"It is unfortunate that children can't design their outdoor play environments. Research on children's preferences shows that if children had the design skills to do so, their creations would be completely different from the areas called playgrounds that most adults design for them."
"Outdoor spaces designed by children would not only be fully naturalized with plants, trees, flowers, water, dirt, sand, mud, animals and insects, but also would be rich with a wide variety of play opportunities of every imaginable type. If children could design their outdoor play spaces, they would be rich developmentally appropriate learning environments where children would want to stay all day."
What are your fondest childhood memories of play? For many of us it was somewhere in a natural setting, away from the prying eyes of adults: playing in creeks, climbing trees, rolling down hills, digging in dirt, hunting for insects and building cubbies and shelters.
Times have changed but children haven't. Children still prefer to play in natural outdoor spaces.
And is it any wonder? Natural spaces are places intriguing, dynamic and evolving places filled with wonder, potential and challenge. Natural spaces spark imagination and creative thinking and invite open ended interactions, spontaneity, risk taking, exploration and discovery - not to mention fostering an appreciation and understanding of the natural world.
Creating a play space that ignores the natural urges and intrinsic drive that children have to connect with the natural world in an active, hands on way is to misunderstand how children learn and play outdoors.
"...limiting outdoor playgrounds to gross motor activities and manufactured equipment falls way short of the potential of outdoor areas to be rich play and learning environments for children. This playground design paradigm paralysis also denies children their birthright to experience the entire natural outdoors which includes vegetation, animals, insects water and sand, not just the sun and air that manufactured playgrounds offer."
- White and Stoekin
A quality outdoor play space is much, much more than just an area where children can run and let off steam. It is a place to imagine, create, construct, deconstruct, dig, mix, arrange, rearrange, explore, discover, experiment, touch, smell, observe, climb, jump, run, wonder and pretend, and so much more. Natural spaces provide our children with all of these, and then some, in a way artificial spaces can never hope to do.
If we are making play spaces for children in early childhood settings, it just makes sense to create the spaces that they actually prefer to play in.
As parents and educators we are the voices of children. Let's speak up for them in favour of natural play spaces.
Let's give children what they want. Anything less is second best.
Resources to help advocate for natural play spaces:
- Children's Outdoor Play and Learning Environments: Returning to Nature by White and Stoekin
- Rethinking Outdoor Learning Environments - NQS PLP Newsletter
- Natural Playscapes - Kidsafe NSW
- Illawarra Children's Services Outdoor Environment Presentation
- Nature Playgrounds - Nature Play WA
What has worked for you in advocating for a natural play space? How have you implemented change in this area? What challenges have you faced? I'd love to hear your experiences in the comments below.