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The Child in Nature

The Natural Playscapes Movement

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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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