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Retired Head of Lower School Pam Kimmet was the “grandmother” of Harley’s outdoor playground. Under her guidance, the School built a hybrid between traditional playground pieces like swings and slides—and imagination—sparking spaces such as log “bridges” and water play areas.

Today, there is a growing awareness of the need for children to take risks in play as well as to conduct play in natural settings. Outdoor play and learning have been part of Harley since our very beginning. The Winslow family understands our unique approach benefits students in a wide variety of ways, including improving coordination, balance skills, and agility. It also encourages free play and helps increase student interest in—and knowledge about—nature. The Winslows have taken their enthusiasm for our curriculum to the next level as lead donors for our new playground and outdoor learning center.

Connecting Children to Nature

If you’ve ever followed animal footprints, dangled from a tree branch, rolled down a hill, jumped from boulder to boulder, or made a mud pie, you’ve experienced natural play. In fact, according to a variety of studies, kids who spend more time in nature are less aggressive and more cooperative, score higher on tests, get along better with their peers, and are happier overall than children who spend the majority of their time indoors. A study from the University of Tennessee at Knoxville revealed the typical flat, treeless playground keeps kids busy for an average of nine minutes; on natural playgrounds, it’s 60 to 68 minutes.

“Children learn everywhere, not just in the classroom,” said Dr. Terry Fonda Smith, head of Lower School. “Engaging children in their environment respects their naturally curious approach to the world.”

Highlights of the Winslow Natural Playground & Outdoor Learning Center:

  • Two nature-based play spaces totaling more than 7,000 square feet
  • More than 100 new trees and shrubs planted
  • An abundance of gross/fine-motor, sensory, creative, social, and cognitive play opportunities
  • Two outdoor classrooms with multiple gathering areas of different sizes
  • Reduction of environmental impact to the existing Environmental Protection Overlay District

This play space utilizes natural elements, plant material, and loose parts, to give children less directed, more open-ended play opportunities. Most play spaces in Greater Rochester are made of manufactured play equipment where the engagement is dictated by the adults or the manufacturer of the equipment—telling children where to climb, where to jump, and where to swing. The natural playgrounds at Harley will be rich with open-ended materials and opportunities that empower the children to be the architects of their own play. “The Winslow Natural Playground & Outdoor Learning Center will not only give children highly active play choices that contribute to enhanced physical literacy, but it will also be full of rich sensory experiences that engage children on a whole new level. In these spaces, children will experience heightened language development, social competence, and emotional development. Ultimately, this space will transform the way children learn and allow them to engage their whole bodies—helping us better understand that playing and learning are not mutually exclusive. In reality, play is where some of the best learning happens,” said Jeff Lindstrom, Lead Project Designer, Bienenstock Natural Playgrounds.

Specific features incorporated into the design were carefully selected so that users are both physically and cognitively stimulated while engaging all of their senses in the space. For example, there are large, sideways trees anchored into the ground that serve as climbing/gross-motor components, but on the other end of the space, there is an outdoor classroom full of creative materials that give children the opportunity to work with loose parts and express themselves with a variety of artistic materials.

For this project in particular, there were specific considerations that needed to be incorporated into the design process. First, due to its proximity to Allen’s Creek, this area is considered an Environmental Protection Overlay District (EPOD). This meant that extra sensitivity was given to the fact that we were minimizing our environmental impact and, ultimately, having a positive impact on the site.

Second, there were many groups that needed to be consulted: the Lower School, Nursery, administration, parents, community members, faculty, and supporters of the School. The designers made sure there was representation from all of these groups throughout the design process, and that the design reflected input from all of those parties.

“One of the key differentiators at Harley that our family celebrates is their focus on outdoor learning and play—it’s literally embedded into the curriculum of the Lower School. Dr. Smith and the faculty understand that interacting with nature is critical to early childhood development. The Winslow Natural Playground & Outdoor Learning Center will further empower this dynamic faculty to create transformative experiences for students on a daily basis. It will also further distinguish Harley as the regional leader in nature-based play and learning,” said Matt Winslow, Harley trustee.

We are thrilled to be at the forefront of nature-based play and education in the region.