Many of you may be familiar with Rusty Keller. He is the author Natural Playscapes. I’ve had a well-thumbed copy of his book, and always liked the photos, the humour and funky little drawings within it. I’ve a preference books that shed light on the personality of the author. Rusty hooked me in big time. Although this book was published in 2008, it remains relevant and helpful. This blog post is about a presentation he gave in Wales at a play conference back in 2011 – again lots of sensible, eternally useful advice.
For those of you who don’t know Rusty, he helps people think about playspaces for children. In his words he likes to “load up the sensory input.” He often begins presentations with a photo of planet Earth and encouraging adults and children to think about Earth as our home.
“Children are the ultimate explorers of this planet in outer space. The outdoor spaces in our pre-schools and homes are children’s first introduction to the outside world and the planet. Children learn through a sense of wonder. Playgrounds should be renamed research laboratories that link children to the universe.”
In the beginning, Rusty was an industrial designer and when he worked for a play equipment company, it was all about designing “cool stuff“! He was particularly interested in adding social elements to physical play structures.
Whilst working for this company, Rusty spent a year in the Netherlands. Whilst he was there, “Something rocked my world: a willow hut. It captured my imagination.” Rusty came across many wacky, interesting play designs in the playspaces of different European countries. He was inspired by what he saw: boulders in playgrounds, water in elementary schools, fire pits, having animals such as sheep in some play areas and, most importantly, children being trusted to play in these places.
Rusty’s thoughts kept coming back to the willow hut. He felt connected to it. “How can I bring these ideas back to the USA?” He was reading Robin C Moore’s book Natural Learning and so, encouraged by his European experiences and this reading, he started working on projects that included using local native plants and working with local communities and products.
Rusty looks at the whole ground space rather than a patch of it. He considers the topography, nooks and crannies and all the shapes. He thinks about the soundscapes, the textures of plants and their suitability for loose parts in play. He likes bigger, better experiences. For example, having a big sand beach area rather than a small sand box in which children can immerse their whole bodies in the play experience.
The culture and community in which a playspace is situated is hugely important. Many features and structures reflect cultural design traditions and the skills of the local volunteers who assist with the projects. Rusty is a strong advocate of community involvement and how communities come together to achieve the task of developing an outdoor space, aside from saving money. The use of traditional building techniques with traditional tools is also valuable, for the adults as well as the children.
Sound gardens are valued by Rusty. He showed us a range of big, locally made instruments from rot resistant native wood such as tuned tongue drums. I also rather liked the rainwheel made from guttering. And the huge thunder drums.
The siting of different features is also a consideration. I liked the meditation garden within a church-based pre-school. The use of shrubs and fences to create zones and boundaries were beautifully demonstrated. Likewise paths and stepping stones of different textures and surfaces added further multi-sensory appeal. Rusty encouraged us design for all the seasons by the choice and placing of shrubs, trees and flowers.
Rusty showed us water features of every conceivable variety. I was particularly struck by the use of a dog faucet on a hose pipe. This can be bought from a pet shop and works well in pre-school settings where water will only appear if the knobble is pushed. There were examples of funked-up water tables through the use of mosaics and other small world features.
Rusty reminded us about children’s perceptions of a landscape. In our childhoods, a wild jungle may be a few insignificant trees to an adult. A big boulder may be much smaller to an adult.
Like all designers and school grounds professionals, Rusty’s ideas do not remain static. He’s currently advocating the benefits of raising chickens as one of many design approaches to tackling obesity! A chicken in every childcare centre! “Have you tried catching a chicken? You are going to be moving around a lot!” he laughs. The benefits of caring for chickens and plants is very empowering and special for children. The involvement of children is vital to the ongoing maintenance routines in settings and the ability of a community to maintain an outdoor space is an important part of the initial participatory consultation approach.
So once again, Rusty is giving people all over the planet ideas and inspiration to make playspaces a little better and more child, community and eco-friendly. If you want to find out more, a good starting point is the Earthplay Facebook page. Also, a more recent video conversation happened between Rusty and Cameron Sprague, which can be viewed in their Puddle Patter Series – scroll down to Episode 10.
This blog post was first published in July 2011.