Discovering Natural Playgrounds


BY JEANNE ZLONIS

What is a “Natural Playground”? A couple of MAGI members decided to visit and talk to schools and nature centers that have natural playgrounds, and to read and search the web try to find the answer.

Here is what we found. Natural playgrounds are a concept or a movement, rather than an easily defined “thing” that can be purchased from a catalog. Inspired by Richard Louv’s book Last Child in the Woods, community members, landscape architects and educators join together to design schoolyard spaces that meet outdoor play needs that seem to be missing in the lives of today’s children.

While traditional playgrounds mainly encourage gross motor exercise, natural playgrounds are designed to support other aspects of play like sensory exploration, discovery, cooperation, interaction, imagination, relaxation and daydreaming.

Natural playgrounds we visited and viewed online were all very different. We discovered the following common threads:

  • Each playground is a result of a design process that gathers input from a variety of stakeholders, especially children. Wide participation from members of the community, administration, and staff, including maintenance personnel, is critical to success over time.
  • Natural playground design takes into consideration, climate, ecology, habitat and natural features of the land like hills, rocks and trees in order to fit the playground into the existing landscape.
  • Natural materials like fallen logs, stepping stones, benches, trees, paths, plants and gardens are used to stimulate children not only to get exercise, but to observe, explore and discover what is in nature right outside the schoolroom door.
  • Planning and design initially may seem more costly than it would be for traditional playgrounds. However, much of the cost of labor and materials to build a natural playground can be donated.
  • Natural Playground design can replace or complement more traditional playground structures, depending on what the community wants. The comprehensive nature of the design process can also enable schools to add features that support the curriculum as in outdoor learning stations or outdoor gathering spaces for instruction in the schoolyard design.

Research shows that children who spend time outdoors are more attentive, perform better academically, and are healthier and better able to handle stress in their lives. At the same time the Kaiser Family Foundation recently reported that the average child aged 8-18 in America today spends an average of 7½ hours per day using electronic media indoors and very little time in unstructured play outdoors. Testing and academic pressures are also causing many schools to limit outdoor recess time for students. The natural playground design movement wants to address this huge “nature deficit” in a playful and creative way.

Local natural playground events:

April 19 - Dodge Nature Center Outdoor Learning Conference

April 22 - Richard Louv speaks at the Ridgedale Library

Local playgrounds with natural features:

Tamarack Nature Center, 5287 Otter Lake Road, White Bear Township,

Wargo Nature Center, 7701 Main Street, Lino Lakes, MN

Forest Lake Early Childhood Family Center,  200 SW 4th Street, Forest Lake

Dodge Nature Center Preschool, 1715 Charlton Street, West St. Paul

Normandy Park Early Childhood Center, 2482 County Road F, White Bearl Lake

Research reports:
Children and Nature

Designers/builders:

Rusty Keeler – Earthplay
Natural Playgrounds Company
White Hutchinson
Nature Explore

Photo courtesy of Ron King, Natural Playgrounds Company