Everyone who interacts with children knows that they need to go outside to play. A well designed play area can provide physical activity and develop socialization, cooperation and negotiation skills. However, the bulk of play areas today feature manufactured equipment which dictate activities and direct the play narrative, limiting imaginative and self-directed play.
A new recognition of the importance and benefits of being in nature have spurred an interest in natural playgrounds. Numerous studies have demonstrated that letting children play in nature can promote imagination, cooperation and compassion for other creatures as well as a connection with and stewardship of other species. A recent study in the BMC Public Health compared similar activities in natural and man-made environments and concluded that activities in a natural environment reduced negative emotions (anger, fatigue and sadness) as compared to similar activities in man-made environments. Another study, in the Archives of Pediatrics and Adolescent Medicine, found that unstructured, free play outside offers a host of cognitive and physical benefits including cooperation, self-awareness, stress reduction, reduced aggression, and increased happiness.
The need for play and connection to nature come together in natural playgrounds. Natural playgrounds create play opportunities using natural materials such as logs, sticks, sand, dirt and plants. They allow children to direct their own play by using loose parts to create structures and sets for their own imaginative play. Natural playgrounds can also include more directed activities such as gardening, observation, sketching or other art projects.
There are some challenges with implementing natural play spaces which should be considered. Many natural materials are not permanent and need to be periodically replaced. This can be a challenge for schools and other institutions that do not have funding for monitoring and maintenance. However this aspect of natural playgrounds can also provide a learning opportunity to observe decomposition and change in ecological systems. As long as expectations are clear, having a flexible play space can be an asset.
Maintaining universal design and accessibility is another consideration of natural play areas which must be considered during design.
The benefits of natural playgrounds, however, greatly outweigh the challenges. Giving children the opportunity to direct their own play using natural materials has lasting positive impacts on both the children and their environment including cultivating decision making and imaginative play and nurturing environmental literacy.
For more information on natural playgrounds visit the Children in Nature Network, the National Wildlife Federation and the Natural Learning Initiative, and the Chesapeake Bay Foundation’s No Child Left Inside Initiative.