Natural playgrounds are growing into a national trend
By G. Jeffrey MacDonald
"This is an emerging national trend of some significance," says Richard Dolesh, chief of public policy for the National Recreation and Parks 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 child care centers
seek sustainable ways to invest in new or aging playgrounds. Seattle
is adding at least six natural play spaces to existing city parks.
Boston-area institutions have at least four in the works. Similar
projects are either underway or recently completed in Phoenix, Chicago, New York and Auburn, Ala.
Kids seem to get the concept. Jada Horne, 4,
knows just what to do one April morning at a new natural play area at
the Boston Medical Center's SPARK Center. She grabs a bucket of sand,
adds water from a conveniently located spigot and gets to work. "I'm making soup!" she explains, tossing in a few handfuls of woodchips for flavor. 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.
"They don't get boring," says Mav Pardee,
program manager for the Children's Investment Fund, a financier of
natural spaces and other educational experiences for Boston-area kids. But even some believers say built playgrounds
are not going to become obsolete. They see equipment as an essential
complement to natural play spaces. In Seattle, natural play spaces have engaged
children at city parks since the late 1990s. Though kids at first
enjoyed playing with sand and a cave at Carkeek Park, they tended to
get restless and be excessively hard on the natural features, says
Randy Robinson, a senior landscape architect for the Seattle Department
of Parks and Recreation. "Once they'd dug in the sand a little bit,
they'd be running up and down the hill, but there just wasn't enough
for them," Robinson says. "People who are promoting environmental
education don't want to hear that. (But) parents made a request to get
some conventional play equipment installed nearby." Now kids burn
energy by swinging or climbing and then use the natural play space when
they're ready for creative downtime.
Makers of 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 member of the Board of Advisors for the International Playground
Equipment Manufacturers Association's Voice of Play outreach campaign.
The campaign touts the benefits of playgrounds for kids. "Certain physical skills are established through
built equipment that are difficult to provide through natural
materials," he says. "For instance, they need climbing structures." Natural play spaces may appear simple, but
getting one launched can mean overcoming multiple hurdles.
Municipalities often struggle to get insurance because insurers aren't
sure how to assess the risks involved, says Robin Moore, director of
the Natural Learning Initiative at North Carolina State University.
Oversight boards sometimes resist proposals for
natural play areas because they mark a departure from the playground
norm, says Gail Sullivan, president of Studio G Architects, which
designed SPARK's area. What's more, even natural play areas need money:
SPARK's cost $80,000 to design and build. What's involved in caring for them 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., a designer and builder whose gross sales
doubled from $139,000 in 2007 to $279,000 in 2009. "Everybody says, 'What about maintenance?' "
King says. "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
Image by By Josh T. Reynolds, for USA TODAY