You may remember playgrounds from your younger days with monkey bars and tornado slides. A new wave of playgrounds feature natural elements to make play more active and more fun. “We were needing to replace our traditional playground. It had been kind of worn out,” Sean Durham, Ph.D., said.
He is the Executive Director of the Early Learning Center who discovered a national trend toward natural playgrounds. “You can use just very common things like a fallen tree, branches, some recycled equipment that gives children opportunities to really interact in interesting ways and learn to respect and form a relationship with nature,” Durham said. This new natural playground replaced the traditional one. Durham said it’s low cost and safe.
“To go down a slide you don’t have to crawl up a big ladder and risk falling off. Our slides here are the embankment slides so you just really are sliding down a hill but on a regular slide and the children love it,” he said. The children enjoy themselves while researchers from the University of Tennessee study them.
“Last year we came in when the traditional playground was in place and we observed their activity,” Dawn Coe, Ph.D., said. Back then UT Assistant Professor Coe said researchers used accelerometer belts . They measured the intensity of the kids’ physical activity. Now they’re comparing that data with the kids’ activity on the natural playground.
“It looks like they’re doing some more climbing, swinging from one of the branches on the tree, so they’re using their upper body. Also some of the other elements like the tree stumps and the logs, they’re using more balance,” she said. The natural setting seems to have sparked their imagination.
“We have a small little grove of trees down on the far end of the playground and the children were going in and out on the very first day we put them in pretending that they were wolves,” Durham said. They’re moving more and that’s a critical component in reducing childhood obesity. “A lot more active play, a lot more pretend play. But then we noticed children going around and picking a flower or looking at a flower and the children love to water all the plants,” he said.
The research at the Early Learning Center could have an impact on other playgrounds and it could convince schools to integrate more outdoor time. “Most of our kids spend the majority of their day in school in a classroom seated. Here I like a lot of these elements because they get to engage in play and use their imagination and just be kids and have fun,” Coe said.