Playful Plants: A Guide for the Effective Integration of Nature into Children’s Outdoor Play-Spaces

The full title of this project is, "Playful Plants: Development of a Guide for the Effective Integration of Nature into Children’s Outdoor Play-Spaces in the New York Climatic Zone."

Engagement in outdoor play has been definitively linked to the healthy development of children. A growing evidence base also suggests nature-rich outdoor play-spaces may augment children’s physical, emotional, and social health by fostering motor skills development, reducing stress, mitigating symptoms of ADD/ADHD, promoting social interaction, and decreasing the prevalence of allergies, while also improving children’s knowledge of and appreciation for natural settings. However, despite growing interest in naturalized play-spaces, landscape and garden designers don’t necessarily know which plants, shrubs, and trees are best suited to play environments and to hands-on engagement by children. This proposed project is to work with several New York State Master Gardeners to develop a guide for ‘playful plants’ for the NY climatic zone that not only provide children with diverse sensory experiences but which are non-toxic and robust enough to stand up to a high level of use and engagement by children. The development of the guide will draw on the knowledge of Master Gardeners as well as insights from field observations at a CCE botanic and/or children’s garden. We propose to work with the CCE Broome County office which associated Master Gardeners as well as a public botanic garden on site which may support field observations and future play garden trials. Outcomes will include:

  1. Draft of a Playful Plants guide suited to the NYS climatic zone and recommendations for planting and care
  2. Draft a proposed plan for trialing playful plant gardens at a number of CCE demonstration gardens
  3. Develop a proposed protocol for engaging with Master Gardeners through Extension Offices across the country to develop a Playful Plants guide for each climatic zone.

While this internship will produce plans for outcomes 2 and 3, the work itself is outside the scope of this internship, and separate funding will be sought.

Roles and responsibilities 

The student intern's proposed work will involve 3 major components/responsibilities:

  1. Conducting initial research to compile existing materials related to children’s nature play needs, the sensory and engagement experiences that nature play spaces would ideally provide, and existing academic or gray literature related to playful plants.
  2. Work with Cornell Extension Associate to identify 3 Master Gardeners (MGs) to participate in the project; synthesize and present initial research to MGs for consideration; prepare and facilitate a plan for the collaborative development with MGs of a playful plants guide for the NYS climatic zone; prepare a final synthesized guide suitable for sharing with or presenting to play-space and garden designers, other MGs, etc
  3. Through engagement with MGs, will develop plans for the next step to extend and broaden the project including a plan for trialing and observing child engagement with playful plants gardens in the demonstration gardens of several Extension Offices in NYS, and a proposed protocol and tools that will allow Extension Offices/Associates in each climatic zone in the US to work with their local MGs to develop a Playful Plants guide tailored to their specific region. These playful plant guides will also eventually serve as supplemental guides to a natural play-space audit tool being developed by the faculty sponsor.

Qualifications and previous coursework

This opportunity is available to students in Cornell University's College of Human Ecology.

Ideally, the student will have had some coursework in Research Methods; would be an asset to have some knowledge of nature play or play environments, landscape design, and/or horticulture

Learning outcomes 

  • Will become versed in children’s play needs and the role of nature in facilitating play and healthy development
  • Will develop expertise in plants and natural resources that are suitable not only for the high-impact settings of play-spaces but which can potentially engage and teach children
  • Will gain experience in effectively synthesizing and communicating research material, developing and managing project plans, and producing effective learning and promotional materials
  • If in-person visits are allowed, will also gain experience in field research methods