Natural playgrounds can inspire more play
As hundreds of kids had fun playing on the inflatables set up in Adventure Land for the Foothills Fall Festival, as study is shedding light on the type of play areas that work best.
The inflatables are fun and bouncy — and best of all they’re portable.
But when portability is not a factor, there’s a new indicator of a better way for locked-in-place playgrounds.
A recent study from the University of Tennessee shows that when building a permanent playground, the inclusion of more natural elements can encourage more play.
The conclusion: Children who play on playgrounds that incorporate elements like logs and flowers tend to be more active than those who play on traditional playgrounds with metal and brightly colored equipment.
According to the report, kids also seem to use their imagination more.
The study — among the first of its kind in the U.S. — researched changes in physical activity levels and patterns in young children exposed to both traditional and natural playgrounds.
Dawn Coe, assistant professor in the Department of Kinesiology, Recreation and Sport Studies, natural playgrounds have been established across the U.S., but their advantage, or lack of advantage, over steel and plastic was unknown. There was nothing conclusive as to whether they worked. According to Coe. “Now, we know.”
The children were observed at UT’s Early Learning Center starting in June 2011. Coe watched kids play on the center’s traditional wood and plastic equipment. She logged how often they used the slides and other apparatuses, the intensity of their activity and how much time they spent in a porch area to get shade from the sun.
Over months, renovations of the playground added a gazebo and slides that were built into a hill. Dwarf trees were planted. A creek was built and landscaped with rocks and flowers. Logs and tree stumps were added. The traditional playground was turned it into what Coe call a “natural playscape.”
With Cary Springer, a statistician with the Office of Information Technology, and Coe conducted follow-up observations this year and found significant differences between usage of the traditional and natural playground.
Children more than doubled the time they spent playing as they jumping off logs and watered the plants around the creek. The kids engaged in more aerobic and bone- and muscle-strengthening activities, utilizing motor skills. Also, they spent less time sitting around on the porch.
More studies will be done to determine long-term changes in the nature of childen’s play.
At this early stage of research, as Coe puts it, natural playscapes appear to be a viable alternative to traditional playgrounds for school and community settings.