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Natural Play Themes and References

Why Natural Play?

Since the mid 1990’s, there has been unprecedented research into different types of ‘play’ and how children respond to the different play opportunities presented to them.  (1)

Traditional playgrounds have been compared in value to only eating a diet of fast food – that a “playground consisting only of basic equipment…caters for a narrow range of play experiences…. (and a) widely held belief has developed that this is what play areas are supposed to look like”.  (2)

Traditional playgrounds generally provide equipment to develop gross motor skills – balance, posture, strength, and general physical development for the infant up to age 12.  Because much of the equipment in traditional playgrounds – swings, slides, rockers, climbing and hanging – does not encourage group play, these places have become associated with children playing individually, and of the child having a physical sensory experience in isolation from others.

Opportunities to engage more refined skills are limited, and children who know each other and play together need a more stimulating environment than manufactured play equipment.

“Children’s play typically, is pleasurable, self-motivated, imaginative, non-goal directed, spontaneous, active and free of adult-imposed rules.  Quality play involves the whole child: gross motor, fine motor, sense, emotion, intellect, individual growth and social interaction.” (3)

Elizabeth Jones in Landscapes for Learning advocates the inclusion of natural materials to arouse children’s creativity and to enhance the sense of diversity, complexity and richness of a landscape.  It is interesting that diversity and complexity are considered by ecologists to be the basis of natural ecosystems, so Jones’s hypothesis aligns with the archetype of Nature itself.  She likens the multiple positive functions of natural materials to have creatively beneficial effects on children’s spatial and temporal awareness, sensitivity and responsibility. (4)

Play England found that successful play spaces: offer movement and physical activity; stimulate the five senses; are good places for social interaction, negotiation and cooperation; allow children to manipulate natural and fabricated materials; and offer challenge. (5)  In Australia, some of the best recent urban playscapes combine the qualities of exploration, play, rest, adventure and making things. (6)

Much good practice has been designed into northern European play spaces for many years, notably Germany and the Scandinavian countries, where unique bespoke equipment made from natural materials is combined with precision engineered parts to create multi-functional sand and water play environments.  Urban play spaces are rough, wild and full of loose parts – sticks, stones, leaves, sand, grit, pebbles and boulders.  Trees and bushes shade and overhang, offering unlimited free treasures to be collected and manipulated – leaves, branches, seeds, fruits, buds.  Some of these playgrounds even have swings, slides and roundabouts in them!

The Scandinavian countries have exported the Forest School to the rest of the world – where early years education is spent under the canopy of native forests or in wild gardens building dens, gathering herbs, whittling sticks and making fire.  Recent renewed interest in Fredrich Froebel’s original ideas for kindergartens (children’s garden) has revealed the environment necessary to nurture skilful designers, and acknowledged by Buckminster Fuller, “If you want to do something nice for a child, give them an environment where they can touch things as much as they want.” (7)

Scandinavian play designer Helle Nebelong: “I am convinced that standardised playgrounds are dangerous, just in another way: when the distance between the rungs in a climbing net or ladder is exactly the same, the child has no need to concentrate on where he puts his feet. Standardisation is dangerous because play becomes simplified and the child does not have to worry about his movements.” (8)

No wonder then that we are beginning to hear so much of the benefits of the natural playground, the natural playscape, natural adventure area and the natural discovery play garden.  These generic descriptions define new gardens and areas appearing in early years settings, in schools, and in public play spaces.

Older children, those of the 8-14 year old range, are also having areas designed more specifically for them – equipment that is a little more exciting, dangerous, and challenging.

Even on limited budgets, a few choice pieces of equipment set among a playscape connected by plants, mounds, dips and hollows, natural tree trunks, boulders, storytelling areas, open sand play, natural water courses, social gathering spaces, food gardens and performance areas can transform and encourage good community relations, connectivity and social discourse – democracy in action!

In creating such areas, it is the labour that is consuming and demanding, and it will ultimately demand a change of culture.  Communities can and do undertake building such play spaces and going forward, we can take this to a new level reclaiming our parks and reserves as belonging to people and not councils.  Such community integration requires discipline, skill, and co-operation. The payback is trust restored on a local level, new friendships, resilience and state of the art infrastructure using local materials – surely a blueprint for sustainability.

Guy Redmond, Leaves of Green, 2014

References and further reading:

(1)  Internet search will reveal a host of information. See also further links at bottom of page.

(2) A Shackell, N Butler, P Doyle, D Ball, Design for Play, A guide to creating successful play spaces, Play England, 2008

(3) Randy White and Vicki Stoeklin, Children’s Outdoor Play and Learning Environments: Returning to Nature, White Hutchinson 2010

(4) Sharon Stine, Landscapes for Learning, 1996

(5) A Shackell, N Butler, P Doyle, D Ball, Design for Play, A guide to creating successful play spaces, Play England, 2008 See also Play England’s Managing Risk in Play Provision

(6) Presentation wit Rick McConnell

(7) Bucky Fuller, Operating Manual for Spaceship Earth, 1968

(8) Much quoted Helle Nebelong, have a look at some of her public playground designs.

See also:

Also read this full article by Vicki Stoeklin and Randy White:

Natural play is motivated by a sense of belonging to people and to places. A robust, durable, practical space with shelter, care and beauty built in will encourage multi functional play with multiple positive opportunities to engage and take part.

What does this ‘playground’ say about the society that created it?

Given even limited opportunities, children will adapt their own environment to suit their playful interaction.

Given appropriate construction materials plus expert guidance, local teenagers designed and constructed this bike track.

Playful creativity is sparked by access to the natural world.

Natural play is an interactive response to place and people.

In Berlin, many urban playgrounds are framed by trees and house a collection of loose parts equipment (here branches and logs) and offer play opportunities to all ages.

In this school, an old boat linked to a sand pit offers many play choices.  The open sand is protected by with some horticultural netting.

Earth mounds, boulders, sand, logs, plants – with the right design these natural elements can create exceptional play spaces, no equipment required.

Changes of level are key concepts.

Remnant’s of old tipi’s among maturing trees.  The tipi’s are the pioneer play items and the trees are the final climax, evolving into a multi diverse interactive permanent play items!

An embankment is ideal for placing a slide as part of a natural play space.

sand and water play are given an extra dimension with this groovy log.

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