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The Layers of a Playcosystem

By Bernheim

Playcosystem didn’t get planned overnight. It is the result of years of careful consideration meshed with Bernheim’s larger strategy of striving to influence the way communities provide play environments for children throughout the region. One of Bernheim’s guiding ideas is to be a thought leader within our community. Playcosystem is one way for us to be thought leaders.

It’s helpful to think of the planning process for Playcosystem as a very large layer cake. Here’s a diagram of the many planning layers associated with the project followed by a quick description of each layer moving from past to future.

Play Knowledge is the foundational layer. It’s based on an understanding of the vast amount of research into the value of play for human development and hands-on knowledge of being careful observers of how and why children play. Bernheim has a more than ten year history focused on the value of play through our Children at Play Network experience. We even spent years playing with children in the exact location where Playcosystem is being built to observe how children utilized that natural space. That deep understanding of play gave us the confidence to design a play environment that we feel is fundamentally different than most playgrounds. We know that our understanding of play is never complete. That’s why Playcosystem is considered a play laboratory. We will learn about play from Playcosystem. Hopefully in ways that will allow us to work with others in the future to create the best outdoor natural play environments we can. Always playing – always learning – always applying what we learn. That, in essence, is what play is.

Hardscaping and Landscaping flows out of our years of background work. Our design was created by Bernheim staff based on our knowledge of play. We didn’t hire outside help to create the design. We own what works well and the mistakes we will inevitably make. We did hire outside help to actually build what we planned. Our construction crew, under the direction of Bernheim staff, created the hardscape. That’s the rocks, sidewalks, steel dome – everything that is built to create the playground. Then our Bernheim horticulture team came in at the end of the construction phase to plant the trees, shrubs and perennial accents for the project.

Furniture is brought in both during the construction phase and after. But what do we mean by furniture in this case? When we use the term furniture we are talking about the logs, rocks, benches, climbing objects, water fountains, flag poles – all that stuff that sits upon the constructed hardscape. Some of those objects have a life span. We don’t expect the logs to last forever for example. We do carefully choose what kind of logs we use but they will still rot over time and need to be replaced. There’s a plan for how we do that. In general, we think of furniture as the large things that children will play upon but not necessarily with.

Loose Parts – on the other hand – are all those smaller objects that we expect children to play with as they interact with Playcosystem. Many playgrounds don’t really have a lot of loose parts. Unless you include the mulch around the play structures. Loose parts give children agency over their play experience because they help create opportunities for manipulating the environment. We will experiment with the loose parts and how to manage them well over time. We will favor natural loose parts like tree cookies, sand, wood blocks, canvas tarps, sticks, poles, water and a mix match of objects we have been experimenting with in our free play days for years.

People – Children, Families, Staff are of course the most important ingredient in a play environment. Without them there’s no reason for a playground. Once people start using Playcosystem we will begin to learn more about what works well and what doesn’t. We expect to discover things that surprise us as well as things that we considered in advance. That’s when the fun starts. As a play laboratory we expect to learn how to improve upon Playcosystem as it expands and changes over the years. We also have plans to share both our successes and our failures with others as we move forward.

Research is being conducted at Playcosystem throughout all of these phases. We are carefully documenting, measuring, observing, collecting reactions, interviewing people and being careful about how we think about the project. We also have a partnership with the University of Louisville, College of Education and Human Development. We are working with CEHD faculty in Early Childhood and Science Education to use Playcosystem as a platform for conducting research into play based learning. All of that research feeds back down to a new base layer that will help us expand our knowledge and share it with others.

The fun doesn’t end when the first phase of Playcosytem is completed. In fact, that’s when all the fun begins. This isn’t a journey that has a final destination. You can be a part of that journey too.

Note: The photos in this post are all from the construction phase. Visit this site in the future to find updates on the layers that are yet to come. Including the layer that includes YOU.


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