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Playing in Nature ...

Commentary by LASN editor Stephen Kelly

When I was a kid, one of my "playgrounds" was building dams across a little stream near the school, exploring different design and divertments. On the grade school grounds proper, the kids particularly enjoyed playing on a large hill of dirt left over from construction. This photo of "Indian Camp Creek Park," SWT Design, St. Louis, in the March 2010 LASN issue, is an example of one of the more natural play spaces presented in the magazine.
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The Playground column in LASN over the years has touched on just about every playground topic imaginable.

Safety has often been a topic, but we've on occasion addressed conventional play equipment vs. more organic play, i.e., using nature's elements to engage kids.

Findings of a five-year Canadian study (2003 to 2008) were just released, conducted by the University of British Columbia's School of Architecture and Landscape Architecture, lead by Susan Herrington, a professor in the Landscape Architecture, Environmental Design and Architecture programs.

Two to five year olds were videotaped at 16 outdoor play centers.

"We found that outdoor play spaces that contain materials that children could manipulate -- sand, water, mud, plants, pathways and other loose parts -- offered more developmental and play opportunities than spaces without these elements," she Prof. Herrington.

Eighty-seven percent of the time, the conventional equipment (monkey bars, swings, slides and climbing structures) remained empty. When the children played on or around the equipment, they used it for its intended purpose only three percent of the time.

"This is an interesting statistic, given the equipment is usually the most expensive part of an outdoor play space budget," Prof. Herrington observed.

Fifty-seven per cent of the early childhood educators indicated the equipment needed to be more challenging, suggesting kids want places where they can hide, play with dirt and be creative.

Prof. Herrington noted landscape architects are under a lot of pressure to install traditional equipment, because it's easier and more recognizably accepted by adults. She suggests the way children move, and the way in which structures feed their imaginations should be a priority in design, but designers succumb to pressures to make play spaces, stable, orderly and clean--and the kids ignore them.

The litigious climate is certainly a powerful factor in specifying play equipment.

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October 17, 2019, 9:15 am PDT

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