Blueberries, Balancing, and Boulders

A pre-school in Jamaica Plain, MA is transformed from THIS:

Pre-school play area with climbing structure and mulch


to THIS:

Pre-school climber with new red maples and sassafras













Pre-school path to the play yard crosses bad drainage.

from THIS:



to THIS:

Toddler yard overwhelmed with play structure



and from THIS:

to THIS:

Toddler soft surfacing and arbor












Nazareth Children’s Center had a visionary director who was in the forefront of childcare providers who understand the concept of providing abundant experience for children in a lush environment.  Ginny and I  worked with the teachers (who requested that the toddler play structure be removed) and created a variety of habitats to enchant both children and wildlife.

Toddlers just learning to walk can perfect it on a smooth surface and dig in loose soil surrounded by ferns and Carex spp.

Toddler digging area

Sand, plants, and a bench for watchers





can play in sand among smooth boulders and seaside goldenrod (Solidago sempervirens),







and take a side trip through little bluestem and low-bush blueberries. Red maple (Acer rubrum), Shadbush (Amelanchier canadensis), and pagoda dogwood (Cornus alternifolia) will grow to shade the south-facing surfaces. Pre-schoolers can still climb but also run on a hidden path through smooth sumac (Rhus glabra), red maples, oaks (Quercus spp.)

A shortcut through the bean teepee

A secret path between the fence and play hill.












A low bench seats them within reach of the wondrous event that is the fuzzy aments of pussywillow (Salix discolor)

A low bench edges the Rain Garden

Sassafras (Sassafras albidum), striped maple (Acer pensylvanicum), flowering raspberry (Rubus odorata), native asters, vines, black-eyed susans, and several native fern species add the dimension of a tiny restoration of the regional plant associations.

Center swale with red maple and sassafras

A rain barrel releasing water into an otherwise dry streambed with two bridges, and a shed roof planted with a variety of shallow-rooted species, make a rainstorm a play event as well as a lesson in natural forces.

Dry streambed, weir, bridge, and pea stone "beach"


Logs are for defining space and balancing.

Opening day, and she knows exactly how to explore.

And smooth boulders (settled to no more than 18” above the surface) are both seats and slides.

Smooth boulders separate areas and more!

 Equipment quickly at hand in the shed means everyone can water the plants.

Unscripted choreography

sometimes getting side-tracked with interesting bugs.

For those interested in the construction process, it is detailed with weekly posts on our blog.


© 2011, Ruth Parnall. All rights reserved. This article is the property of Native Plants and Wildlife Gardens. We have received many requests to reprint our work. Our policy is that you are free to use a short excerpt which must give proper credit to the author, and must include a link back to the original post on our site. Please use the contact form above if you have any questions.

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    • Ruth says

      Thanks for the comment, Donna. It’s gratifying to see how both children and wildlife respond to these enriched habitats.

  1. says

    What impresses me the most is that you were able to get it all put in without somebody going “Oh my god, a hard surface! The children will fall on the rocks and die!” or “Plants! They will EAT THEM!” every step of the way. It looks glorious!
    UrsulaV recently posted..Fuzzy-Wuzzy

    • Ruth says

      We are very careful about plants said to be toxic, especially where there are toddlers. And we have to leave out many nice natives on account of it (e.g. Virginia creeper). Boulders are always a concern, but as a colleague has said, teachers have to take responsibility by talking to children about ground rules…like no flip-flops for clambering on boulders, no pushing (and other general civil behavior). We make sure there are no sharp edges, and that each boulder is lower than the height required by a “fall zone.”

      The one thing about the soft surfacing on the path here…no spike heels.

  2. says

    Our chapter of the Native Plant Society is working on planting native gardens at some of our local schools. Nothing as visionary as what you have there. What a fabulous design and concept. I always say: TEACH THEM YOUNG!!
    Loret recently posted..Pond Prank


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