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Edible Playscapes

Craig Dobbelyu

Joined: Dec 22, 2011
Posts: 1187
Location: Maine (zone 5)
I'm looking for ideas to improve a preschool playground.

A local preschool has asked me to look into finding ideas for the reconstruction of the play areas for the kids. There are four separate areas for differing age groups (0-1yo) (1-2yo) (2-3.5yo) (3.5-5yo). Basically there is nothing but some sand on the ground and a few plastic climbing toys and a cheap jungle gym. It pretty much looks like a desert in some places.

I only have time to do a small amount of work but my major contribution will be in materials and planning. I'm leaving the funding and physical work mainly for the others. I just don't have the time being that I'm in the middle of a huge project here at home.
I'm able to make small wooden structures like trellises, arbors, tunnels, and raised beds. I'll also be supplying perennial plants for garden areas.

I was thinking of areas to climb, build, hide, dig, tunnel, daydream, pick flowers, watch wildlife (mostly insects) etc.

There's a max possible budget of between 0 and $5000 for supplies. Labor is going to be done by parents and teachers at the school.

Anyone have any ideas

"You may never know what results come of your action, but if you do nothing there will be no result”


- Compost in training
William James

Joined: Sep 22, 2010
Posts: 951
Location: Northern Italy
I would also be extremely interested in any thoughts on this.

I think with the general tendency of some schools to put money toward something botanical and educational, this would be a very good thing to get involved in. I also had the idea of proposing something similar in my area. If you can design a project and get a lead teacher on board, the possibilities are, maybe not endless, but very big for doing permaculture things. And at least here, there might be even some money involved for the person who is setting it up.

There needs to be more permaculture in the schools. Butterfly gardens are nice, but a functioning ecosystem is even better.

gani et se

Joined: Apr 24, 2011
Posts: 215
Location: Douglas County OR
As a former child, let me put in a word for climbable (wow that looks weird when you spell it correctly ) trees.

Intermountain (Cascades and Coast range) oak savannah, 550 - 600 ft elevation. USDA zone 7a. Arid summers, soggy winters
Craig Dobbelyu

Joined: Dec 22, 2011
Posts: 1187
Location: Maine (zone 5)
I wish they would let us use climbable structures/trees. They want to eliminate or minimize fall hazards. They've also decided to eliminate swings as kids that young tend not to avoid being struck when walking behind those who are swinging.

I had suggested a hugelkulture mound that we could build a slide into one side. that way the kids could climb but falling would only mean rolling back down the hill, not falling off of a ladder.

My attitude is that kids will learn by making mistakes and my job is to allow for mistakes while keeping them mostly "safe". Some parents want to make their kids totally safe at all times and that's just silly to me. Scrapes and bumps are badges of learning in my book.
Peter DeJay

Joined: Aug 10, 2011
Posts: 104
Location: Southern Oregon
Bean pole tipi's! seriously, easy to make hiding structures that have snap or green bean varieties growing up the sides whose foliage creates hiding places with abundant healthy munchies to boot!
Dave Miller

Joined: Jun 08, 2009
Posts: 407
Location: Zone 8b: SW Washington
I helped with the design of a 7 acre park in our neighborhood, here were some of my ideas:
1. Make a "play structure" from logs and boulders laying on the ground. As the logs rot, the kids & creatures will pick them apart looking for insects & satisfying their curiosity about the decomposition process. When the logs have totally decomposed, bring in new ones.
2. Make a living play structure by partially cutting down a tree. If there is an existing large tree that is leaning, cut the uphill roots and pull the tree over. This will provide a mostly horizontal climbing surface that will continue to grow (assuming the downhill roots do not break off when you pull the tree over).
3. Create a slow-dying snag for wildlife. See "Creating Snags from Live Trees" in this document:
4. Use an “ecology lawn mix” instead of regular grass.
5. Capture storm water runoff to use for irrigation.
6. Consider using a “living roof” for roofed structures.
7. Rope swing(s) from tree(s). Most kids these days grow up without ever seeing a rope swing.
8. Position benches and other features to encourage people (parents/teachers) to talk to each other. So often benches are not near each other, so people don't get to know each other.
9. Plant a big patch of sunflowers, and let them go to seed so the kids can watch the birds eat the seeds. Buy black oil sunflower bird seed and plant it - way cheaper than buying it as "garden seed".
10. Plant wildlife-friendly native plants. Provide wildlife trails across the site.
11. Places to play in dirt and/or water.

This was before I had heard of permaculture, otherwise I would have suggested edible plants too. I have most of these features in my yard. The horizontal tree (a big old walnut that fell over during an ice storm - the uphill root broke) is the coolest play structure in the neighborhood. Later we ended up putting a tree house in it.

The design committee ended up doing 1, 4, 10, and a few of my other ideas that I did not list. The rock/log play "structure" morphed into a "discovery garden" that is probably the most popular feature of the park. They made a sort of zig-zag/cluster pattern of logs and boulders interspersed with plants. The kids love climbing around on it. Here are some photos taken during the winter when the plants are all dormant:

(see for all photos). I see toddlers playing here while mom & dad sit on the rocks & watch; teenagers horsing around jumping from rock to log to rock; elementary kids using sticks & branches to build a "fort"; even a family getting their portrait taken among the boulders.

A climbing tree is probably too much for a preschool, but perhaps you can plan ahead the kids' elementary school, park, or kid-friendly backyard?

If the site does not currently have any trees, plant some - to use as snags, logs for the discovery garden, as a source of leaf mulch/food, a future horizontal play structure, etc.
Craig Dobbelyu

Joined: Dec 22, 2011
Posts: 1187
Location: Maine (zone 5)
Last year I made a few bean teepees. It was awesome! My kids had a ball hiding in there. I'm planning on making some low arbors for squash and cucumbers that the kids can crawl under. A sunflower maze would be fun. I'm also planning on the insect garden with places for amphibians.

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subject: Edible Playscapes