Recently I visited a school-age program where I previously worked as an educator. Since my last visit the program made changes to their outdoor environment. The new outdoor environment is much different than the one I remember. Previously the outdoor environment featured a large grass field, a raised bed garden, a basketball court, a playhouse, picnic tables and chairs. Now, it has been transformed into an open-ended adventure playground.
When I started in the program as an educator, a brand new building was being constructed for school age children, a unique situation as most school age children are in buildings with other primary purposes, The new building was constructed so the school could grow in the present, and flourish in the future. The completed school building is a tall modern structure with plenty of open space, windows and abundant natural light. The inside spaces have a view to the outside, and two doors at the back of the school lead to the outdoor environment.
It was a joyful time when we moved into the new school and our new outdoor environment. The children loved running on the large grass field and many days were filled with children playing football, kickball, and soccer. The children and one teacher, me, liked to cool off during hot days by sliding down the grass hill on our giant slip and slide.
During the early years in the new school, an opportunity to build a traditional playground on the grass field was proposed. Plans were made, and drawings completed, on what we thought would be a great addition to the school. The traditional playground was never built, and as I was watching the children play during my visit, I am really thankful for what the current educators have created in the outdoor environment.
Where grass used to dominate, now there is a large dig pit. It has buckets and shovels and many interesting tools for the children to use. A rocky stream formation flows downhill with boulders and rocks that children can move around, stack and repurpose. There are large tree stumps, sticks and branches to stack and build with. There is a mud kitchen complete with utensils, dishes and recycled cabinets to store all the mud creations. There are gardening pots and plants of all shapes and sizes, and garden beds for planting and harvesting vegetables. A collection of fabric is available for children to create with. On the day of my visit the fabric was protecting stick forts from the weather, and being worn as costumes, capes, etc. There are tables and umbrellas for outside dining. There are many containers and an outdoor sink that provides water for pouring down the river, mixing clay, or creating the perfect mud pie.
A study by Dawn Coe published by the University of Tennessee in 2012 stated; “Children who play on playgrounds that incorporate natural elements like logs and flowers tend to be more active than those who play on traditional playgrounds with metal and brightly colored equipment”. The article also stated that, “children use more of their imagination in the natural space”. After reading this article and a few others I wanted to see what was really happening in the outdoor environment, this is what I observed.
I noticed that the children were calm, focused and engaged as they went about their work. Engaged in different tasks, the children focused on playing in small groups doing different tasks and organizing the play in relation to the goals of their group. Adults observed as the children engaged, created, and negotiated without interference. The difference was noticeable from the original grassy field that we started with many years ago. The act of digging, moving materials, and painting faces with clay engaged the children from one creative space to the next. The children’s interactions were in collaboration not competition and a real connection between the children was happening as they connected to the natural environment.
A few thoughts about my experience.
As we learn and grow in our practice some methods we thought were best practices at the time, turn out not to be the best for children. Our opportunity to grow is always out there waiting for us to recognize it.
The children are connected to the natural world more than the adults in their lives. I wonder if we lose a little bit of ourselves each time we choose to be inside, instead of being outside fostering our connection to nature. Life is made of small moments like these.
The children tell us, if we watch and listen, what the most popular and nurturing type of play is ---free unstructured time to dig in the dirt, play in a puddle, chase butterflies, climb a tree or bury a friend in the sand.
The most popular place in a modern playground is the loose material it stands on. It could be grass, sand, dirt, or bark chips this is where we find most of the children playing. They are digging, looking for bugs, making mountains and discovering rocks as the structure collects dust.