Supplement Feature - April 2011
Find a printable version here

Common Grounds

Inclusive Play on the Upswing

By Wynn St. Clair

Being Green

Kermit the Frog swears it's not easy being green, but that hasn't stopped progressive recreation managers from thinking that way when it comes to playgrounds.

An increasing number of open spaces have been turned into natural playgrounds, which are designed to blend indigenous vegetation and features with creative landforms and fun diversions. They are intended to bring children back to nature, offering a wide range of open-ended play options that encourage creativity and imagination.

Anyone who has climbed a tree, rolled down a hill or leapt into a pile of leaves has experienced natural play. Experts, however, worry those activities are becoming outmoded in the 21st century, losing a popularity contest to video games and the Internet. In detailing the assortment of behavioral problems children unacquainted with the outdoors exhibit, author Richard Louv described the condition as "Nature Deficit Disorder" in his book Last Child in the Woods.

Natural playgrounds, or playscapes, are a suggested antidote for the disorder and technology's stronghold on children by encouraging kids to simply get outside and play.

The Aaron Family Jewish Community Center in Dallas, Texas, embraced that premise when it recently began fundraising efforts for a natural playground. Organizers are hoping to break ground in August for a park that will boast a miniature natural landscape with rolling hills, stone walls for climbing, gardens, water play and natural rock piles, among other features.

"We knew we had to get our children back to nature and we had to do what is right by our children," said Laura Seymour, the center's director of camping services. "Kids playing on traditional playgrounds aren't getting the same amount of exercise that kids are getting in natural playgrounds because nature is always changing, it's never boring."

Indeed, experts believe playscapes offer a wide range of health benefits such as increasing physical activity, fine and gross motor skills and cognitive development. They also are used in horticultural therapy for rehabilitation of mental and/or physical ailments.

The natural playgrounds also offered the Jewish Community Center a chance to build an inclusive play area for all children, including those with special needs. Studies show that children with autism benefit from playscapes because they give them a chance to escape the uncomfortable sensation of everyday life and relax in a natural setting while building leisure, social and vocational skills.

"A lot of times, we create playgrounds that make us, as adults, feel good, and they're not actually what's right for the kids," Seymour said. "Nature grounds are inclusive because almost everyone can enjoy some aspect of nature in one form or another."