Designers Speak: Choosing to Rock

by Jim Wike, Landscape Architect, Nature Explore

Rocks. Some may think my head is full of them and others will share my love for them. Some will have collections while others dislike them in the soil, but the burning question I have been asked is, “What makes a good rock in a children’s landscape?” So, here are my thoughts and some questions for you to consider.

1. What’s your intent? Is it for sitting, climbing, walking on, drawing on or to use as art props?  If you are looking for a sitting rock consider comfort and smooth corners. Look at chairs designed for the general size of the folks you are trying to seat and approximate that for the height above ground. Climbing rocks are difficult to find naturally but should have ample hand and footholds. As with traditional playground equipment, remember to provide adequate impact surfacing and use zones under and around the chosen climbing rock. Flat stones, sometimes referred to as flagging, are great as paving for pathways or to designate “rooms”.  Look for generally flat stones with little or no raised portions that may be an unintended tripping hazard. A non-slip surface is best.  Find stones that are not too smooth with some textural variety. If you would like to use rocks as art props, soft stone can be collected to carve into or to use as drawing or mark making tools. Stones also contain natural colors that can sometimes be quite vibrant and a pleasant surprise when a paintbrush full of water is introduced.

2. What is the source? I like to recommend local or regional sources if possible for a few reasons. First, it ties into the local geology facilitating further discussion with users and visitors. Secondly, it is much more economical because a good portion of the cost of stone is influenced by freight costs. Thirdly, it is much easier to understand the environmental impact of choosing a stone when it comes from your local community. Much is quarried in fairly traditional ways and that usually includes some buffering influences on the act of stone extraction. Other times there may be issues with the way stone is gathered and brought to market. Being familiar with the source of stone enables you to make measured choices about its use.

3. What is the message? Be aware that the choice of materials says much about the sincerity of your mission. If you are serious about the wise use of resources, your choice of rock or stone should be serious as well. Source and the permanence of the installation of stone sends a message. Plan for adaptive reuse if your installation is short term. Use long-standing installation techniques if your use is intended for longer term.

Rock and stone are beautiful materials. Once you have made a choice, take time to enjoy their color and texture. The children that engage in your space surely will.