Connecting Pathways And Pocket Parks

Remember the excitement of discovering something new around the bend of the creek or the curve in the path through the woods?

Remember sidewalks that provided a way to move through a small town?

Remember when kids spent time playing outdoors?

Richard Louv’s book "Last Child in the Woods" brings to light the need for children to spend time in nature and enjoy its myriad benefits. Researcher Martin S. Carlson notes that in the past 40 years in the United States, the number of children and adolescents walking or biking to and from school has declined by about half to fewer than 15 percent.

Over time, the independent mobility of children has rapidly disappeared for various reasons; therefore, communities need to think more deliberately about how to make pathways attractive and safe to kids while making parents feel secure.

The sense of adventure that most children feel during childhood is the same type of excitement, exercise, community connection, and learning that "Pathways to Play: Best Practice Guidelines" is helping communities create in an urban setting.

The idea is to design pocket playgrounds that will reintroduce that sense of adventure, wonder, and discovery, while offering participants pathway connections to move by themselves with limited interaction with motor-vehicle traffic.

Key Benefits

Researchers at Natural Learning Initiative, College of Design at North Carolina State University, with the support of PlayCore Inc. representatives and the American Trails Advisory Board, created the guidelines.

“This began from a conversation while strategic planning a primary goal of how to get kids and families using the trails in meaningful ways,” says Lisa Moore, Vice President of Corporate Strategic Services for PlayCore.

“The American Trails Association noticed trails are not being used by children’s families,” says Robin Moore, Dipl. Arch., MCP, director of the Natural Learning Initiative, professor of landscape architecture at North Carolina State University, and author of the guidelines.

“That is of great concern because of the investment in the systems and especially the health issues children are facing with not exercising and not being in contact with nature. Nature features an environment that is interactive, healthy, and constantly changing. There is always something new to find.”

Pathways serve multiple purposes:

• Promoting spontaneous play

• Increasing outdoor physical activity

• Increasing independent mobility

• Reducing traffic danger

• Increasing contact with nature

• Connecting meaningful childhood destinations

• Increasing use by adults and children.

The benefits of pathways include:

• Extending play value

• Enabling health promotion

• Expanding inclusion

• Engaging with nature

• Reinforcing environmental literacy

• Creating community connectivity through walking and biking

• Increasing community social capital.

Monoliths Versus Pockets

Rather than a monolithic mega-playground that parents have to survey with the fierce intensity of a military commander, smaller theme-based playgrounds, peppered along trails, greenways, sidewalks, or around the next bend, are becoming the latest trend in offering constituents healthy, active lifestyle choices.

The play pockets blend together with natural, living, and manufactured components, and vary in size and scope.

The idea is to play on a human’s inherent wanderlust to get people moving from one pocket playground to the next. The kids play on the equipment at one playground, and then move via foot or bike to the next pocket playground.

There are several benefits for this, including decreasing the sheer number of children centralized on one large playground, increasing cardiovascular health since users opt to travel to the next exciting venue, and giving parents the option to actively participate in play or take a much-needed break without fear of losing track of little Suzy.

“Pathways to Play provides a new, linear form of play environment different to the clustered playground of manufactured play equipment,” Robin Moore says.

“The linear form makes it easier to include play pockets and to mix specially designed, commercially manufactured components with natural elements to encourage discovery and continuous movement.”

Big Butterflies, Trees, And Trails

Consider the butterfly metamorphosis playground located along a trail adjacent to the Springfield-Greene County Botanical Center complex in Springfield, Mo.

“The butterfly play pocket is a good example because it reinforces something that is already going on in the gardens, which have a greenhouse with butterflies inside,” Robin Moore relates.

“When children are navigating around the greenway, they come across this large-scale play pocket that represents the lifecycle of a butterfly. The chrysalis, larvae, and butterfly--which is a sculptural piece children can climb on and inside of it.”

The butterfly information is enhanced further with educational panels to inform parents and provide simple messages for children.

“It is easily attractive as a play destination because it is colorful, slide-able, climbable, sit-able; there is a cubby hole, and children can play inside and look out of it,” Moore continues. “It is a multifaceted play environment setting for children to explore.”

Another play pocket features large trees tucked into a wooded setting that children can climb.

“The interpretive boards share educational fun facts and activities as well as encourage the kids to try the activities while playing,” says Lisa Moore.

The combination of various views for kids and the mixing up of cozy spaces and open play areas brings a sense of adventure and discovery to the pathway.

Your Pocket Plan

Some early adopters of this new way of thinking are South Creek Linear Park in Springfield, Mo., Riverpoint Park in Tennessee Riverpark, Chattanooga, Tenn., and Hinshaw Greenway in Cary, N.C.

“Rather than adult-oriented pathways, each of these areas has attractive play opportunities,” Robin Moore says. “It is important to consider how the pathways can be configured in urban parks, especially in the larger parks, with a network of pathways to different destinations.”

To begin considering this new approach, review what your park already has available. Are there greenways? Are there elements such as greenhouses, fountains, water playgrounds, schools, a neighborhood, etc., that attract people?

Next, develop a community of people including park supporters and local interest groups that represent children and families.

“Send out messages to people, and have everything online,” says Robin Moore.

“And start asking questions. Find out whether or not they use the trail system. Why not? What would it take to get them to use it? Is it friendly towards bikes? Is it safe? Start building a connection to the communities, and create a discussion of the community level, and then bring the idea to the park advisory board.”

If funds are tight, host a landscape design competition through the state chapter of American Society of Landscape Architects. Plus, since the play pockets can be developed one piece at a time, the start-up costs are reduced.

Focus instead on installing a series of play pockets over the course of several years, with the primary goal of connecting where people live and making the trail a part of everyday life.

Tammy York is the owner of LandShark Communications LLC which specializes in media and public relations for outdoor recreation businesses. Her book, 60 Hikes Within 60 Miles: Cincinnati, is available online and in bookstores. You can reach her at