Children play on sloped log climbers

The outdoor learning environment at the University of Guelph Child Care and Learning Centre (CCLC) has won a national award from the Canadian Society of Landscape Architects (CSLA) for its innovative design.

Designed by landscape architects at Earthscape Play Inc. and completed in 2019, the play space was conceived in collaboration with CCLC educators and administrators to create a design that integrates the latest research on children’s learning with plenty of natural materials.

Located near the University’s Arboretum, the unique outdoor learning environment eschews typical playground materials of plastic and metal for natural materials such as logs and wood chips.

Children push brooms on a rubber sand-bridge in the CCLC playspace

These materials allow children to explore and feel part of their environment, which includes 50 varieties of trees, shrubs, grasses and perennials.

“The design was definitely inspired by the arboretum next door,” said CCLC director Valerie Trew. “The logjam feature, for example, is inspired by the type of forest in the arboretum. Our classrooms are also named after native tree species found in the arboretum, so it’s a place that’s very special to us.”

The CSLA national awards are chosen by a cross-Canada jury of landscape architects to honour features including distinctive design and sustainable landscape management.

Naturalized playground offers open-ended experiences

In selecting the CCLC outdoor learning environment under the small-scale public landscape category, the jury noted the space’s “low-key design approach, with a mix of rustic and manufactured materials arranged in an unassuming manner.”

The panel added that having loose parts and natural play elements surrounded by plant groups was “well thought out” with accessibility in mind.

Children play and climb on logs within the playspace

“One of the advantages of a naturalized playground is that it can offer more open-ended experiences than a traditional playground that often has elements that are meant to be used for one purpose,” said CCLC pedagogical leader Kimberly Squires.

“This design offers the children varied opportunities to explore play and learning in ways that are meaningful for them as they grow, which fits with our pedagogical approach.”

The CCLC was designed to meet all safety regulations while presenting young children with opportunities to play and learn through exploration, to experience self-directed, risky play and to navigate complex environments.

“Everyone involved did such a beautiful job of incorporating thoughtful design into this outdoor learning environment,” said Trew. “We are very much looking forward to using the space at its peak potential this spring.”


Valerie Trew, CCLC director