Natural playgrounds are growing into a national trend

Original article appeared on 4/26/2010 in USA Today
By G. Jeffrey MacDonald Special for, USA TODAY


BOSTON — The playground of the future is beginning to take shape — and it looks a lot like the backyard of the past.

Designers of children’s play spaces are increasingly looking beyond slides, jungle gyms and other plastic-coated structures in their quest to create fun, safe, healthy environments. As a result, kids are running outside and discovering play areas dotted with old standbys: sand, water, boulders, hills and logs.

“This is an emerging national trend of some significance,” says Richard Dolesh, chief of public policy for the National Recreation and Parks Association. “Parents and other adults want natural opportunities for kids … The question is: how do you ensure safety with the inherent challenges that nature brings?”

Natural play spaces, as they’re called, are becoming more common as municipalities, schools and child care centers seek sustainable ways to invest in new or aging playgrounds. Seattle is adding at least six natural play spaces to existing city parks. Boston-area institutions have at least four in the works. Similar projects are either underway or recently completed in Phoenix, Chicago, New York and Auburn, Ala.

Kids seem to get the concept. Jada Horne, 4, knows just what to do one April morning at a new natural play area at the Boston Medical Center’s SPARK Center. She grabs a bucket of sand, adds water from a conveniently located spigot and gets to work.

“I’m making soup!” she explains, tossing in a few handfuls of woodchips for flavor.

Supporters of natural play spaces say they make sense on multiple levels. Child development experts say kids learn creativity and autonomy when they’re engaged with “loose parts,” such as mud and sticks. Funders in these lean-budget times are sometimes pleased to forgo five- and six-figure expenditures for manufactured play equipment. Some even argue that natural places are safer.

“They don’t get boring,” says Mav Pardee, program manager for the Children’s Investment Fund, a financier of natural spaces and other educational experiences for Boston-area kids.

But even some believers say built playgrounds are not going to become obsolete. They see equipment as an essential complement to natural play spaces.

In Seattle, natural play spaces have engaged children at city parks since the late 1990s. Though kids at first enjoyed playing with sand and a cave at Carkeek Park, they tended to get restless and be excessively hard on the natural features, says Randy Robinson, a senior landscape architect for the Seattle Department of Parks and Recreation.

“Once they’d dug in the sand a little bit, they’d be running up and down the hill, but there just wasn’t enough for them,” Robinson says. “People who are promoting environmental education don’t want to hear that. (But) parents made a request to get some conventional play equipment installed nearby.” Now kids burn energy by swinging or climbing and then use the natural play space when they’re ready for creative downtime.

Makers of playground equipment say they aren’t opposed to natural play spaces, since kids benefit from nature. But playing only with natural elements isn’t adequate for a child’s healthy development, says Joe Frost, a retired professor of education and a paid member of the Board of Advisors for the International Playground Equipment Manufacturers Association’s Voice of Play outreach campaign. The campaign touts the benefits of playgrounds for kids.

“Certain physical skills are established through built equipment that are difficult to provide through natural materials,” he says. “For instance, they need climbing structures.”

Natural play spaces may appear simple, but getting one launched can mean overcoming multiple hurdles. Municipalities often struggle to get insurance because insurers aren’t sure how to assess the risks involved, says Robin Moore, director of the Natural Learning Initiative at North Carolina State University.

Oversight boards sometimes resist proposals for natural play areas because they mark a departure from the playground norm, says Gail Sullivan, president of Studio G Architects, which designed SPARK’s area. What’s more, even natural play areas need money: SPARK’s cost $80,000 to design and build.

What’s involved in caring for them remains a matter of some debate. Maintenance costs can be minimal precisely because nature is the whole idea, says Ron King, president of the Natural Playgrounds Co., a designer and builder whose gross sales doubled from $139,000 in 2007 to $279,000 in 2009.

“Everybody says, ‘What about maintenance?’ ” King says. “Our response is: ‘It’s a natural area. Let it go.’ … That’s nature. That’s what it’s all about.”

But Linda Cain Ruth, a building science professor and playground expert at Auburn University, says natural playgrounds need careful maintenance to remain safe.

“A lot of people think that because it’s natural there’s no maintenance, and that is not true,” Ruth said. “Wood rots. … You have to make sure you have a good surface for (kids) to fall on.”