There’s much more to playgrounds than just entertainment; they actually play a fundamental part in a child’s development. From confronting danger with climbing structures to social skills garnered by interaction in a play environment, playing outside helps children grow.
Built using wood, stone, sand and water, natural playgrounds are growing in popularity as a result of their sustainability and their suitability in a wide variety of landscapes. Put simply, they blend more seamlessly into different environments – from National Trust parks to schoolyards. However, the natural elements of play also benefit children’s development. Here’s how:
If playground design uses fixed, unnatural equipment, your child’s development can be limited. This is because there is a finite number of ways for children to play creatively. When children become bored, accidents are more likely to occur and, as such, providing versatility in play is key (Frost 1985, cited in Striniste & Moore, 1989).
According to research, natural adventure playgrounds are actually preferred by children. This helps engender imagination and encourages children to interact with the playground. Again, boredom can cause accidents in playgrounds – so visual appeal is also vital. Installing natural play elements was also found to improve children’s spatial cognitive awareness, socialisation and fantasy play skills (Herrington & Studmann, 1998).
Of course, natural playgrounds are less jarring in national parks or other scenic areas, so offer greater appeal visually too.
Development of construction skills
As a result of the moveable objects they incorporate such as sand, logs, pebbles and rocks, natural playgrounds can help children develop construction skills. Natural play encourages creativity through the interaction of these elements. These construction projects, such as digging channels in sand or creating dams in water channels with pebbles, provide satisfaction to children.
The benefits that these construction skills provide are numerous, research has found. Using construction skills in natural playgrounds helps children work cooperatively, aiding problem solving and creative thinking. A further study by Hestenes, Shin & DeBord (2007) found that in playgrounds that used natural elements, children were far more likely to use constructive play over functional play.
All playgrounds help to increase a child’s physical fitness, but especially natural playgrounds. The uneven landscapes and play equipment present in natural playgrounds are beneficial to exercise: whether that’s climbing a wall, jumping over barriers, climbing over log structures or building their construction skills, a child’s physical fitness will improve.
Outdoor natural playgrounds aid social development better than indoor ones, as a result of their size and the variety of the equipment which provided stimulating larger projects. These larger projects generally encourage more sociodramatic play themes, as children tackle bigger obstacles in groups (Davies, 1996).
Playground design plays an important part in supporting a child’s pretend play and divergent thinking. Creativity varies as a result of playground design – more pretend play and creativity occurs as a result of contemporary natural playgrounds compared to traditional designs.
Monkey bars, slides and swings — often found in traditional playgrounds — can encourage competition rather than co-operation. Natural playgrounds were found to create opportunities to play creatively and work together to either construct solutions or confront problems.
Studies have shown that children playing in natural environments spend more time actively playing. This increase in playtime has the additional benefit of providing better physical fitness. Put simply: your child will absorb more of the benefits of playtime, since natural playgrounds increase overall time playing.
Teachers are vital in monitoring play and supporting a child’s development. A study found they were more likely to support and facilitate a child’s development when in the presence of higher quality outdoor play equipment (DeBord et al., 2005).
Learning to confront risk is an important part of a child’s development. Natural play areas are a good way to present elements of risk thanks to climbing and jumping challenges – but also balance that risk with safety measures such as soft landing surfaces and generally softer equipment.