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Natural Playgrounds for Children - Advantages and Problems

Updated on February 10, 2016
AliciaC profile image

Linda Crampton has a honours degree in biology. She has taught high school biology, chemistry, and other science subjects for many years.

A natural play area which includes slides
A natural play area which includes slides | Source

Natural and Traditional Playgrounds

A growing trend in North America and some other parts of the world is the creation of natural playgrounds for children. These playgrounds contain elements that are part of nature or are made from natural materials, such as trees, shrubs, grass, logs, stones, sand, water, wooden tree houses and wood chip trails. They contain space for children to run and play as well as natural and prefabricated materials which are movable and can be manipulated. The materials enable children to construct new objects and express their creativity.

Traditional playgrounds are often very colorful, although some are monotone and have a sterile environment. While these playgrounds help students to develop a variety of skills, the emphasis is on developing gross motor skills. Natural playgrounds help children to develop other beneficial behaviors in addition to physical skills. These behaviors include social skills, cooperation and the ability to solve problems. In addition, natural playgrounds stimulate a child's imagination and creativity more than a traditional playground. Natural playgrounds may also help children to appreciate nature and to learn about their environment.

Creating a Natural Playground in a Park

Play is a vital activity for healthy child development. In addition to being fun, appropriate play activities enable students to develop physical fitness, muscle coordination, balance and confidence. Play also enables them to develop appropriate behaviors that will be useful to them throughout their lives. It often improves their academic performance as well.

Adventure playgrounds often have some features in common with natural playgrounds. They frequently contain naturalistic elements and are designed to stimulate a child's imagination.
Adventure playgrounds often have some features in common with natural playgrounds. They frequently contain naturalistic elements and are designed to stimulate a child's imagination. | Source

Components of Traditional Playgrounds

A traditional playground contains manufactured equipment made of metal or brightly colored plastic. The equipment includes climbers, monkey bars, slides, swings and teeter-totters (seesaws). The playground is fun for children to visit and is a good place for developing physical skills. However, it's accompanied by risk, especially for young children. Using much of the equipment in a traditional playground increases a child's elevation and may result in injuries if he or she falls. Playground designers sometimes try to reduce this risk by having a thick wood chip surface under the play structures. Although this lessens the risk, it's still there.

Improving the safety of a traditional playground can create problems. If designers decrease the height of the equipment in order to increase safety, the playground is often considered to be boring by older children. In addition, in the safer playground the children may lose the sense of accomplishment that they can get from climbing to a high height and from swinging on monkey bars.

In general, risk is lower in a natural playground than in a traditional playground, although this isn't always true. There is another major difference between a traditional playground and a natural playground. The traditional playground provides ready-made items for a child's entertainment. An important goal of a natural play area is to stimulate children to create some of their own items for entertainment. Creating new objects can give children a sense of achievement.

Enjoying an Interesting Play Area

Components of a Natural Play Area

A natural playground is a small piece of nature containing a variety of different mini-environments. It usually contains trees and other plants - or plant materials - such as shrubs, tree stumps and logs. There may be open, grassy areas as well as areas shaded by trees. There are generally spaces appropriate for active play, creative play or quiet time. A natural playground often contains a sandy area beside a water channel and may have a rocky area as well. The terrain in the playground is generally varied and may contain one or more hills. Trails are usually winding instead of following a straight and regular path.

A successful natural play area contains lots of movable objects that children can manipulate and use for construction projects. Examples of natural movable objects include sand, water, twigs, logs, pebbles, rocks and fallen leaves. Prefabricated items like buckets, spades, bits of plastic piping, string and fabric may also be provided for children to used in their creative work. The idea is to provide the necessary tools for the children to create objects formed in their imagination, providing them with interesting and entertaining challenges.

Benefits of Natural Playscapes

Interesting Additions

A natural playground may contain wooden objects such as a tree house, a bridge, seats and tables. An outdoor musical instrument made of wood can be a lovely addition. While these objects aren't natural and merely mimic nature, they can be an enjoyable and valuable component of the play area.

Sometimes other manufactured objects that resemble natural ones are incorporated into a play area. One example of these objects is a hobbit-like cave that has real grass growing on its roof, as shown in the video below. Natural playgrounds may also contain an element from a traditional playground. For example, they may have slides built into hills, which give children the joy of sliding without the danger of falling off.

A Natural Play Area on School Grounds

Benefits of Natural Playgrounds - Cooperation and Construction

It's important that there are constructive things for children to do in a natural playground. For example, children often like to dig in sand, create dams in water channels, stack stones or other objects and build or make things. Their creations can give children great satisfaction.

Researchers have found that as children plan and carry out construction projects in natural play areas they are often working cooperatively with other children. The projects may require children to think creatively, innovate and problem solve. As they collect and manipulate objects and fit them together the children are developing their spatial awareness abilities. They may also be practicing math!

Natural Playscapes

Stimulating Imagination and Creativity

A natural playground is a good place to play hide and seek or a game that children create themselves. A varied landscape accompanied by wooden buildings such as a tree house or a bridge can encourage children to use their imagination and play "Let's Pretend" games. So can structures that they build themselves, like tents and other shelters. Children are frequently observed using the objects and landscape in a natural playground to act out the stories that they create. Their cast of characters usually includes other children as well as themselves.

Playground Photos

Click thumbnail to view full-size
A tree trunk to climb on the grounds of a schoolSome natural playgrounds contain slides, but the slides are built into a slope to make them safer.A log for playtimeThis school playground has a natural play area and a traditional play area, but even the traditional play area is surrounded by trees.Traditional play equipmentPlay equipment made of natural and artificial materialsA community garden next to a natural play areaThe community gardenA school garden next to a natural play areaMore play equipment made of natural and artificial materials, located in a semi-natural playground in a parkSand and water are an irresistible combination for many young children.A log bridge in a playground: the channel is filled  with water for part of the year
A tree trunk to climb on the grounds of a school
A tree trunk to climb on the grounds of a school | Source
Some natural playgrounds contain slides, but the slides are built into a slope to make them safer.
Some natural playgrounds contain slides, but the slides are built into a slope to make them safer.
A log for playtime
A log for playtime
This school playground has a natural play area and a traditional play area, but even the traditional play area is surrounded by trees.
This school playground has a natural play area and a traditional play area, but even the traditional play area is surrounded by trees.
Traditional play equipment
Traditional play equipment
Play equipment made of natural and artificial materials
Play equipment made of natural and artificial materials
A community garden next to a natural play area
A community garden next to a natural play area
The community garden
The community garden
A school garden next to a natural play area
A school garden next to a natural play area
More play equipment made of natural and artificial materials, located in a semi-natural playground in a park
More play equipment made of natural and artificial materials, located in a semi-natural playground in a park
Sand and water are an irresistible combination for many young children.
Sand and water are an irresistible combination for many young children.
A log bridge in a playground: the channel is filled  with water for part of the year
A log bridge in a playground: the channel is filled with water for part of the year

Improving Physical Fitness

Natural play areas with a variety of landscape features and objects can help children develop physical fitness and strength as well as balance and coordination skills. The children exercise as they run along trails or over grass, jump over or from objects, roll down hills, crawl through tunnels and under other structures and climb over logs, tree stumps, boulders and other items. Bigger playgrounds may offer more opportunities for exercise than smaller ones, however.

There is one disadvantage to a natural playground that should be kept in mind, although it's not really a disadvantage at all. Children need to feel free to get messy and muddy in a natural play area and parents and teachers need to feel comfortable accepting this.

Providing an Opportunity for Nature Study

A natural playground may also be a good place for nature study, depending on the type and number of plants that it contains and the animals that it attracts. The presence of even a few plants will attract insects and other invertebrates.

A garden area in the playground is also a great way to introduce children to nature. Exploring nature in a playground could be especially helpful for inner city children, who may not have easy access to natural areas and may live in an apartment without a garden.

A New Natural Playground

Some Possible Problems - Time and Expense

A good natural playground needs to be planned carefully and may be time-consuming to set up. Considerable changes may need to be made to the available land. This process may be expensive. If the available area for creating a new playground is small or if the budget is limited, elements of a natural playground can be added to a pre-existing traditional playground. Even the addition of a small piece of nature can add interest and usefulness to a conventional playground.

A playground with trees, logs and a winding trail
A playground with trees, logs and a winding trail | Source

Maintenance and Safety

Some people imagine that the more rustic natural playgrounds need no maintenance and can simply be left to behave “naturally”, but this isn’t the case. Safety inspections need to be performed regularly. Surfaces need to be maintained so that children have a soft landing spot if they fall, tree houses and wooden furniture need to be examined to ensure that the wood hasn’t rotted and that they are still intact and stable, trees need to be inspected for weak branches or roots and tree stumps and logs need to be checked for decay.

In addition, surveys need to be done to determine whether hazards such as poisonous plants or wasp nests have appeared in the playground. The areas where children dig and rearrange things need to be checked to ensure that they are in a suitable condition for the next visitors. If a fence surrounds a playground for security reasons this needs to be checked regularly too, especially if it's covered by plants.

Climbing a tree can be an interesting challenge and builds physical fitness. The higher a child climbs, however, the more risky the activity.
Climbing a tree can be an interesting challenge and builds physical fitness. The higher a child climbs, however, the more risky the activity. | Source

Dealing With Risk

Another possible concern in some natural play areas is that when certain objects are present, such as those that children climb, the risk of injury increases. I loved the challenge of climbing trees when I was a child. Although I can't remember ever being injured, the risk was there. Some people involved in childhood education say that we are doing children no favors by protecting them from all risk in playgrounds, however. They say that it's important that children learn how to deal with risk (within reasonable limits).

Benefits Versus Disadvantages

People who have observed the effects of natural play on children say that the advantages far outweigh the risks or inconveniences. In fact, many observers of children in natural play areas are very impressed with the benefits that they provide to the children. I think that the creation of a natural playground is an idea that is definitely worth exploring.

Further Reading

Tufts University Natural Playground Research Project

Nature Playgrounds from the British Columbia Recreation and Parks Association

An interesting article about the benefits of risk in playgrounds

© 2012 Linda Crampton

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    • billybuc profile image

      Bill Holland 4 years ago from Olympia, WA

      What a great concept. I love the earthen shelter with the grass over the top; we used to build those in science class when I was still teaching. Wonderful hub!

    • AliciaC profile image
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      Linda Crampton 4 years ago from British Columbia, Canada

      Thank you very much for the comment, Bill! I love the idea of natural playgrounds, because they offer so many opportunities for children to learn useful skills and behaviors as they play, and they enable kids to get close to nature too.

    • Mama Kim 8 profile image

      Sasha Kim 4 years ago

      The look alone has me sold! You just can't get the same feel from all those brightly colored plastics. Plus do kids really need them? My favorite "play house" as a kid wasn't man made but inside a slightly hollowed out very large bush! It had such a magical feel to it that just can't be replicated. I'm going to have to check and see if there are any parks like this in my city! Fantastic hub Alicia! Voted a bunch and shared!

    • teaches12345 profile image

      Dianna Mendez 4 years ago

      We were in the process of establishing a natural playground at the last center I worked. It was going to have some water canals, butterfly garden and outdoor tunnels. As you mentioned, we advised the parents beforehand of the possible "dirt" the kids would bring home. It didn't matter, they all loved the concept. It does require maintenance, but the play is so creative within this environment. Voted way up!

    • AliciaC profile image
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      Linda Crampton 4 years ago from British Columbia, Canada

      Hi, Sasha. My favorite playhouse as a child was a natural object, too. There was a tree by a stream near my house which my friends and I called the "Big Tree". Its branches were in just the right position for me to climb the tree and sit in it! Thank you very much for the comment, the votes and the share - I appreciate them all!

    • AliciaC profile image
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      Linda Crampton 4 years ago from British Columbia, Canada

      The playground that you describe sounds lovely, teaches! I can understand why many parents don't mind the possible dirt factor - the observations made so far suggest that this type of playground is extremely beneficial for children. Thank you very much for the vote!

    • Nell Rose profile image

      Nell Rose 4 years ago from England

      Hi Alicia, over here in England they have announced that children should be able to play and climb trees as some numpty decided that for health and safety reasons kids were not allowed to! thank goodness common sense won, most of the kids playgrounds do have the woodchip stuff, and so far it does seem to stop them hurting themselves, voted up and hub shared, nell

    • AliciaC profile image
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      Linda Crampton 4 years ago from British Columbia, Canada

      Hi, Nell. It's interesting to hear that recently in England it was suggested that children don't climb trees! Climbing a tree does involve some risk, but there are ways to reduce this risk. There are many advantages to children learning how to deal with a certain amount of risk, too. I still remember my tree climbing efforts when I was a child. I was so excited when I was able to climb a tree for the first time! Thank you very much for the vote and the share, Nell.

    • profile image

      ignugent17 4 years ago

      Very interesting ! This would be a good project for schools . Kids will be very excited to have a playground like this. I know parents will think twice too many things to consider.

      Voted up and more. :-)

    • AliciaC profile image
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      Linda Crampton 4 years ago from British Columbia, Canada

      Hi, ignugent17. Thanks for the comment and the vote! Yes, there are a lot of things to consider before setting up a natural playground, but teachers and researchers are reporting that this type of playground offers may benefits.

    • BlossomSB profile image

      Bronwen Scott-Branagan 4 years ago from Victoria, Australia

      What a great hub. Natural playgrounds help the children to be so much more creative. It reminds me of all the times we arrived home with scratches and torn dresses and panties from climbing trees, but breathless with all we had to tell about our adventures.

    • AliciaC profile image
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      Linda Crampton 4 years ago from British Columbia, Canada

      Hi, BlossomSB. Thanks for the comment. I remember the adventures we had while climbing trees, too! It was a lovely childhood. I do remember enjoying the swings in my school playground, but outside of school time my playgrounds were the natural areas near my home.

    • RTalloni profile image

      RTalloni 4 years ago from the short journey

      A super look at the pros and cons of natural playgrounds. The advantages have to outweigh the disadvantages!

    • AliciaC profile image
      Author

      Linda Crampton 4 years ago from British Columbia, Canada

      Thank you very much for the visit and the comment, RTalloni. Yes, I think that the advantages of natural playgrounds definitely outweigh the disadvantages!

    • drbj profile image

      drbj and sherry 4 years ago from south Florida

      These natural playgrounds are made to order for kids to exercise their bodies and their imaginations. When I was a kid, many, many moons ago, tree-climbing was my favorite sport, Alicia. But keep that to yourself. :)

    • AliciaC profile image
      Author

      Linda Crampton 4 years ago from British Columbia, Canada

      Thanks for the visit, drbj. Yes, natural playgrounds are excellent areas for kids to have fun, to exercise and to develop useful skills. Tree climbing is great fun for many kids as well (and don't worry, I won't tell anyone how much you enjoyed it when you were a child!).

    • profile image

      ginaunn 3 years ago

      thanks for this information.this is what school owners should have.even UNN nursery should learn from this

    • AliciaC profile image
      Author

      Linda Crampton 3 years ago from British Columbia, Canada

      Thank you for the visit and the comment, ginaunn!

    • Kevin Peter profile image

      Kevin Peter 3 years ago from Global Citizen

      The advantages of natural play grounds sounds great. The disadvantages too are described well. Very great hub!

    • AliciaC profile image
      Author

      Linda Crampton 3 years ago from British Columbia, Canada

      Thank you very much, Kevin Peter! I appreciate your visit.

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