Picture your favourite place to play as a child. Perhaps it was a hidden nook in the woods, the rambling creek behind your house, or the hundred-year-old elm tree in the schoolyard. Call to mind the vivid smells, sounds and stories evoked by that magical space. Did it make you feel safe? Powerful? Creative? Those feelings—that natural space—carried you through childhood and, if you’re lucky, inform the person you are today. At Bienenstock, we tirelessly seek out projects that allow us to provide these spaces for a new generation of children around the world.
How did we get here? In 1984, residential designer Adam Bienenstock was asked to design a playground. His nature-based approach involved boulders and ropes strung along a creek. He was told he “missed the mark,” but never fully understood why his vision was “wrong.” He’d merely designed a playground that mimicked his own favorite childhood experiences. As the son of a world-renowned immunologist who focused on the relationship between biodiversity and the immune system, and a psychiatrist who focused on stress and anxiety, Adam had an intrinsic understanding of the therapeutic powers of the natural world. Intellectually, he was off and running.
Meantime, Jill began her teaching career at Holland Bloorview’s Play and Learn program in Toronto, working within an integrated setting in which half the children had special needs and the other half did not. The program focused on creating a multi-sensory environment to support experiential learning. Over time, Jill realized that the natural world provided the best environment to foster this type of learning. By allowing nature to be the “third teacher,” educators can take their direction from students’ interests, in turn providing truly child-led education. Additionally, natural playspaces offer gross motor, creative, dramatic, social, and quiet areas that provide opportunities for all children to play and belong.
Alongside his professional reputation, Adam’s activist spirit was burgeoning. He met author and environmental education advocate Richard Louv and studied the seminal work of Canadian doctor Fraser Mustard, who focused on children’s developmental needs. It’s not a coincidence that Adam started focusing solely on natural playgrounds around the time that he became a parent. Someone, he realized, needed to take responsibility for building natural playspaces; inspired by Louv, who famously said, “We don’t know everything, but we know enough to act,” Adam decided to act. To build. In doing so, he has become a global leader in the field of natural playground design.