An earlier generation of kids may have spent all their free time playing in the woods, but in today’s world of helicopter parenting and stranger danger, letting their children do the same is unthinkable for many parents.
Now, park designers and officials as well as school boards are trying to reacquaint kids with nature, not by sending them into the forest, but by creating what are called natural playgrounds. “Connecting to nature is something that’s becoming more and more important everywhere,” says Adam Bienenstock.
…..Research has also shown that natural playgrounds alter the way children in them relate to one another.
“In a commercial playground, usually what ends up happening is that the most athletically gifted child ends up choosing the game and running the playground,” Mr. Belair says. “With a naturalized playground, kids tend to play more co-operatively. … There’s a wider variety of play elements involved than just who can climb the fastest or the highest.”
Studies have reinforced the idea that these environments reduce bullying, nurture collaborative skills and stimulate social interaction. Researchers at the University of Tennessee last year found that children more than doubled the time they spent playing in natural playgrounds compared with playgrounds with traditional wood and plastic materials.
………. “There is a thing nature provides for us that is called ‘graduated challenge’ that our current play structures are not doing a very good job of,” Mr. Bienenstock says. “Have you ever seen parents’ behaviour on one of these play structures? They are walking around with their hands out, following these kids from the ground, ready to catch them.” By comparison, in a natural playground with boulders of different sizes and shapes, the kid big enough to be able to get to the top of the larger boulder is probably big enough to take the fall from it too, Mr. Bienenstock says.
Todd Catchpole, a parks manager at Five Rivers MetroParks in Ohio, which began developing natural play sites several years ago, believes that many of the injuries children suffer on traditional playground equipment are simply the result of boredom. “So what do they do? They try and go up the slide backward or jump off the top of the platform for the slide, using it in ways it wasn’t intended,” he says.
…..Ellen Sandseter, a professor of psychology in Norway and one of the world’s leading experts on the importance of playground risk-taking, says a natural playground is “the most challenging environment. It has challenges for all children, all ages, all sizes,” she says.
Consider the difference between swinging on monkey bars and climbing a tree, Prof. Sandseter says.
“The bars in climbing equipment have a certain centimetre distance between them and it’s not really challenging. They could be blindfolded and climb it,” she says. “But in a tree, there’s different distances between branches. You have to feel the branches [to know if it will support you]. You have to constantly take a lot of risk decisions and evaluate your environment. … It’s no doubt nature environments are better in every way.”
…..The project under way at the Toronto French School hopes to help students enjoy the quiet repose that only nature can provide, Mr. Godfrey says. But it should also let them test their boundaries, even if that means a few scrapes from a fall off a boulder or a tree branch, he adds. “We’re not doing any good by bubble-wrapping kids.”