Texas Tech University


2023 National ASLA
Award of Excellence in Research


The Play Value of Plants

Opportunities to play with loose parts play materials in early childhood are critical for play and learning behaviors associated with curiosity, imagination, exploration, experimentation, construction, and reflection. Plants are one of the leading sources of natural loose parts in outdoor learning environments. Most available loose parts play materials in a natural learning landscape are byproducts of plants. Moreover, plant-derived loose parts offer various sensory stimulation to children, including smell, texture, and color, with rich play and learning props helping children to learn about seasonal changes, plant life cycles, etc. Early childhood is the time when children are eager to discover nature as they spontaneously learn from their surrounding environments, and plant-based loose parts are a great fit to meet such curiosity of young children. Although loose parts play has long been researched for its critical contribution to developmentally appropriate play and learning behaviors, child-friendly planting design to promote plant-based natural loose parts in outdoor learning environments is an under-researched area. In this four-phased research, a planting design concept has been developed, keeping loose-parts play as the primary focus of the design. The first phase of the research compiled existing literature and databases on plants for play. Later, the plant resources of a nature-based preschool site were analyzed to identify plants and their associated play values to compare the plant list with existing plant databases. In the second phase, the nature-based outdoors was compared with a regular ‘low-nature' outdoor environment of a different center using GIS-based behavior mapping and video data. Also, an intervention pre- and post-research was conducted on the 2nd site by introducing natural and non-natural loose parts play materials on the site. The behavior mapping was focused on various play and learning behaviors of preschool-aged (3-5 years old) children. This part of the research aims to investigate how introducing loose parts play opportunities in a preschool outdoor learning environment influences both environmental affordances and the learning behaviors of children. Results showed that the nature-based environment with a higher number and diversity of plants and plant-based loose parts provided a greater number and quality of affordances in terms of play, learning, and social behaviors. Also, both the variety and the behavioral occurrences of learning behaviors of children increased after the loose part play intervention in the low-nature site. Based on the data from the 1st and 2nd phases, the third phase of this research attempted to develop a ‘playful' planting palette appropriate for the semi-arid climate zone of Texas. The planting palette was developed based on literature and expert opinion and aimed to maximize the amount and supply of natural plant-based loose parts on the site year-round. The fourth phase (proposed), based on the results of the first three phases, would finalize and implement the planting design in the CDRC lab site in 2023-24.   

Student: Nazia Afrin Trina