Landscape design fosters healthy kids
Imagine a world in which we created earth-friendly, people-friendly environments right from the beginning, that is, from childhood. Well that’s the mission of Earlyspace, a landscape design company that creates natural place spaces for children, as well as outdoor classrooms. “I focus on connecting people, especially children, to nature and bring nature to places where children are, through sustainable design,” explains landscape designer Nancy Striniste, owner of Earlyspace.
As a former teacher, Striniste speaks the languages of both education and design. “My design process is a very participatory model.” she says. When working with schools, she holds a design workshop called a charette to educate, teachers, parents and the community at large about the value of natural space and outdoor learning environments.
And what is that value?
Striniste says studies have shown that when kids diagnosed with ADHD (Attention Deficit Hyperactive Disorder) spend time outdoors in green spaces, and then return indoors, they are calmer, their symptoms are reduced, and they are more focused, cooperative and creative. Other research has shown that children who spend time in diverse outdoor environments develop more advanced language skills and have bigger vocabularies than children who are in less natural, more manufactured play spaces, she adds.
In other benefits, being outside encourages children to be active, which is key to reducing obesity, Striniste notes. As part of her work she also designs edible gardens, so children can understand where food comes from, which thereby encourages healthier eating habits. “Natural spaces create benefits on multiple levels,” she adds.
Striniste incorporates a wide range of natural materials such as stone, wood, soil, sand, water and native plants in her outdoor designs. The emphasis Is on using safe lumber, recycled materials are used wherever possible, and shade is provided to makes spaces healthier and eco-friendly. Manufactured play equipment and climbing structures are not part of the design unless requested by a client.
An abundance of natural materials in outdoor spaces also fosters creativity, Striniste explains. When children have things they can actually change and control – such as sand, water, logs, and mud – as opposed to static pieces of equipment, it encourages them to move things around, build and create, and incorporate the different parts into their play.
“Outdoor play in natural spaces is different and tends to be more cooperative and language-based than competitive and physical — that’s how they are interacting,” she says. “Although they are still getting exercise, because they are lifting, pushing and pulling, they tend to be playing together, planning and talking more in these kinds of settings,” she adds. “These are social spaces as well as physical spaces.”
In addition to play areas, Striniste designs teaching spaces and outdoor classrooms. “Almost anything taught indoors can be taught outdoors, with good design,” she says. For example, she’s developed a Reading Garden with a storyteller’s chair, stepping stones related to favorites from children’s literature, as well as a Shakespeare Garden, where the plants used in the design were ones mentioned in works of Shakespeare. “These are all ways to honor literacy and reading outdoors, and give it a place to be taught in the fresh air.”
She is currently working on a project with a water feature, where the stones have words on them and can be moved around like large-scale magnetic poetry.
Striniste says one of her most inspiring projects involves a public school in coastal North Carolina, where her design incorporates things that make the community and ecosystem unique. For example, the space has a stream and pirate island in the middle, a homage to the area’s history of pirates. The beach area includes playhouses made of local driftwood, and tables, chairs and tunnels made of cypress wood reclaimed from the nearby swamp. There’s even a digging pit with sharks’ teeth taken from the beach.
“The space really reflects the community, culture and traditional materials,” notes Striniste. “It’s important for natural play spaces to have a sense of place – not like a chain restaurant – but to feel like the place where it is located.”
While her focus is on “Early Space” for a younger demographic, Striniste also does residential landscaping, mostly for people looking for sustainable, earth-friendly designs. This includes landscape design that manages and recycles water, environmentally responsible yet still aesthetically beautiful, as well as eco-friendly projects such as living roofs, living walls, edible gardens and spaces that incorporate native plants. However, whether her clients are ‘older’ or younger, and the space is public or private, one thing is consistent she says, “it’s all about sustainability.”