Desert Plants for Nature Playscapes: Fairy Duster

If you thought brittlebush was the star of spring, here’s the hot tamale of April–the fairy duster. Yes, it is practically summer already but this little beauty will keep on giving and not just in blooms.

red fairy duster

Calliandra californica


You can readily find fairy duster at nurseries in Phoenix because it is a popular landscape plant in the Southwest. Of course they are, why…

Hardiness: If you are going to survive in the desert, you are going to have a few tricks up your sleeve. This is a true desert native that can withstand high temps, low water, gravelly dirt and compacted conditions and keep looking pretty and fresh any way. Like the brittlebush, the fairy duster can withstand a child running  or jumping through its shrubby form.

Flowers: Fairy duster comes in pink or red. Pink is the Calliandra eriophylla. And red is the Calliandra californica. You don’t have to remember the scientific names. Both of these are easily recognizable and any nursery worker will know what you mean when you ask for fairy dusters.


pink fairy duster, Calliandra eriophylla

pink fairy duster, Calliandra eriophylla

Those sweet red or pink flowers are really amazing. There are no petals, just the sexual parts–eek–exposed. The colorful stalks are the male sexual parts (filaments and anthers) covered with yellow pollen. Female parts are tucked underneath. While I don’t anticipate for the early childhood educators to bother getting into the nitty-gritty of the birds and the bees, these are great flowers to show older biology students who often need extremes to see differences in the world. The pull for the younger set is that these bundles of red or pink thread look the a fairy’s dusting wand, should a fairy need to dust… well, it is the desert and there is a lot of dust. (Get to work, fairies!)

Texture: Along with the lovely soft flower puffs, the leaves have a cool texture to them. The leaves are small–about 1 inch long and made up of even tinier leaflets. Their dark green color provides a nice color contrast too that adds to that sense of texture.

Not prickly: Hooray, another plant that meets the touch test–no prickles, no spines, no thorns.

Low maintenance: This is another one you just plant, water the first year and then let it grow! Landscapers will try to prune this into some stupid looking cube shape–shoo them off, this plant knows how to grow without any interference. In fact, if they do prune it, there will be several weeks of stubby stick ends at toddler eye level–tell the landscape crew that is a hazard and completely unacceptable–no pruning, thank you!

Drawbacks: Can’t think of any. Yes, there will be some bees pollinating it but mainly you will get butterflies (Butterflies!) especially the little marine blues that are about 1/2 inch long at most and just as dainty looking at the fairy dusters that they love.

Affordance: This is where the imagination runs wild. Tell the little ones it’s a fairy’s duster and they will be playing fairies for hours. Or don’t say a word and leave little doll house items and natural building materials in strategic places and the children will put two and two together. This plant can easily stand being plucked of feathery flowers and of the soft green leaves too (makes great potions and bowers).

Landscaping tips: Fairy duster will slowly grow to a natural rounded box shape of about 3-4 feet high and 3-4 feet wide. It can handle full sun no problem and will get leggy if planted in deep shade. Plant with boulders to further heighten the contrast in texture (that’s fun and looks good and probably feng shui though I don’t know anything about feng shui). Water the first year to get the plant established and then water between the monsoons and the winter rains (hmmm, do the math and that equals watering in October and early May). It will be the first to flower in spring and the final bloomer still holding on in May and might even bloom with monsoon rains too.

Plant, plant, plant. The more the merrier!

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Desert Plants for Nature Play Places: Brittlebush

Here’s one you can’t miss, the Star of Spring–the brittlebush!

Why is it the star of spring–drive anywhere in the Phoenix or Tucson area and you will see this plant in spring stealing your heart with its yellow flowers.


Brittlebush is easily recognized alongside the road because of its gray foliage and halo of bright yellow flowers.


This native plant has a lot going for it and I hope to sell you on the idea that the brittlebush is really a must have for your nature playscape.

Drought-tolerant: Up there in the top 10 for drought-tolerance, the brittlebush, once established, can be watered solely by nature alone even in the heart of Phoenix.

Hardiness: The brittlebush is a tough nut. It can withstand compact soils and even rough treatment. If run through (as is the norm at preschool sites), it will come back with the next rainy season. Picking leaves, picking flowers–this plant will recover from being touched.

Color: The brittlebush has two colors–the bright yellow flowers and the frosty mint leaves and stems. That frosty color is actually hair (trichomes, scientifically speaking) grown to protect the leaves and stems from the blazing sun.

Texture: This brings us to the sensory bonus. Those trichomes are soft and fuzzy, affording all kinds of hands-on imaginative play.

Not prickly: That is a rare plus here in the desert where every living thing is trying to protect itself.

Low maintenance: You might think that perfectly formed half-snowball shape takes work… nope. Along with being drought-tolerant, the brittlebush takes care of its own pruning needs too. In fact, best to not let the landscape crew touch it at all.

Flowers: The brittlebush flowers profusely every spring creating a halo of yellow flowers about 6-12 inches above the ball shaped shrub’s leaves. But that’s not all. The brittlebush will flower anytime it rains, so expect flowers again with the monsoons of summer and again during the gentle winter rains. And if it gets watered, it will probably flower in between too.

The bittlebush’s hardiness, softness and color make it a perfect edition to your nature playscape for any age group, especially for preschool.


A touchable plant that affords a variety of play types.

So, what’s not to love? Yellow flowers are bee’s “bee’s knees.” Bees love yellow. Teachers of small children hate bees. Did you know there are over 200 species of bees in Arizona and they all love yellow? But this does not mean that your brittlebush will be covered with bees–most likely not. I have yet to see one teeming with bees. A few bees, yes. If it flowers, there will be be bees. That’s nature. If you have a lot of bees that’s a hive issue, not a brittlebush issue.

Landscaping tips for brittlebush: Due to it’s soft texture and compact round shape, it looks great with hard forms–walls, steps, trees, buildings, fences. Brittlebushes grow to about 2-3 feet high and 3 feet wide and can be placed close to other plants or built environments. Plant in full sun–it can take it! Plant where it will not get extra water during a deluge–iow don’t plant them at a downspout (there is something called too much of a good thing). Plant it where the soil drains quickly; the brittlebush doesn’t like to sit in standing water.

At a native plant nursery near you pick up some brittlebush, Encelia farinosa, seeds or a started plant. Don’t be the type that removes all the nature in your nature playscape. Let your yellow bloom!


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Desert Botanical Garden Unveils the Design of Their Long-Anticipated Children’s Garden with Speaker Richard Louv

by Nikki Julien,

Richard Louv was the keynote speaker for the Desert Botanical Garden’s Annual Member’s Meeting where he would speak on the purpose of the Children’s Garden, the design of which being unveiled that evening. As I prepared to head out to the meeting, Facebook’s Throwback Thursday reminded me that I had heard him speak exactly a year ago at the Children and Nature Network Conference. unlike most of the celebrities I have seen in concert, Louv didn’t recycle any of his material.

This man has story after story that he has experienced or heard and collected about the power and important of nature in children’s lives. He started by telling a humble story of how even after he had moved to San Diego, he hadn’t connected with the place. When he got out in nature, he finally connected to the area. He said, “I got connected to the place by connecting with the nature of the place.” He stressed the importance of focusing on what was local. “If you can name it, you can brand it,” he said. This brand would be the bridge to helping people connect with the place. He really liked the name, Sonoran Desert.

Louv continued to bring things back to children and nature—his trademark topic. Children needed opportunity to connect to nature if we want to foster a relationship to nature and the want within them to protect and care for it. “A sense of wonder if the source of spiritual life. We are shutting that window for kids, countless kids.” He predicted that the children’s garden at Desert Botanical would allow children the much needed connection to nature. He urged that natural history become as important as American history in children’s learning—it used to be.

Louv referenced the idea of “solistalgia” a word created by Glen Albrecht of Australia, which is “the distress that is produced by environmental change impacting on people while they are directly connected to their home environment.” But for children growing up with what Louv called, Nature Deficient Disorder, there is no connection in the first place.

But he did not leave on an unhappy note. He finished with the story of his experience of taking incarcerated youth of San Diego into the mountain for a camping trip and finding them at first distrustful and even fearful of nature. But after a short time, the fears dissipated and these boys who had been in gangs became young again, lost their anger and fear, and had fun playing in the stream amid the rocks and trees. He made nature connection sound so simple. And really it is.

To learn more about Richard Louv’s work go to his website:

To learn more about connecting children to  nature, visit the Children and Nature Network, which Richard Louv founded. Here is their website:


The Desert Botanical Garden’s Burgur Children’s Garden was designed by the Didier Design Group out of Fort Collins, Colorado. The firm has done several other children’s gardens including Penn State and Wichita along with the Sensory Garden at the Denver Botanic Garden. Their philosophy is “rooted in the exchange between place and making: revealing or enhancing the essence of place through the act of making” to create a sense of place (their website ).

Their design includes an area for children to pick wildflowers along with planting in raised bed gardens. There will be a replica of Barnes Butte, positioned almost at the foot of Barnes Butte for a layered effect, that will offer tunneling and climbing as the children go inside a giant spiraling canyon. A raised bed garden area will have traditional gardens along with an opportunity for children to plant too. The accompanying building will offer an indoor/outdoor creative space for two-dimensional and three-dimensional creativity. It will also be used for seasonal programming for children and special events. A somewhat traditional play area, called the Cactus Village, will be included and feature a desert theme of oversized cactus standing or fallen so children can pretend to be the small animals that use the cactus for homes.

What made me very excited was an arroyo which looked like it will be a wild space for children to play in the water and climb river boulders amid the desert wash plants. The Garden prided itself on doing the imagination during the pre-design phase by bringing in experts in child development and play along with focus groups of the target audience. The play area is sure to please the children who visit Desert Botanical Garden.

To learn more about the Desert Botanical Garden, go to their website:

To see what Nikki and NaturePlayLearning is up to, visit me at my website:

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Will you take the risk?

By Nikki Julien,


What makes a person decide to take a risk or not to take a risk?

  • Probability of success vs fear of failure
  • Looking cool vs embarrassment
  • Development of physical prowess vs potential for injury
  • Having the physical capabilities, or not
  • Being bold enough vs being too timid
  • External pressures such as peer support or bullying
  • External forces that demand moving through that challenge (ie—the bear is chasing you so face the jump or be eaten)


Imagine a cliff.


The cliff I imagined is 2 feet tall on a beach with sand at the top and sand at the bottom. Will I take the risk of jumping down the cliff? You bet! That will be fun!


Same type of cliff but 6 feet high? Hmm… I’m usually carrying the backpack and camera and pulling the dog on the leash… could get a twisted ankle… sounds like too much of an inconvenience.


But if the cliff was 10 feet tall or had alligators at the bottom—nope, definitely not willing to take the risk. Yet, if there were alligators at the top, I would be willing to entertain the 10 foot sandy cliff.


But what if you are making these decisions for the small children in your care?

What if your nature play area has a cliff? Do you keep it? How do you decide if it’s safe or not? What factors go into that decision?

Broadly, there’s the physical make-up of the cliff (design) and there’s the make-up of the jumper (user).


Design variables include:

  • Affordance of cliff (what play behaviors can be done on that cliff: jumping, sliding, climbing?)
  • Height of cliff
  • Slope of cliff
  • Geologic composition of top, bottom and slope of cliff
  • Obstacles surrounding the cliff (tree roots for example)


User variables include:

  • Age
  • Physical capacities
  • Mental capacity for decision-making
  • Risk-taking or risk-avoidance personality
  • Awareness of self and surroundings
  • External pressures


Guidelines for design in nature play exist and are helpful in making design decisions but these guidelines are not enough. More research needs to be done and is being done but will this research alone be enough to convince play managers of the general safety of nature play?


Looking for Guidelines on managing risk in nature play, try these two resources:


Managing Risk in Play Provision put out by Play England in 2008 and updated in 2012.



Nature Play and Learning Places by Robin Moore with the Natural Child Initiative in partnership with the National Wildlife Federation:


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Practice, man, practice.

In an effort to improve and expand my drawing skills, I am copying some drawings by Rusty Keeler from his book, Natural Playscapes, and his website, EarthPlay.


screened saved from

Keeler’s drawing are informative both for great design and for drawing techniques. The architectural drawing oriented from overhead gives placement and dimensions. The program notes along the side point out the play elements.


screensaved from

The artist’s rendering really come to life. This is a real benefit for showing what can happen in a nature play area for those who are confused or skeptical.


Recurring elements in nature play are becoming my favorites:

  • embankment slides
  • running pathways
  • play houses

Playscape design has to include

  • adventure
  • fun


  • safety
  • sight lines

Sometimes these are in juxtaposition. Keeler does a great job at weaving both. Landscape architecture most often features the human/built environment. In nature play, as nature playists or nature pedagogues, we want the most authentic experience–the most natural. But access to those places is tricky–buses, schedules, expense, planning. Installing nature play areas at child care centers, at schools, at churches, in backyards, allows access. The challenge for nature play designers is to make an authentic nature experience in the human/built environment.

What bring nature “home” to you?


This is my copy of his work, keeping the concept drawing lighthearted.


My copy of his rendering, trying to capture some life. The cartoon-ish people were fun and tricky.

Doing the rendering takes a lot of focus. My eye naturally translates drawings into reality. When I imagine the scene coming to life, it is very difficult for my brain to see it as a drawing. Which way does the line tilt??? Consequently, my perspective is off sometimes, so I imitate the masters, train my eye to see drawn lines. Practice. How else will I get to Carnegie Hall?



My copy of Keeler’s overhead.


My copy of Keeler’s rendering. Still struggling with the buildings but getting better.

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List: Ways to Make Nature Play Areas Safer

I hear a lot of concern about the safety of nature play spaces so I thought I would put some ideas on how to reduce hazards while still providing fun.

  • The most common accident on the playground is falls. You can soften the blow with wood chips. Put ’em down thick and spread new stuff on over the top over year. And bonus–they are natural materials and will enrich the earth at the same time–win-win!


  • Worried about impacts and falls from swings? Try hammocks instead. Use fabric instead of netting and put them low off the ground so age can use them.


  • Think big holes and small gaps. Big holes let the body and head go through, small gaps prevent the body and head from going through. Both are fine. You just don’t want the body going through and not the head (eek!).


  • Balance beams and stepping forms can readily be made out of natural materials and offer fantastic balance play value. Keep ’em low or offer rope handholds.


  • Speaking of ropes: rope courses and climbers are all the rage–lots of play value and may even be safer than rigid components like horizontal ladders. Have any ropes anchored at both ends and in groups of more than one.


But that’s the equipment and space design. Here are two more suggestions that are just as important:

  • Maintain the site. Remove litter and vandalism. Replace worn equipment.
  • Provide training for staff and volunteers on playground safety, child development, play, and nature.


I have spoken to many preschool teachers and directors who know how good outdoor play is for children and are willing to take the children outside to the play structure. But Nature… natural play is “too risky”. Even public playground owners and operators have a hard time accepting real nature as a play place. But Nature is the original playground and still the best.

We won’t eliminate accidents. Children seek out risky play and so some accidents we just can’t prevent. But we can reduce hazards. Want to know more about how to make your playground safer (whether it’s at your school your backyard, the local park or a national park ) read the Consumer Products Safety Commission’s guidelines on playground safety.  Put your natural play elements under inspection and see if they pass the test.


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List: What nature play areas naturally have…

… that plastic climber type playgrounds do not:

  • tripping hazards (protruding rocks and tree roots, round loose materials such as pebbles and acorns, uneven ground)OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA
  • untidiness: twigs and leaves that have fallen, fruit/nuts that have dropped and gotten squashed, decaying flowers on the ground, animal poop OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA
  • wildlife living in it (insects, birds, reptiles) even in the inner-citybee-on-a-flower
  • weather coming through and being left on side (puddles, baked ground, hot play elements, frost, piles of snow)2009-second-camera-103
  • decay, it’s everywhere and happening all the time! Decay can also be invisible in nature, eating wood from the inside out.tree-decay
  • subdued color schemes (shades of greens and browns), not the noisey, alerting colors of the plastic climber type playgroundOLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA
  • rough surfaces (bark, sticks, logs, rocks, ground, leaves, weathered wood)0818161509a2
  • erosion (water channels, dust, undermined plants or play elements, dirt and mulch kicked out from under seats and logs and swings)OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Those are all also what makes nature play areas so amazingly rich and diverse and dynamic. That’s where we can study the sciences, be inspired to use compelling language to express what we see and feel, use our whole bodies to propel us forward, and so much more.

But there is another element to add to the list, the human element,…

  • the unfortunate reality: nature play areas often have less trained staff and less of a maintenance budget.

So what do we adults need to do to make sure our children have these opportunities outside?

  • willingly pay the park fee so the services are there (and clean up after yourself so the maintainence staff can do more important things than be your mother!)
  • vote and lobby for park access
  • express to all the value of nature
  • and, mostly importantly, go outside too!


See you out there!



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