Hillslides are one of the most popular components of our Outdoor Learning Environments, creating a more natural (and fun!) approach to an age-old playground favorite. But what exactly is a hillslide?
In simple terms, a hillslide is exactly what it sounds like: a hill with a slide on it. That’s how many landscape architects, playground planners, and “so-called” natural playground designers think. Their designs include a hill, access steps, flowers, rocks, boulders, plants and trees. Any adult that sees their creation would say it’s beautiful, but any child that has to live with it throughout their preschool career might have a different point of view.
While these traditional hillslides can be aesthetically pleasing, they are not built with play in mind. Children can’t walk up the hill due to the rocks, plants, and such, and as you’d expect, they can’t roll down it either for those very reasons. What they can do is walk up the set of steps and slide down the slide…and that’s it. They become nothing more than a platform with a slide and a beautifully designed set of steps.
These types of designs are a perfect example of how an adult vision of a playground is not what a child needs or wants.
When it came time to put our unique stamp on the concept of hillslides, I looked back on my own childhood playground experiences and remembered time spent at Fort Pitt in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. They had earthen mounds that were used to protect the fort from cannon fire; by the time we got to them, they were nothing more than large grass covered hills. But those simple hills were the perfect playground, and we spent countless hours running up the sides and rolling back down.
I designed my first hillslide with Fort Pitt in mind. There were no steps, no rocks, and definitely no flowers. Instead, we built a simple platform on top of a natural hill with four posts and a shade roof. The day of the opening of the hillslide, I came to remove the tape and watched as 40 children attacked the hill. I got a call from the director a few weeks later to inform me that the hillslide was being used everyday by all of the children. They had even designed cardboard boxes as race cars and were racing each other down the hill!
As time progressed, we realized the need for a sustainable hillslide that could weather the elements (and the kids!) without the expense or upkeep of watering or re-sodding. We designed a hillslide using dirt, wire mesh, concrete, and artificial turf. Not only does it last for years, but the children can roll, slide, and race faster.
Since its inception, we have installed countless turf hillslides, and even turf hills without the slide. In all cases, our sustainable hillslide has become the biggest attraction on the playground.