Natural Playgrounds: A Growing Trend

by G. Jeffrey MacDonald (USA Today, 22 Apr. 2010)

The playground of the future is beginning to take shape–and it looks a lot like the backyard of the past.

Designers of children’s play spaces are increasingly looking beyond slides, jungle gyms and other plastic-coated structures in their quest to create fun, safe, healthy environments.  As a result, kids are running outside and discovering play area dotted with old standbys:  sand, water boulders, hills and logs.

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“This is an emerging national trend of significance,” says Richard Dolesh, chief of public policy for the National Recreation and Park Association.  “Parents and other adults want natural opportunities for kids. . .  The question is:  how do you ensure safety with the inherent challenges that nature brings?”

Natural play spaces, as they’re called, are becoming more common as municipalities, schools and childcare centers seek sustainable ways to invest in new or aging playgrounds.

Supporters of natural play spaces say they make sense on multiple levels.  Child development experts say kids learn creativity and autonomy when they’re engaged with “loose parts,” such as mud and sticks.  Funders in these lean-budget times are sometimes pleased to forgo five- and six-figure expenditures for manufactured play equipment.  Some even argue that natural places are safer.

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But even some believers say built playgrounds are not going to become obsolete.  They see equipment equipment as an essential complement to natural play spaces.

Makers of traditional playground equipment say they aren’t opposed to natural play spaces, since kids benefit from nature.  But playing only with natural elements isn’t adequate for a child’s healthy development, says  Joe Frost, a retired professor of education and a paid board member for the International Playground Equipment Manufacturers Association.

“Certain physical skills are established through built equipment that are difficult to provide with natural materials,” he says.  For instance they need climbing structures.”  Alson, kids burn energy by climbing and swinging.

What’s involved in caring for natural playgrounds remains a matter of some debate.  Maintenance costs can be minimal precisely because nature is the whole idea, says Ron King, president of the Natural Playgrounds Co.  “Everybody say ‘What about maintenance?’  Our response is:  ‘It’s a natural area.  Let it go.’ . . .  That’s nature.  That’s what it’s all about.”

But Linda Cain Ruth, a building science professor and playground expert at Auburn University says natural playgrounds need careful maintenance to remain safe.

“A lot of people think that because it’s natural there’s no maintenance, and that is not true,” Ruth said.  “Wood rots. . . .   You have to make sure you have a good surface for [kids] to fall on.

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