The natural environment as a playground for children
Landscape description and analyses of a
, Jostein Sageie
Department of Teacher Education/Department of Computer Science and Mathematics,
Telemark College, 3679 Notodden, Norway
Received 31 May 1999; received in revised form 21 October 1999; accepted 14 January 2000
Previous studies have explained children's experience of place and their special preferences for the unbuilt and unstructured
environment. However, the impact of a natural environment on children's learning and development has been a topic of low
priority within child research and the importance of natural playscapes for children has also been neglected in physical
planning. The present study focuses on a natural environment, a small forest, as a playscape for children. The forest was used
by a kindergarten as a supplement to their traditional outdoor playground and the impact such a landscape might have on
children's motor development was investigated through an experimental study on kindergarten children aged 5, 6 and 7 years
of age. The landscape was described and analyzed by methods of landscape ecology and geomorphology implemented in a
geographical information system (GIS). We found that the natural landscape had qualities to meet the children's needs for a
stimulating and varied play environment. Landscape ecology metrics showed high values for diversity, evenness and
heterogeneity for the study area. The diversity of vegetation and topography corresponded to function-related structures that
afforded versatile play. The study indicated a strong relation between landscape structure and play functions. The diversity of
the vegetation was related to phytosociology and physiognomy, while the diversity of topography was related to slope and
roughness. Diversity in landscape elements such as vegetation and topography might be considered a dimension of quality for
a natural playscape. This playscape comprised the ground for training of motor ®tness in children. Through all-round playing
and exploring the natural playscape, the children's motor ®tness was improved. This proved the learning effects from a natural
playscape on children's motor abilities. This paper will focus mainly on the landscape descriptions and the affordance of
versatile play. #2000 Elsevier Science B.V. All rights reserved.
Keywords: Environments for play and development; Natural playscapes; Landscape ecology
``Climbing rocks is more fun than climbing trees Ð
but climbing trees is more fun than the boring play-
ground equipment.'' These words from a kindergarten
Landscape and Urban Planning 48 (2000) 83±97
Corresponding author. Tel.: 47-35026-333;
E-mail address: firstname.lastname@example.org (I. Fjùrtoft)
0169-2046/00/$20.00 #2000 Elsevier Science B.V. All rights reserved.
PII: S 0169-2046(00)00045-1
boy may serve as an example of how children consider
the traditional playground and how they ®nd the
natural playscape more attractive and exciting (Tit-
man, 1994; Moore and Wong, 1997). Previous studies
have explained children's experience of place, their
special preferences for the unbuilt and unstructured
environment, and how children interpret place and
space (Hart, 1979; Moore, 1986). Children need green
playgrounds including ®elds to play on, trees for
climbing and bushes for shelter and hiding (Titman,
1994). Prescott (1987) concluded that kindergarten
environments were too simple in comparison with the
natural environment. She mentioned three unique
qualities about nature; the high diversity, the fact that
nature is not made by man, and the impression of
timelessness. Furthermore, several studies indicate
that a diverse and adventurous playground stimulates
creative play (Frost and Campbell, 1985; Frost and
Strickland, 1985; Moore, G.T., 1985; Moore, R.C.,
1986; Steel and Neuman, 1985; Winter, 1985; Frost
and Wortham, 1988; Hart, 1993). Scandinavian stu-
dies report positive impact from playing in nature on
the children's social play, concentration and motor
ability (Bang et al., 1989; Grahn, 1991; Fjùrtoft,
1995a, 1998; Grahn et al., 1997). However, few
studies systematically document the impact a natural
environment might have on children's development
(Bjerke, 1994). One reason may be an apparent lack of
suitable methods for describing and analyzing natural
environments as playscapes.
Frost (1992) introduced the concept of `playscape'
for describing different play environments. He
argued that natural features are important qualities
of playgrounds, and that the natural features allow a
wide range of learning opportunities not available
from other playground options. When planning plays-
capes for children, it is important to focus on
which environmental features are available for play.
The possibilities to choose their own activities and
create their own playscape in the environment are
important elements in children's play (Moore, 1985).
Green structures and nature are of high priority
in children (Moore and Young, 1978; Hart, 1979,
1982; Heft, 1988). Variation and diversity also
seem to be important characteristics of the play habi-
tats and so does the unstructured and manipulative
environment (Nicholson, 1971; Moore, 1986; Laursen,
1.1. Aims and objectives
In Norway, nature is still a part of culture. The
landscape has not only been an object of utilitarian
value but also a scene for outdoor life and leisure
activities (FRIFO, 1992; Kaltenborn and og Vorkinn,
1993). Nature is a part of people's local environment
and Norwegian children have usually grown up in
places where the natural environment was the arena
for free play and physical activities (Fjùrtoft, 1995b).
The present study aimed at describing a natural envir-
onment as a playscape for children in Norway.
Furthermore, it was focused on the learning effects
that all-round play in nature might have on children's
motor development (Fjùrtoft, 1998, 1999). For this
presentation, we have concentrated on the description
and analyses of the landscape as a playground for
children, based on the affordance of the landscape for
versatile play. It was hypothesized that variation and
diversity in the landscape corresponded with diversity
in play activities. The main objectives were (1) to
describe and analyze a woodland area as a playground
for children, and (2) to describe, analyze and visualize
how children's play was related to important land-
scape elements such as vegetation and topography.
This involved exploring methods from landscape
ecology and geomorphology for description, analysis
and visualization of landscape characteristics as
important elements in playscapes for children.
1.2. Study area
The study area, the forest (Fig. 1), was a 7.7 ha
woodland vegetation with varied topography, located
close to a kindergarten in Bù, Telemark County in
Norway. The forest was the outdoor playscape, outside
the kindergarten fence. The closer parts of it were used
spontaneously by the children on their own, while
adults accompanied the children to the parts further
To our knowledge, there is no established metho-
dology to describe the natural environment as a play-
ground for children. In environmental psychology, the
focus is on how we mentally perceive the environment
84 I. Fjùrtoft, J. Sageie / Landscape and Urban Planning 48 (2000) 83±97
(Lynch, 1960; Elfstro
Èm, 1991). A semantic environ-
mental description is based on experienced dimen-
sions of the landscape (Ku
Èller, 1972; Kaplan and
Kaplan, 1989; Sorte, 1989; Lindgren, 1990). Applica-
tion of these methods for describing natural environ-
ments as playgrounds for children have been explored
(Fjùrtoft, 1993; Berggren-Ba
Èrring and Grahn, 1995),
but for this purpose, the semantic environmental
description based on adults' visual perceptions and
qualitative appreciation of a landscape is insuf®cient.
As adults, we perceive the landscape as forms,
whereas children will interpret the landscape and
the terrain as functions (Gibson, 1979; Heft, 1988).
Therefore, methods focusing on structures and func-
tions of the environment are more appropriate for
describing natural landscapes as playscapes for chil-
2.1. Landscape ecology
The theories of landscape ecology are based on
composition,structure,function and change of phy-
sical landscapes (Forman and Godron, 1986). Quan-
titative metrics have been developed to describe the
relations between the structure and the function in
spatial patterns (Forman, 1997). A common way of
describing landscapes from a species perspective is to
study habitat variables that are likely to affect the
species' utilization of the habitat and landscape of
interest, e.g. vegetation and topography (Ims, 1992;
Forman, 1997). In the context of landscape ecology,
we might therefore introduce the concept of human
play habitats, i.e. the different landscape elements
and structures that afford children's play. The affor-
dances of play are based on the features that the
environment can provide (Gibson, 1979). We focused
on vegetation and topography because these elements
comprise the physical patterns of a landscape and can
be expressed as composition, structure and function of
an environment (Ska
Ênes, 1997). The landscape
metrics were computed according to McGarigal and
Vegetation mapping was done by ®eld inventory
and aerial photo-interpretation (Paine and Luba, 1980;
Ihse, 1989, 1995). The vegetation was classi®ed
according to the Norwegian classi®cation system
(Fremstad, 1997). Identi®ed patches in the ®eld inven-
tory were classi®ed into main vegetation types, based
on phytosociology and physiognomy (Heywood and
Watson, 1995; Fremstad, 1997). Thematic maps of
physiognomy were derived from the vegetation map
by use of geographic information system (GIS) (Tom-
lin, 1990; Bernhardsen, 1995; Worboys, 1995).
Elevation data were contour lines extracted from the
base-map transformed into digital representation as a
digital elevation model (DEM). The DEM was the
basis for calculating slope and roughness of the terrain
Fig. 1. (a) Localization of the study area; (b) the kindergarten and
I. Fjùrtoft, J. Sageie / Landscape and Urban Planning 48 (2000) 83±97 85
(Burrough, 1996). Detailed terrain measurements by
use of geodetic methods were used for three reference
pro®les to determine the terrain con®guration for a
frequently used sliding slope, a steep cliff and a rough
climbing track (Weibel and Heller, 1993; Wangen,
Methods for deriving and analyzing topography and
vegetation data were implemented in the GIS-software
ARC/INFO (Environmental Systems Research Insti-
tute (ESRI), 1997). For landscape ecology analysis,
we used FRAGSTATS*ARC (innovative GIS solu-
tions (IGIS) McGarigal and Marks, 1998).
Global positioning systems (GPSs) were used to
map speci®c play habitats. Calculation of this survey-
ing was done as differential GPS (DGPS) (Simensen,
1998). The play activities were de®ned and classi®ed
into three categories (Frost, 1992). (1) Functional play
comprised gross-motor activities and basic skills and
were implemented in games like play tag, chase and
catch, leapfrog, hide and seek, catch a tree, making
angels in the snow, and other games involving basic
movements. (2) Construction play was the type of play
that was afforded by landscape structures and loose
parts, e.g. building shelters, dens and other construc-
tions like a pirate ship, building with cones and sticks
and other moveable things. In the winter season, snow
was an excellent building material. (3) Symbolic play
included socio-dramatic play and was recorded as role
play and fantasy play such as play house, pirates, play
farm with cones and sticks etc. As a natural environ-
ment might challenge several movements and physical
mastering, play in a natural environment was, there-
fore, assumed to have an impact on the children's
motor development. Consequently, an experimental
study was carried out, describing how all-round play
activities in a natural environment might have an
impact on children's motor development (Fjùrtoft,
1999). The playscape was used by, in all, 46 children
in the age group 5±7 years old for 2 h every day when
they attended kindergarten. The study lasted for a
period of 9 months, from September to June. The
play activities and the localities for play were
observed and reported by the kindergarten teachers
(Robson, 1997). The spatial relations between the
different landscape characteristics and the observed
play activities were visualized by using spatial overlay
analysis and correlation plots (Berry, 1997).
The landscape spatial pattern formed by the vegeta-
tion of the forest, total area 7.7 ha, was a mosaic of 34
patches of different types of woodland interspersed
with some open spaces consisting of rocks, ®elds and
meadows (Fig. 2, Table 1).
The woodlands consisted of six different vegetation
types, and were dominated by rich deciduous wood-
land in the south-western parts of the area (Fig. 2a).
Two types of rich decidious woodland were registered
(Fig. 2a, Table 2). The wych elm small-leaved-lime
woodland was the most widespread one with maple
(Acer platanoides), alder (Alnus incana), hazel (Cor-
ylus avellana), ash (Fraxinus excelsior) and elm
(Ulmus glabra) as common tree species. In the
north-eastern parts, the coniferous and mixed wood-
Landscape metrics of the total area and the playscape
Landscape metrics Ta
Total area 7.71 34 21.2 0.23 10 0.82 0.92
Playscape 4.89 22 33.5 0.22 9 0.78 0.88
TA: total area (ha).
NP: number of patches.
LPI: largest patch index.
MPS: mean patch size (ha).
PR: patch richness.
SIDI: Simpson's diversity index.
SIEI: Simpson's evenness index.
86 I. Fjùrtoft, J. Sageie / Landscape and Urban Planning 48 (2000) 83±97
Fig. 2. Vegetation map and derived tematic maps on edge contrasts between vegetation types and physiognomy of trees and shrubs. Playscape
is indicated by border lines.
I. Fjùrtoft, J. Sageie / Landscape and Urban Planning 48 (2000) 83±97 87
lands dominated the forest (Fig. 2a, Table 2). The
coniferous woodland consisted of pine woodland with
Scots pine (Pinus sylvestris), while the Norway spruce
(Picea abies) dominated the bilberry woodland. The
low-herb woodland was a mixture of pine, spruce and
deciduous trees like birch (Betula pubescens) and
aspen (Populus tremula) and a more scattered occur-
rence of sallow (Salix caprea) and mountain ash
(Sorbus aucuparia). This woodland was dominated
by scattered deciduous shrub vegetation (Fig. 2a,
Table 2), and a mixture of trees and shrubs (Fig. 2c±e).
3.2. Landscape metrics
Based on the vegetation data, several landscape
metrics were computed (Tables 1 and 2). Mean patch
size (MPS) of 0.23 ha and the largest patch index
(LPI) of 21.2 illustrated the ®ne-grained pattern in the
landscape mosaic. The Simpson diversity index (SIDI)
of 0.82 and the Simpson evenness index (SIEI) of 0.92
indicated variation and heterogeneity in the area.
At the class level, the wych elm-small-leaved wood-
land had an LPI of 14.9, and covered 23.8% of the total
area (PLAND) with an MPS0.5. It also had the
highest class area (CA) of 1.8 and was distributed
on four different patches (Table 2). The low-herb
woodland was the second largest class of woodland
in the area (CA1.3) distributed on four patches, with
the LPI0.9 and the MPS0.3. The coniferous wood-
land consisted of six patches of bilberry woodland
(CA0.8, PLAND9.8) and three patches of pine
woodland (CA0.3, PLAND4.4). The open space
was dominated by meadows and ®elds with weed
vegetation on road embankments and waste places
Class metrics of the total area (TA) and the playscape (PL)
Vegetation types Area CA
Wych elm-small-leaved lime woodland TA 1.8 4 23.8 14.9 0.5 1.8
PL 0.4 1 7.7 7.7 0.4 1.7
Low-herb woodland TA 1.3 4 17.2 9.9 0.3 1.6
PL 1.3 3 25.7 15.5 0.4 1.7
Bilberry woodland TA 0.8 6 9.8 6.7 0.1 1.4
PL 0.8 6 15.5 10.6 0.1 1.4
Pine woodland TA 0.3 3 4.4 3.4 0.1 1.4
PL 0.3 3 6.9 5.4 0.1 1.4
Alder-ash woodland TA 0.2 1 2.2 2.2 0.2 2.1
PL 0.2 1 3.4 3.4 0.2 2.1
Tall-fern woodland TA 0.1 1 1.1 1.1 0.1 1.7
PL 0.1 1 1.7 1.7 0.1 1.7
Woodland border shrub TA 0.5 2 6.4 4.3 0.2 1.9
PL ± ± ± ± ± ±
Vegetation on road embankments and waste places TA 2.0 2 26.1 21.2 1.0 1.5
PL 1.6 1 33.4 33.5 1.6 1.6
Weed vegetation in cultivated fields TA 0.5 6 6.3 1.9 0.1 1.7
PL 0.1 3 2.4 1.0 0.0 1.8
Rocks TA 0.2 5 2.7 1.1 0.0 1.5
PL 0.2 3 3.3 1.8 0.5 1.5
CA: class area (ha).
NP: number of patches.
PLAND: percent of landscape (%).
LPI: largest patch index.
MPS: mean patch size (ha).
MSI: mean shape index.
88 I. Fjùrtoft, J. Sageie / Landscape and Urban Planning 48 (2000) 83±97
as the largest ground (CA0.5, PLAND26.1) (Table
2, Fig. 2a).
The edge parameters indicated varying contrasts in
the study area (Fig. 2b, Table 3). The highest contrast
appeared where open ®elds met dense woodland (edge
contrast1). The longer borders also had higher edge
contrast when coupled with the weighted contrast for
the vegetation types (weighted length63.6±125.6).
The contrast between the different woodlands was
low, due to short borders and low weighted contrasts
(Fig. 2b, Table 3). Even spaces with open rocks had a
low edge contrast, i.e. tall-fern woodland/rocks0.2
(Table 3). This may also be explained by the very short
perimeter (weighted length0.4±25.5, Fig. 2b).
The topography was undulating with terraces and
slopes and a dominating steep slope traversing the
area. Topography analysis results are presented as
pro®les, slope-map, roughness-map, and statistical
®gures (Fig. 3).
Directional derivatives of the surface provided
information about slope and roughness as the most
important descriptive variables of topography. Slope
(the ®rst derivative) was calculated in degrees and
showed a range from min 0 to max 72 with a mean
value 14.5 within the total area (Fig. 3a). Roughness
(the second derivative) described the variation of slope
(Fig. 3c). This variable can be calculated in different
directions; we used the pro®le curvature that showed
the change of steepest slope across the surface (SUR-
FER User's Guide, 1997). Avalue around 0 indicated a
smooth terrain and higher values a more rough land-
scape. The statistical ®gures in Table 4 show that the
mean value for roughness for different play habitats
was approximately 0, which means nearly the same
volume of convex and concave changes in the topo-
graphical curvature. The standard deviation illustrated
the variation of topography within different play
habitats, where a standard deviation of 1.5 indicated
a smoother topography and 4.8 a more `dramatic'
The play habitats were located next to the kinder-
garten area (Fig. 1b, Fig. 2a) and covered 63% (4.9 ha)
of the total landscape. The playscape had a patch
richness of 9 out of 10 possible vegetation types
and included all the six woodland types, rocks, ®elds
Fig. 3. Geomorphology: slope and roughness; playscape indicated
with the locality of terrain; measured pro®les.
I. Fjùrtoft, J. Sageie / Landscape and Urban Planning 48 (2000) 83±97 89
Edge contrasts: contrasts between vegetation types based on observations and a reasoned guess
Alder-ash woodland ±
Bilberry woodland 0.3 ±
Low-herb woodland 0.3 0.3 ±
Pine woodland 0.4 0.3 0.2 ±
Rocks 1.0 1.0 1.0 1.0 ±
Tall-fern woodland 0.8 0.8 0.8 0.8 0.2 ±
Vegetation on road embankments
0.8 0.8 0.8 0.7 0.2 0.2 ±
Weed vegetation in cultivated fields 0.8 0.8 0.8 0.8 0.2 0.2 0.1 ±
Woodland border scrub 0.5 0.5 0.5 0.5 0.5 0.4 0.3 0.3 ±
Wych elm-small-leaved lime
0.1 0.3 0.3 0.4 1.0 0.9 0.8 0.8 0.5 ±
90 I. Fjùrtoft, J. Sageie / Landscape and Urban Planning 48 (2000) 83±97
and meadows (Fig. 2a). The low-herb woodland was
the dominating woodland type, covering 26% of the
playscape and representing an LPI of 15.5 (Tables
1and 2). The diversity index for the play habitats was
0.78 and the evenness index 0.88, i.e. a little lower
than for the total landscape (Table 1). The physiog-
nomy of tree species was shaped by pine, spruce,
deciduous trees and mixed (Fig. 2c). The physiog-
nomy of the shrubs was mixed and deciduous and the
density of shrubs was scattered only with some dense
areas in the outskirts, bordering the neighboring ®eld
(Fig. 2d and e). The edge contrasts showed low to
medium contrast values between the vegetation types
in the play area (Fig. 2b). The shape index for vegeta-
tion types ranged from 1.4 to 2.1, indicating a rela-
tively commensurable shape for the different
vegetation types (Table 2). The 5-, 6- and 7-year
old children in the kindergarten used the playscape
for approximately 2 h every day (Fig. 4). The diversity
in woodland types afforded all the three categories of
play activities (Fig. 4, Table 4). Woodland types
constituted climbing areas, with the pine as the most
frequent climbing tree, while areas with scattered
shrub cover were preferred for construction play, like
building dens and shelters, and symbolic play like
playing house and pirates. Shrubs like the Juniper bush
turned into a nice home, the stump might represented a
nice pilothouse for the pirate ship, while the meadows
Play activities related to landscape characters
Landscape characters Play activities
Vegetation Class Climbing
Running Sliding Skiing Symbol
Physiognomy trees Deciduous ± 28% ± ± ± 35% 40%
Spruce ± ± ± ± ± 18% ±
Pine ± 34% ± ± ± 20% ±
Mixed ± 7% ± ± ± 6% 14%
Pine/spruce ± 20% ± ± ± 11% 38%
Physiognomy shrubs Deciduous ± ± ± ± ± 46% 48%
Mixed ± ± ± ± ± 48% 53%
Pine/spruce ± ± ± ± ± ± ±
Density of shrubs Open 13% ± ± 12% 98% 7% ±
Scattered 79% ± 100% 79% ± 86% 96%
Dense 9% ± ± 9% ± 8% 4%
Topography (slope) Mean degree 22.5 ± 11.6 22.3 7.0 17.2 10.3
(S.D.) (7.8) ± (4.1) (7.7) (8.3) (7.7) (3.4)
Topography (roughness) Mean value ÿ0.8 ± ÿ0.2 ÿ0.8 0.2 0.2 ÿ0.1
(S.D.) (4.8) ± (2.4) (4.8) (2.3) (4.0) (1.5)
Physiognomy of vegetation reported in % playscape area, topography reported as mean values and (S.D.) of slope (degrees) and
roughness (second derivative of height).
Fig. 4. Playscape and core areas.
I. Fjùrtoft, J. Sageie / Landscape and Urban Planning 48 (2000) 83±97 91
and open spaces might be a battle®eld. Symbolic play
and construction play were more dependent on both
topography and vegetation. Whereas the topography
had a smooth character, the vegetation was more
complex in tree species, shrubs and density of shrubs.
Traditional games like hide and seek, catch and run
were located to smooth topography with open space or
scattered shrub density (Fig. 2c±e). The open, large
meadow patch of vegetation on waste places and road
embankments next to the kindergarten was solely used
for skiing activities in the winter and was used daily in
the period from January to April. Functional play
activities were linked to activities such as climbing
rocks, climbing trees, running, sliding and skiing
The traversing steep slope including rocks and cliffs
dominated the topography of the playscape. Fig. 3b
illustrates pro®les at different sites of the slope. Pro®le
1 was a steep slope of 358and Pro®le 2 was a rough
slope, but less steep. These two pro®les represented
typical areas for climbing rocks. Pro®le 3 illustrated a
long and smooth 21.58slope which represented a long
`bob-run' used in the winter season. All three terrain
measured pro®les were located within the area
mapped for sliding and climbing habitats and the
statistical ®gures for roughness were the same for
those areas (Table 4). The roughness values showed
that the smoothest topography was found within areas
for construction play (meanÿ0.1, S.D.1.5), while
the most `dramatic' topography was found within
areas for climbing rocks and sliding (meanÿ0.8,
There were some core areas in the playscape that the
children used more frequently. The children named
those areas, and the names may illustrate their func-
tional use. The activities taking place at those areas
were closely linked to the structures and the functions
they represented, e.g. `the Spaceship' was a big ship-
shaped rock randomly placed underneath the steep
slope. `The Cone War' was located in a patch of
bilberry woodland of big spruces. `The Cliff' was a
steep end of the long traversing slope where daring
sliding activities took place in wintertime. The activity
map in Fig. 4 shows the location of the core areas.
Seasonal changes in the use of the play habitats
were observed. The meadow next to the kindergarten
(Figs. 2a and 4) was an arena for skiing activities. The
snow and a suitable geomorphology afforded sliding
(Figs. 3b and 4). Typical winter play activities like
`angels in the snow' and construction play with snow
(®gures, caves) took place in the forest. With a deep
snow cover, the young deciduous trees became more
accessible for climbing.
4. Effects on motor development
By all-round playing in a diverse and rough land-
scape, the children's motor ®tness was improved.
Results from the experimental study showed consid-
erable improvements in motor ®tness in the experi-
mental group (n46) compared to the reference group
(n29). Signi®cant difference (p<0.01) between the
groups was found in balance and co-ordination skills.
Those were considered important competencies
regarding motor learning. The age and maturation
related competencies such as strength and ¯exibility
were improved in both groups, but were not related to
training in the same way as other motor ®tness skills
(Fjùrtoft (in preparation)).
5.1. The natural playscape
In this study, we found that a diverse natural land-
scape had the qualities to meet the children's needs for
a varied and stimulating play environment where the
composition and structures of the landscape were
conducive to different play functions. The landscape
ecology analyses showed a heterogeneous environ-
ment rich in woodland types. The number and spatial
pattern of patches constituted a varied landscape
mosaic (Forman, 1997) and the diversity and the
evenness indexes for the playscape were high com-
pared to the total study area (Fig. 2, Tables 1 and 2).
The shape and edge metrics also illustrated the varia-
tion and the heterogeneity of the landscape (Fig. 2b,
Tables 2 and 3). The total amount of edge in a land-
scape is directly related to the degree of spatial
heterogeneity, and the edge effects are in¯uenced
by the degree of contrasts between the patches
(McGarigal and Marks, 1998). We found soft bound-
aries between woodland types in the playscape
(Fig. 2b). Soft boundaries together with convoluted
92 I. Fjùrtoft, J. Sageie / Landscape and Urban Planning 48 (2000) 83±97
patch shapes increased interaction with the surround-
ings (Dramstad et al., 1996; Forman, 1997). Convo-
luted and low edge contrasts in our study made it easy
for the children to move about and this might in¯uence
5.2. Affordances and the impact on children
In the interpretation of the relevance of landscape
ecology metrics and the topography for playscapes for
children, we have focused on the affordances of the
landscape for play. The structure of the landscape,
such as the physiognomy of vegetation and the geo-
morphology, ®lled the functions for play. The children
perceived the functions of the landscape and used
them (Gibson, 1979). They selected the habitats that
afforded play (Fig. 4 and Table 4). This was the
observed behavioural response of the children to the
environment, i.e. in ecological terms, their habitat
selection (Begon et al., 1990). The play habitats were
related to diversity in play activities and seasonal
changes (Table 4). The characteristics of the habitats
determined the use and the seasonal preferences
(Begon et al., 1990; Ims, 1992; Ska
Nicholson (1971) argued that there is evidence that
all children love to interact with physical environ-
mental features, such as materials and shapes, gravity,
smell, and other things, which they can discover,
explore, and experiment with. The stimulation of
inventiveness and creativity, and the possibility of
discovery are directly related to the number and the
kind of features in the environment. Table 4 illustrates
the relationship between the play activities and the
landscape characteristics. The physiognomy of trees
played a signi®cant role not only for climbing trees but
also for symbolic play and construction play. The
areas for climbing trees were dominated by pine trees
(34%), deciduous trees (28%) and mixed pine and
spruce (20%). For climbing trees, the other landscape
characteristics were considered to be of no signi®-
cance. Deciduous trees such as birch and sallow were
popular climbing trees especially during wintertime
when they became more accessible due to a high snow
layer. In summer time, some ropes and rope ladders
made the pines more accessible for climbing, hanging,
dangling and swinging. The sites for symbol play were
characterized by deciduous trees (38%), but with other
tree species also present. The same was the case for
construction play, where deciduous trees dominated.
Materials from deciduous trees were more easily
accessible for building huts and shelters and this
corresponds well to Nicholson's theory of playing
with loose parts (1971). The physiognomy of shrubs
seemed to have an in¯uence on all the play activities
except for climbing trees. At the sites for symbolic
play and construction play, the deciduous shrubs and
mixed shrub vegetation were dominating, while the
density of shrubs was scattered, 87% of symbol play
habitats and 96% of construction play habitats. The
importance of shrub vegetation linked to those two
play activities was obvious for the purpose of hiding,
playing house, building shelters etc. The skiing and
sliding areas were used in the winter only. The shrub
cover in those areas was mainly open and scattered
and did not hinder the activities. The topography of the
playscape was linked to the activities by slope and
roughness. The more challenging activities like climb-
ing rocks and sliding took place in the steepest part of
the playscape with a mean slope of 22.58(S.D.7.8),
but ranged from 15 to above 308. High values in
roughness (meanÿ0.8, S.D.4.8) favoured climb-
ing activities, but disfavoured sliding. The reason why
Table 4 shows the same values of topographical data
for both climbing rocks and sliding is because data
have been captured from the same sites for both
activities. The pro®les in Fig. 3b illustrate topography
for climbing and sliding. The other activities are
obviously favoured by a less steep and a smoother
topography (Table 4). These spatial and play activity
relations proved to have an impact on children's motor
development (Fjùrtoft, 1999 (in press)). Motor mas-
tering is an important quality in children's behaviour
and a quali®cation to be included in different social
activities. Grahn et al. (1997) also found the same
effects in kindergarten children playing in an enriched
natural environment compared to a traditional city
kindergarten. He also found that an enriched environ-
ment improved the children's concentration abilities.
Health conditions in children in the nature kindergar-
ten were also improved, as they reported less sickness
absence compared to the urban kindergarten.
5.3. Implications for physical planning
An important aspect, which needs to be further
explored, is how and to what extent diversity indices
I. Fjùrtoft, J. Sageie / Landscape and Urban Planning 48 (2000) 83±97 93
should be related to playscapes for children. In our
study, landscape diversity was related to different
structures in the topography and the vegetation, which
were important for children's spontaneous play and
activities. Diversity is also synonymous with an
enriched environment, which again stimulates and
promotes play and learning (Frost, 1992; Titman,
1994; Rivkin, 1995; Moore and Wong, 1997). Learn-
ing effects due to diversity in the landscape have been
documented in this paper (Grahn et al., 1997; Fjùrtoft,
1998 (in preparation)). It is obvious that other learning
effects from a diverse natural landscape such as nature
studies may occur through children's play and activ-
ities. Learning science from nature has not been the
focus of this paper, but learning from nature when
playing in nature may be characterized as the hidden
curriculum (Titman, 1994).
A natural environment as playscape for children
may represent a challenge demanding new attitudes in
policy and planning. In existing planning directives,
there tend to be three main criteria for playground
planning: distance from residential areas, kindergar-
tens, schools etc., area size, and safe access to the sites.
The physical planning of playgrounds has not
addressed children's needs for a diverse and stimulat-
ing playscape. In schools and kindergartens, the out-
door grounds have not been corresponding with
children's needs for affordances and challenges for
play, nor has it re¯ected the policy of the prevailing
curriculum (Adams, 1990). It is, therefore, reasonable
to suggest some new criteria to be included in planning
directives to insure playscapes with landscape quali-
ties representing affordances and challenges for chil-
dren (Fjùrtoft and Sageie, in preparation). In such a
perspective, it is also necessary to discuss an accep-
table level of risks. Playscapes with the highest level
of security tend also to represent areas with the lowest
affordances and challenges. Consequently, diversity in
landscape elements, affordances for play, challenges
and safety, accessibility and wear resistance may be
important criteria in the planning and management of
future playscapes for children.
In this study, methods from landscape ecology, and
geomorphology implemented in GIS for description
and analysis of the natural environment's suitability as
a playground for children were applied. For this
purpose, we successfully used some of the methods,
but more remains to be explored. Applied as a tool for
planning and management for natural playscapes,
some implications of the methods should be
addressed. Necessary spatial resolution in data
depends on the purpose of the study. The geometric
accuracy range of the mapping methods was 10±15 m
for the less accurate data. For our purpose, descrip-
tions of the topography and the vegetation types are at
a typical scale for botanical studies, i.e. some m
tentatively estimated to be suf®cient. Consequently,
for practical planning use, the vegetation map may be
useful but not a must for describing and selecting
suitable playscapes. But for more scienti®c descrip-
tion and analyses of play habitats, a vegetation map
adds information. For detailed analyses of the land-
scape, ecology detailed vegetation data are most
For the slope and roughness analyses, we have not
explored all the possibilities available in GIS. The
divergence in roughness value (Table 4), and evalua-
tion results of the reference pro®les (Fig. 3b) showed
that a more distinct classi®cation of play habitats is
necessary. The children's use of the landscape
over time might in¯uence its ecology. In this study,
the time perspective was too short to register any
ecological change due to the children's use of the
landscape. However, this might be a topic of serious
concern in planning and selecting natural playscapes
For the calculation of edge contrasts, the patches
were weighted subjectively, i.e. a reasoned guess
based on observed contrasts between the patches
(McGarigal and Marks, 1998). This of course in¯u-
enced the reliability of these data.
In theory, the appropriate scale of study is the
smallest scale which an organism perceives and
responds to (e.g. Forman, 1997; McGarigal and
Marks, 1998). In our case, the user was the child,
and the child perceives functions rather than forms
(Gibson, 1979). Perhaps, the scale should be more
function-related and linked to points and special fea-
tures in the playscape, for example, a special feature, a
climbing tree or a sliding slope.
The focus on the natural environment as a play-
ground and learning arena is a way of rediscovering
94 I. Fjùrtoft, J. Sageie / Landscape and Urban Planning 48 (2000) 83±97
nature's way of teaching, or `learning from nature'.
Hart (1982), Naylor (1985), Moore (1986), Heft
(1988), Matthew (1992), Titman (1994), Rivkin
(1995) and Moore and Wong (1997) have discussed
the importance of the natural environment as a part
of children's growth and development. The key
concepts from previous studies and the present one
are the importance of `green structures and loose
parts' and multivariable possibilities for versatile play.
Our study showed a strong relation between landscape
structures and play functions. Different landscape
elements afforded different and speci®c possibilities
for play. There was a positive relation between play
activities and the diversity in vegetation types and
physiognomy of trees and shrubs, i.e. building dens
was linked to scattered shrub vegetation, climbing
trees was linked to pines in the summer time and to
young deciduous trees in winter. The diversity of
topography expressed as slope and roughness also
provided diversity in play activities. Steep slopes were
linked to sliding and steep and rough cliffs were
challenging for climbing. More even landscape struc-
tures were used for running activities, role-play and
games. This corresponded with Gibson's theory of
affordances (1979) which explained the composition
of the environment as functions for use. The children
interpreted these affordances and adapted them into
functions for play. These functions have proved an
impact on motor development in children as well as
preventive health effects. The overall conclusion from
the present study may be that natural landscapes
represent potential grounds for playing and learning
and this has to be taken into serious consideration for
future policy and planning of outdoor grounds for
The authors appreciate the regular communication
with the producers of FRAGSTATS*ARC spatial
pattern analysis program. We would like to acknowl-
edge the supervision of Senior Engineer J. Hofsten on
®eld inventory and vegetation mapping. We are
indebted to Professor J. Heggenes, Dr. W. Dramstad
and Professor K. Nicolaysen for comments and sug-
gestions on this manuscript, and to Assistant Professor
P.K. Halle for proof-reading.
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Ingunn Fjùrtoft is Assistant Professor, Department of Teacher
Education, Telemark College, Norway; Cand. real (M.Sc.) in
Biology, University of Trondheim, Norway; Cand. mag. (B.A.) in
Sport Sciences and Physical Education, Norwegian College of
Sports, Oslo; Ph.D. student at the Norwegian College of Sports,
Oslo; areas of professional interest: early childhood, Children and
environment, playgrounds and natural playscapes.
Jostein Sageie is Chief Engineer, Institute of Informatics
and Mathematical Studies, Telemark College, Norway; Senior
Consultant, Geographical Information Systems; Project leader `Co-
operation Land Reform Project' in Lithuania; GIS/Mapping
Consultant for Ministry of Planning and International Co-operation
(MOPIC) Palestine; GIS/GPS Consultant for `Norwegian
Archadian Survey Project' in Greece; areas of professional
interest: use and implementation of Geographical Information
I. Fjùrtoft, J. Sageie / Landscape and Urban Planning 48 (2000) 83±97 97