The Importance of Play: Jane Tesner Kleiner from nature+play designs

August 18, 2022 by Clayton Truscott

This week, we’re discussing ‘play’ as a design and engagement element that can help transform buildings, public sites, and communities into more connected spaces. In part one, we interviewed Jeanne Bennett and Mary Sisson, Board Chair and Secretary at Columbia Play Project. In part two, we spoke with LSW Associate Principal, Kurt Zenner, through the elements of play that carry a theme through the design of an educational environment.

We’re excited to move the conversation outdoors, into the realm of nature play, one of the most uncomplicated, automatic pastimes for kids around the world. Whether you’re someone who creates bug hotels, a tree climber or a quiet observer, the outdoors is welcoming to all. In recent years, due to the mental, emotional and physical benefits of being in nature, the built and natural environment have been getting closer together, even overlapping where possible.

Jane Tesner Kleiner, RLA
To dive deeper in the science and magic of nature play, we spoke with Jane Tesner Kleiner, who has been designing imaginative and inspiring landscapes for over two decades. She is currently Principal at nature+play designs and works in both the public and private sector as a lead designer and owner’s rep. The team at LSW has been immensely fortunate to work with her on a range of school projects for both Evergreen Public Schools and Vancouver Public Schools. Her depth of insight and ability to draw out the needs of students has led to play areas and landscapes bringing life and vibrancy to the site in ways that seem both magical and entirely natural.

As a Registered Landscape Architect who has worked with state and county governments, she brings a wealth of experience to her craft. We discussed how she uses her knowledge base as a filter to tap into the minds of learners and school officials, and in turn, translating those aspects into playful designs.

MLK Outdoors

Acting as the owner's representative, nature+play designs was the consulting firm for the outdoor play, classrooms and sensory garden at Martin Luther King Junior Elementary School. Photo: Riff_

How do you approach a new nature play area and what are some of your first steps to gathering ideas?

I’ve been doing this work for over 25 years and have spent a lot of time at recess, talking to kids, teachers and staff. That’s where I learn best and spend a lot of time listening.

When I work on schools or parks, I think about the functionality of the space and make sure there is something for everyone. There are a lot of great conversations right now about providing spaces for all needs and abilities, from high risk to all ability features. There has to be something for everyone.

Kids always come up with the best ideas. In my mind, almost anything’s possible, except for the one thing kids usually ask for: a zipline from the roof to the playground. Sounds fun, but I’ve yet to hear from a facilities staff member who would sign off on one. But this really tells you something about what kids are asking for: risk.

Risk means different things to different people. As a designer, you need to find balance and then weave the idea of risk into what’s manageable and realistic in terms of the site conditions, ADA guidelines, as well as what’s inclusive and safe. I use a lot of photos and visuals to help clients see what’s possible and then zero in on what they like to help us build the vision together.


Acting as the owner's representative for Vancouver Public Schools, nature+play designs supported the LSW design team and consulted on campus improvements. Scope included play, learning and wellness features includes garden classroom, butterfly and sensory garden, outdoor classrooms, and specialty features. Photo: Riff_

How does play intersect with exercise and educational programming in a school setting?

I am a true believer that children need daily unstructured playtime. We’ve learned that recess is one of the most important periods of the day, because it helps their brains rewire and process, so that they’re ready to learn when they come back into the building.

It’s not just about getting their wiggles out. Play helps to activate their brain so that they can focus. Research has shown that kids tend to have a better attention span and focus when they’re outside, so that’s why we’re creating outside classrooms and learning environments– because it is literally helping them to learn, engage, and connect better.

Older kids, especially middle schoolers, love to climb high and feel like they’ve challenged themselves. When we take risk and adventure out of play, children lose the opportunity to process certain challenges that will benefit them later in life. For example, do you want to hire someone who has never taken on a challenge or a risk? Employers want folks who understand what it means to take on challenges and work through difficult situations. And that’s why it is so important to do that as a child.

School campuses tend to have an abundance of land that is generally underutilized and undervalued when it comes to ways that play can be incorporated. For example, when you look at a high school and the distribution of space, typically there are a lot of sports fields. And when you look at the percentage or populace of students attending, a small portion of them play outdoor sports. So, what do the other students do to recreate and relax? For many students, play may just be walking and talking with friends. Others may just want to toss a ball whiling talking with friends. Play and recreation spaces can accommodate active, passive and quiet type of play.

Modern playground design has changed significantly in recent years. Can you elaborate on some of the ways that you bring different perspectives and modalities to the field of nature play design?

Most new playgrounds are not ‘climb here, slide there’ anymore. They (play areas) are meant to be sensory experiences that engage your imagination, stimulate curiosity and wonder. This is what makes our brains healthy, no matter what age you are. You want to see log stump play or opportunities for kids to try their gross motor skills when they don’t have a strong core body, or fine motor skills to pick things up and sort them in a sensory garden.

My number one goal is to support their curiosity and wonder, to make them laugh and gasp and ask, ‘woah – did you see that?’ Whether it’s a caterpillar or bug. or a big structure to climb, there’s got to be something in it for everyone. I know, from an ecology standpoint, how to plant things in ways that encourages kids to explore and look deeper, challenge themselves and feel that sense of personal reward from discovery.

One of the things that I really try to focus on with the schools is having different kinds of play settings, so that every kid feels that they have a space where they can play. Whether it’s a park or a playground or a quiet nook to take a break and decompress.

I usually try to break it into three groups: super active, slightly active, and quiet play. Quiet play doesn’t mean that they don’t need to get the wiggles out, but it just means that they need something else to engage their minds and imagination. Quiet nooks and places that offer hyper-sensitive children a break from all of the stimulation – without any stigma. All of the spaces are neutral, welcoming, set up in different languages and communicative signs for non-verbal students. We need to create play spaces for all kinds of play and all kinds of needs. Play can look like many different things and it’s okay that it changes from day to day.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.