Natural Playgrounds for Children: Advantages and Problems
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 colourful, although some are monotone and have a more sterile environment. While these playgrounds help students to develop a variety of skills, the emphasis is generally on developing gross motor skills. Natural playgrounds help children to develop other beneficial behaviours in addition to physical skills. These behaviours 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.
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 behaviours that will be useful to them throughout their lives. It often improves their academic performance as well.
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 one, although this isn't always true. There is another major difference between a traditional playground and a natural one. The traditional area 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.
Components of a Natural Play Area
A natural playground is a small piece of nature (or sometimes of modified or replicated nature) that contains a variety of different mini-environments. It usually contains trees and other plants—or plant materials—such as shrubs, tree stumps, and logs. The playground may contain open, grassy areas as well as areas shaded by trees. It generally includes spaces appropriate for active play, creative play, and quiet time.
A natural playground often contains water in some form. A sandy or rocky area beside a water channel is a common component of the playgrounds that I've explored. 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, branches, 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.
Children may eventually become bored with stationary, unchanging objects that they see every time they visit a playground. This is especially true for older children. Objects that can be rearranged to create novel items may be more interesting for them.
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.
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.
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 items such as a tree house or a bridge can encourage children to use their imagination and play "Let's Pretend" games. Structures that they build themselves, like tents and other shelters, can also stimulate the imagination. 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 PhotosClick thumbnail to view full-size
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.
The space available for a playground is an important factor to consider when designing the area. Crowding too many landscaped structures into the area may not be a good idea, even when the structures resemble ones found in nature. Children need room to run.
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.
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 one. Even the addition of a small piece of nature can add interest and usefulness to a conventional playground.
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. Points to consider include the following:
- Surfaces need to be maintained so that children have a soft landing spot if they fall.
- Tree houses, wooden furniture, and bridges 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
- Tree stumps and logs need to be checked for decay.
- If children have used movable materials to create an object for themselves and others to enter or climb, the object needs to be inspected for safety before it's used.
- 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.
- The play area needs to be explored regularly to identify hazards such as poisonous plants or wasp nests that have appeared in the playground.
- If a fence surrounds a playground for security reasons, this needs to be checked regularly too, especially if it's covered by plants.
Who Has Access to the Play Area?
Controlling or considering who has access to a natural play area (or a traditional one) is important on school grounds and in other areas. A secure fence around the area is useful, but erecting this fence may not be possible or even desirable. This is the case for a play site in my neighbourhood.
A large and rectangular gravel playground is located behind an elementary school near my home. Next to the gravel is a small public park with grass, trees, logs, tree stumps, and rocks. On the other side of the park is a walking path bordered by a townhouse complex. There are no barriers separating these strips of land. The public and the school have access to the park. The school has recently created an outdoor classroom in the area, which is probably very appealing for the children and is shown in the photo below.
The park offers children a great chance to observe nature and to play amongst the trees. There is certainly scope for the imagination in the park. Looking at the area as a teacher as well as a nature lover, though, I can see that it also presents some problems.
The area nearest to the outdoor classroom has deciduous trees and is quite open. A little further along, the trees are more crowded and the branches of the coniferous trees touch or come near to the ground. Gaps exist between some of the lowest branches of the conifers. On some trees, these gaps may present an attractive opportunity for children to crawl under the tree and then wriggle along to a place where they are hidden and can’t be monitored. Hiding can be fun, but it may not be good if a stranger finds the child who is hiding.
Another problem is that in a few areas the trees prevent someone from being seen by people in the townhouses and by those walking along the path. The windows of the school are far away due to the size of the gravel play area. In addition, people are unlikely to be in the school on the weekends and holidays.
Rules and Supervision for Public Areas
I expect the school mentioned in the situation above has strict rules about students going into the park without supervision and about areas that they can explore. Parents probably have rules for the neighbourhood children that I see in the park outside of school time, too.
Cutting down trees would likely destroy the value of a site as a natural play area and may not be allowed in a public area. It's not a good solution for a possible security problem unless only a few, carefully-chosen trees are removed.
Thinking about who has access to the area and establishing rules, boundaries, and supervision routines are important with respect to a natural play area that is open to the public. Some schools may have no choice but to use public areas if they want their students to experience nature and play at the same time.
Areas That the Public Might Visit
The last school where I taught was fortunate to have a treed area behind the grass of the playing field. The school had two buildings: one for high school students and the other for elementary ones. Trails were built through the "forest", as we called it, as well as an outdoor classroom. Students weren't allowed to go into the forest unless the visit was part of a class activity and a teacher was in the area. Though there was a fence around the property, the gates of the school were open during the day.
Removing some of the trees and clearing the shrubs and herbaceous plants that grew beside the trails (especially in the growing season) would have made the forest more open and its parts more visible. It would have destroyed or significantly reduced the area's ability to act as a nature study and natural play area, however.
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. It's certainly a factor that needs to be considered when designing a play area.
Some people involved in childhood education say that we are doing children no favours by protecting them from all risk in playgrounds. They say that it's important that children learn how to deal with risk (within reasonable limits). Climbing a tree, a large rock or collection of rocks, or a naturalistic sculpture can provide a fun and satisfying challenge for children and can stimulate their imagination. The potential dangers must be discussed by the playground designers, however, and by parents as well.
Benefits Versus Disadvantages
People who have observed the effects of play on children say that the advantages of natural play areas far outweigh the risks or inconveniences. In fact, many observers of children are very impressed with the benefits that the areas provide. I think that the creation of a natural playground is an idea that is definitely worth exploring.
- Natural playgrounds are more beneficial to children from the Medical Xpress news service
- Factors that make a good play area for children from the University of Western Australia (a PDF document)
- Reconnecting with nature on the playground from The Globe and Mail newpaper
- An interesting article about the benefits of risk in playgrounds from the Vancouver Sun newspaper
Questions & Answers
What kind of safety check is required for a traditional playground?
An inspector should walk around the playground on a regular basis. The ground surface under play equipment should be inspected to make sure that it’s in good condition and sufficiently deep. Safety organizations say that loose material under playground equipment up to eight feet high should be twelve inches deep and extend out for at least six feet. Wood chips, sand, and shredded rubber are suitable materials for cushioning. Other ground surfaces should be checked for debris that could cause children to trip or hurt themselves if they fall to the ground.
The condition of all equipment in the playground should be checked regularly. Wooden equipment should be inspected to see if it’s rotting or has splintered, for example, nails and bolts should be checked to make sure that they are in place, and metal should be checked for rust. Equipment should be examined to ensure that it can still support the weight of children and that any materials used to provide traction are still in good condition.
The cleanliness of sand in sandboxes should be checked. (The sandbox should be covered when not in use to prevent contamination.) Barriers and fences should also be inspected regularly to make sure that they are intact.
In addition to regular inspections, a playground should be checked after unusual weather conditions. Ice may have to be removed, for example, and metal areas that have become too hot in the sun may have to be cooled or avoided.
What are some guidelines that you would implement in a traditional playground versus a natural one?
My overriding concern would be safety, which I have covered in an answer to another question. With that in mind, I would look for the widest variety of equipment that my budget could handle. I would try to choose equipment that is not only fun but also builds motor skills.
I would also try to encourage cooperation, planning, and creativity. In addition to the usual swings, slides, climbing frames, and monkey bars, I would try to add lots of loose materials that children can use to build objects of their choice. The loose items might include milk crates, tires, cardboard boxes, nets, fabric, stones, and flower pots, for example. I would also look for equipment that would be suitable for both children with physical disabilities and able-bodied ones.Helpful 2
© 2012 Linda Crampton