden, and the owners were pleased to give it to the children’s garden!

The only wish, that couldn’t be fulfilled, was the children’s idea of a couple of sculptures of Minnie and Mickey Mouse. The Walt Disney Company wouldn’t allow it. So the children made their own couple, which fits the garden much better. The garden was opened in the summer 2000, where all the children with their families and the public in general were invited to a big party. The Major of The Building and Construction Committee, and a famous singer joined the opening ceremony with the children.
The result was fulfilling. Everyone was very happy and had a good time. The children are very proud of having made their own garden and they visit the garden with their teacher every year to help tend the garden.

Aalholm School yard, Copenhagen
This project was for a local community school – built in 1934 – for 650 children between six and 16 years of age. The school yard is open outside school hours – the gate is never locked – but it was one big asphalt desert with a lost lion in the middle. Upon further investigation, it was discovered that the lion was in fact an old granite drinking well made by a famous Danish sculptor in the 1930s.

“The lion has to go!” said the headmaster, to which I replied that: “The lion is the only thing worth keeping!” I had already started to think about distant Spanish gardens – especially The Lion’s Court in Alhambra – So the whole school yard then developed around the lion.

The pupils’ school council held a competition for suggestions on how the school yard should look like in the future, involving all the classes. A theme that came up in many suggestions was that the school yard should be greener with more hideaway places, more meeting places and more activity spaces.
When the renovation of the school yard began, the children themselves planted a grove of plane trees around the lion sculpture – 26 trees in all – one for each class. They have all survived since they were planted five years ago, so it seems safe to conclude, that the children watch over and take care of the trees because they were involved in the planting.
The rest of the school yard was thematically transformed into a South Atlantic sea playground with scattered ”remains” of a shipwreck spread all over the area, which one can run in between, hang in and relax on – which some of the older children especially like to do.
Murergaarden, Copenhagen
The old playground from the 1970’s was completely run down and was to be renovated in 1996. The institution has 64 children aged 0-6 and 100 children aged 7-14. The play area is only 1.050 m2. It was split up earlier into two separate playgrounds. There was a fence between them and a difference in level of at least 2 m. Large blocks of flats surround the playground. It is used outside opening times by the local children and young people and is therefore subject to a lot of wear and tear.

The theme day confirmed a general wish for more nature in the playground and a lot of possibilities for the children to do physical training. Apart from this the playground should be less open, that is laid out with many different spaces and hidden caves, where the children can ”get away” and play in peace without being watched over by adults.
There were requests for different surfaces, e.g. asphalt for cycling, roller-skating and other forms of self-transport, for ball games and as a king of block for drawing or hopscotch. There should also be sand, tiles, paths and steps and different uneven stones, soft forest floor, wood chips and gravel. Bridges would also be good, both bridges over canals and hanging bridges over ditches. For once the majority of employees could agree that they would like water in the playground. In the ”perfect” playground there should be water steps, paddling pools, canals and an outdoor shower spray, where the muddy children could be rinsed off.

When we started there were some big willow trees, but there should also be fruit bushes, a willow copse and a lot of flowers. They did not want traditional play equipment, but they got a slide anyway, plus a couple of play houses, which were built on the site, so that the children could watch and be part of it.

The result was a little oasis with organically shaped planting, which complemented the massive surfaces of the surrounding buildings. The largest area of the playground is for the use of all the children, but it is possible to close off a little area for the nursery children. The higher and lower levels have been connected by a terraced slope, which has become a central feature in the playground. At the bottom of the slope is a wide, organically formed space. This is bordered by bits of palisade and tree stumps and stones, which are all good to balance on. There is one tree trunk in the sand for climbing.
The little paddling pool is asphalted and is connected to a channel and spring on the upper part of the playground. In the summer a fire-hose is used to fill the steps with water, which falls down to the paddling pool. It takes a couple of hours to fill it. The water is then turned off and allowed to stay in the pool until it is emptied in the evening. The pool is encircled by a willow copse, where willow stems can be picked, for use in plaiting smaller fences, basket weaving etc. Butterfly bushes have been planted and perennial flowers, which attract butterflies and other insects.

The playground has now been in existence for almost ten years. The parents now say that the children are happier now when they come home. The leader of the institution says that there are fewer conflicts in the playground. They are really happy with the playground, especially with the water.

Revitalization of Torshov park and Lilleborg path.


Manglerud Primary School – Oslo.

This project is constructed with 360 moraine stones, everyone picked and transported from the Svelvik moraine. The stones have all passed through and been carried away by the big glacier from all parts of South-Norway. The stones are all different in colour and structure, but all round shaped by the glacier rivers under the ice. 

The mountain has small spaces on the top which differ in character, two tunnels and a climbing well with roof on the top. The landscape is intended to inspire all kind of movements: climbing, jumping, balancing, running and sliding. The new “mountain” has been built, stone upon stone, constructed in a in a stable manner. I worked for 3 weeks to get all of them in the right position, with the good help of a machine driver, who could use a rotating crane.

Tess Michaels