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The Child in Nature

The Natural Playscapes Movement

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Celebrating Mud Day last May at the natural playscape at the Esopus Library in Port Ewen. - LOIS INGELLIS
  • Lois Ingellis
  • Celebrating Mud Day last May at the natural playscape at the Esopus Library in Port Ewen.

My elementary school playground was typical for 1980s suburbia. It had swings, a slide, teeter-totters, monkey bars, and a large ball field with a few trees scattered along the edges. The swings gave me a feeling of flying as I swung sharply downward. Sitting on top of the monkey bars, yelling at my friends running below, was exhilarating. What I remember most fondly is playing underneath an enormous tree in the far corner of the yard. The trunk was so large that four kindergarteners could hide behind it without being seen for hide-and-seek. In the fall, the leaves that accumulated under the canopy were crisp, bright, and snapped under my feet as I galloped below. In the dappled sunlight on the far corner of the school yard under my favorite tree, I listened to the delighted screams of my classmates, felt the gentle wind through my hair, smelled the moist, rich earth, filled my fingernails with dirt, and made lasting friendships. That tree was what I loved about the playground.

I was lucky to have meaningful outdoor experiences as a child. Many children don't. Over the past few years, much research has been done on the consequences of limited access to natural, green space, especially for children residing in high-density, low-income areas where the outdoors looks more like a concrete jungle. A 2009 report by Susan Strife and Liam Downy on environmental inequality shows that more children today suffer from long-term health problems like obesity and diabetes, severe cognitive disorders, and anxiety and depression than ever before. In determining the cause, links have been found to a lack of physical activity and the absence of nature in the everyday. These studies suggest that little or no exposure to nature actually hurts our bodies and our minds.

Outdoor Environments for the Soul

For safety concerns as well as handicap accessibility, the overall trend for outdoor design has moved in the direction of mass-produced, prefabricated equipment, limiting the amount of physical activity while decreasing the challenges inherent on the playground. Controlling risk by installing safeguarded equipment creates a feeling of safety for both parents and children that they are protected from threat of injury. Though it seems counterintuitive, children, as young human beings, are prewired to test their bodies and minds in order to learn. Conventional, manufactured playground equipment has a limited variety of challenge. Children may create risk while misusing equipment or overestimating the pliability of a synthetic surface. This behavior can produce more of a threat for frequency and severity of injury. It also takes away from the point of being outdoors and playing in a natural environment where challenge is inherently multilevel and fits all developmental stages and ages.

With health and child development in mind, there has been a rising interest in the creation of play areas for children that use the natural landscape, vegetation, and seasons as the foundation of the playground. These playgrounds, called natural playscapes (a phrase coined by Rusty Keeler, author of Natural Playscapes: Creating Outdoor Environments for the Soul), are a small but growing trend in outdoor design for children.

In the Hudson Valley, there have been several places that have latched on to the knowledge that children need appropriate challenges for growth, that nature has a powerful, positive effect on health, and that fond childhood memories are made in beautiful, natural environments. With the help of Keeler, the Esopus Library in Port Ewen, as well as two schools in Kingston—George Washington Elementary School and Livingston Street Early Childhood Community—have committed to creating these natural play areas for children and adults.

An Introduction to the Outside World

In 2007, the Esopus Library moved into a new building. At the time, Lois Ingellis, a strong proponent for preserving and creating natural play areas for children, headed the Friends of the Esopus Library. Next to the new building is a small pond that the library decided would be a good, natural feature to highlight as the cornerstone of their outdoor playscape. According to Keeler, who advised the group and led a couple of workshops for the community, "A play area for children is more than a 'playground'—it's an introduction to the outside world and to the planet. Natural playscapes offer children endless possibilities of ways to play and interact with the natural world—different every day, every season, every year."

Ingellis, along with her fellow volunteers, designed, coordinated, and built several other features to enhance the landscape around the pond, including a smaller, shallower pond with stepping stones for children to challenge themselves to cross and wildlife including fish, frogs, turtles, and ducks. These features add a risk to the adventure of crossing a body of water that challenges children appropriately on multiple developmental levels. For example, a five-year-old may test their jumping skills on the steps, while a nine-year-old may stop to lean down and catch a frog. Katelyn Semon goes to the library frequently with her children, aged four and seven. About the outdoor area Semon says, "In the winter, we like the diversity of the wildlife that you can see right outside the window. In the summer, after we choose books in the library, we can go outside among the tall grasses and reeds. The kids can be away from me, hidden, without being too far away. It gives them a sense of freedom."

While a library may seem uncommon for an outdoor play area, a more common place to find a playground is an elementary school. George Washington Elementary School (GW) in Kingston is known as a Title 1 school, which means that more than half the population is determined low income. For children living in poverty, life is already stressful. But with health and education in mind, GW has envisioned and committed to creating a natural outdoor classroom that will serve to calm, teach, stimulate, and encourage each member of the school's population, from child to teacher to parent. Currently, the school yard is largely concrete, with jungle gyms and swings in a small grass-and-mulch area. Some of the equipment is broken and all of it is well worn. Ann Loeding, head of the Playscape Committee, explains the biggest challenge in getting the outdoor classroom built: "We have dreams beyond what our budget can support. But we're content to approach the project in phases." For the first phase, GW has already begun connecting with the community, finding out what the children want in an outdoor classroom (like a water slide and a tiger pen), and what the teachers would find helpful teaching tools (such as, more reasonably, running water and a rabbit pen). Keeler comments, "For some people, creating a natural space for kids is a new idea—they might be used to thinking about play only on traditional 'fixed' play equipment. But, if they have the opportunity to watch children in a natural space with staff and teachers who are excited, and to stage the space with loose parts and tools for interacting with the space their minds may soon be changed. There are many opportunities for children to participate, which also opens up possibilities for ties to curriculum, nutrition, literacy and more."  As decisions are still getting made and challenges still being overcome, GW looks forward to watching as its vision becomes a reality.

Part of an Urban Landscape

Founded in 2010, Livingston Street Early Childhood Community is a day-care center that has an outdoor space with an area to ride tricycles, three sandboxes, and a picnic table for outdoor snacks, all customary elements for outdoor play. But what distinguishes the playground, called the playgarden, from other early-childhood programs is that there are vines for swinging instead of swings, trees for climbing instead of monkey bars, and boulders for mountaineering instead of plastic climbers. A meandering path down a hill leads past a hollow log that a four-year-old can squeeze inside, two shade gardens that grow native plants like witch hazel and Jacob's ladder, and forts made from tree branches, leaves, and sticks. The secluded, wooded area that serves as Livingston Street's playgarden sits directly above Route 9W, and the noise of passing cars is a constant reminder that the playgarden is part of an urban landscape. When the children are asked what they like about the playgarden, the answers are varied and memorable: "I can run. I look for birds, but I don't always see any"; "I like playing with the little shovels, digging in the dirt"; "I like the tree that we climb on. I can climb so high!"; "We pretend there are bad guys and we run away from them and hide."

These are enduring memories that the children will hold on to as adults. The joy inherent in the experiences creates a lasting impression of the splendor and thrill of the natural world. Shared by many people, these carefree moments are a testament to childhood that all children should be able to experience. And as parents and adults, we owe it to our children to expose them to the wonder and joy of nature for their own health and the well-being of the Earth.

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