Debbie Nicholson

Natural playgrounds offer more benefits to children than traditional playgrounds

Natural playgrounds that include natural elements like logs and flowers appear to have children more active than traditional playgrounds with brightly colored metal equipment, allowing children to use their imagination more.

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The new findings come from a new playground safety study conducted by researchers at the University of Tennessee.

This new study investigates changes in physical activity levels and patterns in young children exposed to both natural and traditional playgrounds.

Dr. Dawn Coe, PhD, assistant professor of undergraduate and graduate courses in exercise science and researcher at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville, states "Natural playgrounds have been popping up around the country but there was nothing conclusive on if they work.” The answers found in this study just may surprise some parents.

For this study, Dr. Coe observed children at The University of Tennessee Early Learning Center for Research and Practice (ELC), beginning June 2011. Dr. Coe observed children while the center still maintained traditional wood and plastic equipment. She had logged how often they had used slides and other equipment, studied the intensity of their activity and how much time was spent in the porch area to shade them from the sun.

Then the staff of the learning center started to renovate the playground and over several months had added a gazebo and slides built into a hill. Dwarf trees were planted and a creek was built landscaped with rocks and flowers. Also added into the design were logs and tree stumps. The playground was now turned into a “natural playscape” as Dr. Coe calls it.

Dr. Coe worked with Carey Springer a statistician with the Office of Information Technology and had returned for follow-up observations this year. The study revealed significant differences between the two playgrounds.

Dr. Coe said with the natural setting more kids were off the porch and actually playing playground and their activity level had increased. They were jumping from logs to watering plants around the creek. They had engaged in more aerobic, bone and muscle strengthening activities. “This utilized motor skills, too," says Dr. Coe.

In the traditional setting the data had showed kids were inactive 20% of the time however, with the natural playground that percentage dropped to 16%.

Dr. Coe states Natural playscapes appear to be a viable alternative to traditional playgrounds for school and community settings.” "Future studies should look at these changes long-term as well as the nature of the children's play."

Just how do the kids view this new natural playground? According to Channel 6, Knoxville, Audrey Zanders a preschooler at the center who was there for both playgrounds had this to say about the natural playground "I like to slide down the slide at the gazebo because I really like to I like to see the flowers.”

Dr. Coe is preparing a manuscript of the study to submit for publication.

Susan Herrington, MLA, Professor, Architecture and Landscape Architecture, University British Columbia, conducted a five year study tracking the habits of toddlers and preschoolers in playground areas across Vancouver, between 2003 and 2008, consisting of 16 outdoor play centers videotaping children aged two to five years.

The study showed 87% of the time conventional equipment like money bars remained empty. When children did use the equipment it was for intended purposes like going down the slide which was at 3%of the time.

Herrington interviewed early childhood educators and gave workshops at child care centers as part of the research, 57% of the educators said the equipment needs to be more challenging.

The natural instinct of any child -- to be drawn to play by throwing dirt, sand or water in puddles, chutes and tunnels -- comes into direct conflict with manufacturers of playground equipment, who tend to appeal to parents' anxieties about safety, Herrington says.

"We found that outdoor play spaces that contain materials that children could manipulate -- sand, water, mud, plants, pathways and other loose parts -- offered more developmental and play opportunities than spaces without these elements,” as reported by .

There are many benefits for children that have regular play in nature, according to Randy White, CEO and co-founder of the White Hutchinson Leisure & Learning Group, some of these include:

When children play in natural environments, their play is more diverse with imaginative and creative play that fosters language and collaborative skills

Children with symptoms of Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) are better able to concentrate after contact with nature

Play in a diverse natural environment reduces or eliminates bullying.

Want to know what are some of the favorite things kids love to do outdoors? Check out the answers from a survey of 600 student’s grades 1 to 4, check out their answers on Natural Playgrounds. Com.

Want some kid friendly outdoor ideas come and check out a great selection on Pinterest.