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To Play Is The Thing

Outdoor play spaces that contain sand, water, mud, plants and pathways offer developmental and play opportunities, a study has found


An obsession with safety has forced kids into safe but sterile and uninspiring outdoor spaces that might satisfy adult anxieties and needs, but shortchange children's development, a five-year study tracking the habits of Vancouver toddlers and preschoolers suggests.

Study leader Susan Herrington, a professor in the University of British Columbia's School of Architecture and Landscape Architecture, said modern, trendy-looking playspaces may be safe and the equipment is sturdy, but they leave nothing for childish imaginations.

Instead of traditional swings and slides, the kids want places where they can hide, play with dirt and be creative. ''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 said. Between 2003 and 2008, she and her researchers studied 16 outdoor play centers; videotaping children aged two to five.

They found that 87% of the time, the conventional equipment, monkey bars, swings, slides and climbing structures remained empty. Even when the children played on or around the equipment, they used it for its intended purpose, such as going down the slide, only 3% of the time, the study says.

''This is an interesting statistic, given that the equipment is usually the most expensive part of an outdoor play space budget,'' Prof. Herrington says. It wasn't difficult to figure out why the equipment was shunned most of the time, says Prof. Herrington, who interviewed early childhood educators and gave workshops at childcare centers as part of the research.

''They lack challenge - and we heard this loud and clear from the early childhood educators we interviewed. Fifty-seven per cent [of early childhood educators] said the equipment needed to be more challenging.''

The natural instinct of any child- to be drawn to play by throwing dirt, sand or water in puddles, chutes and tunnels - comes into direct conflict with manufacturers of playground equipment, who tend to appeal to parents' anxieties about safety, Prof. Herrington says.

''The playground equipment industry has a very aggressive marketing campaign going on that is largely based on putting fear and guilt into the minds of parents. Landscape architects are under a lot of pressure to simply install equipment because it's easier and more recognizably accepted by adults as a place to play.''

The Canadian Standards Association sets safety standards for playgrounds in Canada, but manufacturers most likely cater to standards in the more litigious U.S., Prof. Herrington says.

She suggests that studying the way children move, and the way in which structures feed their imaginative dramas and stories, should be a priority in design. But designers succumb to the pressure to make play spaces stable and orderly and clean -and the kids ignore them.

''In Vancouver, it's a lot about image,'' she says. ''We found that early childhood educators who worked in play spaces situated in new condominiums or even park space were constantly being criticized for not keeping the play space neat. Some condo owners complained that a nearby messy play space would erode their property values.''

Kristina Whelton-Davis, noticed similar themes watching her son Keyan, 6, play in city parks. She often travels from her Mount Pleasant neighborhood to Nelson Park in the West End, where Keyan indulges in the paths, brush and man-made bee habitat.

Similarly, he's attracted to the playground in the Olympic village again, not for its conventional play structures but for the natural elements, she says.

''Keyan found the play structure itself a yawn, but has spent hours running through the paths, tunnel and throwing stones in the man-made pond.''

Though she says most of the playgrounds in her research proved to be too small to inspire kids to explore and play, Prof. Herrington sees some bright lights in the region.

Garden City Park in Richmond, designed by Vancouver landscape architect Jeff Cutler, features an arboretum, pond, bridge, a wet play area next to its playground (which is nothing but unconventional, with natural wood and rocks), sand, a creek bed and a water play area. The plan, by space-2place design, is certainly not common in newer play spaces around Vancouver.

David Low noticed his own son's preference for the natural world over constructed playgrounds after accompanying him to a variety of parks and play spaces around Vancouver.

In the summer of 2009, Mr. Low, Grade 12 English teacher, took his son Xavier, then five, to a different playground nearly every day. In all, they explored more than 50 playgrounds maintained in public parks and schools.

''What he really likes is bridges and ropes, things he could climb and create imaginary scenes with. I think that is a possible answer - a playground that lets kids explore, get dirty and create goofy stories.''

Source: National Post

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October 15, 2019, 10:23 pm PDT

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