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Greening the Playground

When play spaces are naturalized, children thrive.

Although it’s eons ago, I can still conjure up the playground of my old elementary school, The Briscoe School, in Beverly, Massachusetts. A square of black macadam –it seemed a vast expanse to my six year old eyes—was ringed by metal fencing and concrete trim. In one corner, the girls skipped rope and drew hopscotch squares in white chalk. In another corner, the boys played dodge ball, chase, and tag. Although the school was in a bucolic seaside town, no one then considered that the playground needed improvement. Today, however, decades of research yield a different story. We now know that greening play spaces is far more than prettifying the school grounds. There’s a direct payoff in enriching children’s physical, emotional, and even cognitive development. Let’s look at the evidence.

A recent study took advantage of a natural experiment when a “traditional” playground for preschoolers was being renovated into a “natural” one. This enabled “before” and “after” measurements of children’s physical activity. The “traditional” playground had play structures such as slides and swings made of colorful plastic and metal. Trikes could use an oval concrete track. In that setting, on average, 16 percent of the children were engaged in moderate to vigorous physical activity, such as walking or running. When the playground was “naturalized,” tree logs, stumps and boulders replaced the plastic and metal play structures. Recycled materials such as old tires and ropes were added. A grassy hill was constructed for children to climb up and slide down. Once the playground went “green” in these ways, 40 percent of the children were running, jumping, walking and climbing, at any given time. More children were playing games of chase, hide and seek, and tag. The rate of physical activity nearly tripled!

These findings are significant, given the obesity epidemic among young children. In the U. S., 21.2 percent of two to five year olds are overweight or obese. Only 54 percent of young children meet the physical activity guidelines of at least three hours of physical activity spread throughout the day. Time spent in outdoor play has actually been declining in recent years. Because children build motor skills and physical coordination through outdoor physical activity, greening play spaces can help our kids get fit and become more agile.

Mind and spirit: Connecting children with nature enriches the mind and spirit as well. A recent study of preschools in Stockholm dramatically illustrates this. The researchers mapped the location of 134 preschools, all of high quality, throughout the city in terms of nature experiences. For example, they asked: How close was the school to a lake, forest, or even picnic area? If green spaces were close by, how much did the school integrate them into the curriculum? Using such questions, ten “nature rich” schools were identified and contrasted with ten “nature poor” schools. The children in the “nature rich” schools scored significantly higher on measures of empathy, responding with distress and concern to the pain of others. In addition, these children had more emotional responses to environmental behaviors, feeling good about caring for the environment, for example, by watering a dry garden, and feeling distressed at destructive behaviors, such as pollution. The children even knew more about ecological issues, responding more accurately to questions about what resources humans need and what the effects of environmental behaviors such as pollution and conservation are. Finally, the children in the “nature rich” schools had greater appreciation for nature and more desire to go out and play in natural settings.

These studies, and others, make a powerful argument for “greening” early childhood education. They challenge educators and parents to think of creative ways to bring nature into children’s schools and bring children out into nature.

Here are some helpful resources:

“Greening Early Childhood Education” A special issue of Children, Youth, & Environment (2014). An excellent collection of research articles and essays, along with book reviews.

The North American Association for Environmental Education (NAAEE). A clearing house for resources and ideas in environmental education for all ages.

Children’s Experience of Place (1979) by Roger Hart. Irvington Pub. A classic and influential book by a pioneer in studying the significance of place for children’s development.

The Great Outdoors: Advocating for Natural Spaces for Young Children (2014), by Mary S. Rivkin, with Deborah Schein. Washington, D. C.: NAEYC. This is a revised version of a 1995 book arguing that children need to play and explore in natural spaces.

The Go Green Rating Scale for Early Childhood Settings (2009) by Phil Boise and The Go Green Rating Scale Handbook for Early Childhood Settings: Improving Your Score (2010), St. Paul, MN: Redleaf Press. A wealth of practical ideas for naturalizing and “greening” preschools and day care centers.

More from Gail F. Melson Ph.D.
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More from Gail F. Melson Ph.D.
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