Supplement Feature - April 2010
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A Natural Trend

Natural Environment Enhances Playground Designs

By Dawn Klingensmith

Exercising the Imagination

In addition to physical activities, playgrounds should promote fantasy and dramatic play, as research suggests that the latter types of play aid in cognitive development and peer relations. "Typically, over the years the focus has been on gross motor play," Stoecklin said. "Manufacturers realize now that children can do more than gross motor play outside."

Inside, "kids do dramatic play, with the little fridge and the little fruits, vegetables and plates, but none of those things are available to them in most outside play areas," she said. "Loose parts should be a part of any playground, along with lots of storage. Much of what children learn is through manipulating loose parts. They learn about gravity, movement, fine motor skills and how objects occupy space."

As for storage, "The problem with a traditional storage shed is that people junk it up," Stoecklin said. "A lot of manufacturers are coming out with smaller storage options closer to an actual event. So, for example, near a sand area you have a small storage space for shovels and sifters and other tools for kids to use."

Loose parts need not be actual tools or toys. Non-literal objects like those found in nature have unlimited potential as playthings. For example, using a plain old stick, kids can make believe they're anyone from a fairy godmother waving a magic wand to an equestrian feeding a carrot to a horse.

Add a little nook or shelter, "and if the right parts are there, it might be a pizza shop or a grocery store or a beauty salon," Stoecklin said.

Ideally, structures should be "open-ended," she added, to encourage free-thinking and creativity, which fuel dramatic play. And while custom-themed playgrounds have been hailed as a way to create a unique experience, celebrate a community's culture or complement the surroundings (by tying in with a beach, for example), Stoecklin warns against making play components so thematic that kids can't transform them into something else by using their imaginations.