Tuesday, December 2, 2014

The Innocence of Natural Play: Creating Unstructured Play Environments

Weʼre wired to play and have fun, arenʼt we?

[photo credit: miller family big trip. blogspot]

Iʼve seen movies of bears wrestling with each other, monkeys playing and laughing together, squirrels chasing each other in trees, and cats batting dangling string, rolling and chasing balls, and pouncing on wind-up mice.
And us? Donʼt we do the same kinds of things, and sometimes go to great lengths to take a break from routines and have fun?

All of us are busy, but we do look for moments here and there to grab a coffee, see a movie, go out for dinner, take a drive, chat with a friend, or watch TV.

And boy, does it feel luxurious when we actually have time to unwind and hike, or fish, or garden, or swim, or paint, or read, or pursue our hobby....or just take a long, wonderful, quiet nap in the middle of the day. Anything that doesnʼt involve a schedule or an obligation or meeting a deadline is just plain precious to us.

Unstructured, unscheduled, free time. There is absolutely nothing like it.

But our lives are so full of family and work obligations, that finding that kind of time for ourselves is really difficult and, for me (and you, too, perhaps), it almost becomes an obsession.

What happened to the days of our youths when all we ever thought about was play? Maybe itʼs too long in the past to be certain, but when I was eight, I remember endless days. Hours and hours playing trucks and cars in my friendʼs dirt driveway, playing in the hilly field by my house, playing with wooden bricks my dad made from a 2x4, climbing trees, and making forts and tree houses in the woods.

Hours! And you probably did similar things, too!

Some time ago, we developed an interactive presentation about Natural Playgrounds, and one of our exercises asks people to tell us about the favorite things they did outside when they were 8 or 10 years old.
The answers are fun: climbing trees, making forts, making mud pies, climbing rocks, digging in the sand, running through tall grass, looking for bugs, playing in the water, walking in the woods, jumping in leaves, making sand castles, making snow angels.... [now would be the perfect time to get outside and make snow angels, right?]

[photo credit: the curious me.com]

So hereʼs the importance of these memories: all of the play activities, every single one of them, was unstructured. As kids, these adults made up their own rules, their own actions, made discoveries, learned how to do things on their own, took risks, solved problems, got satisfaction, laughed, had fun, felt successful -- all because they were left on their own to play in an environment that encouraged imagination and exploration.

Unstructured, free play. Thatʼs what made the memories indelible.

Contrast that with play experienced by most children today. Inside a fenced playground usually filled with woodchips and nothing different or exciting day after day, they find themselves bored. Thereʼs no place to explore, no discoveries to make, no imagination required, no risks to take, no nature to watch...everythingʼs the same, same, same every time they come on the playground.

But thatʼs not all. Over the past 40 years, thereʼs been a 50% drop in unstructured outdoor activities, structured sports have doubled, homework has more than tripled, kids spend more than 30 hours a week with electronic entertainment, recess has been reduced or eliminated in 40% of US elementary schools (some schools are even being built without playgrounds), and parents continue to fully book their childrenʼs free time with organized activities like sports, swimming, archery, computer camps, choir practice, and dance lessons.

We're are quickly approaching the end to this year, whirling fiercely toward 2015. Make it your mission to get you, your family, your children, your neighbor's children - outside. On a whim, collect your family and go for a hike or take a walk around the block and see all the holiday decorations. Do something spontaneous. Get outside. Make a few memories.

[photo credit: flotsamofthemind.com]


Pyle, R (2002) Eden in a vacant lot: special places, species, and kids in the neighborhood of life.

Kellert, S (2002). Experiencing nature: affective, cognitive, and evaluative development in children

Healy, J (1990) "Endangered Minds: Why Our Children Don't Think and What We Can Do About It."

Ron King is president of the Natural Playgrounds company headquartered in Concord New Hampshire. The company designs and constructs Natural Playgrounds all over the US and can be reached through the web at www.NaturalPlaygrounds.com, by e-mail at info@NaturalPlaygrounds.com, or by toll-free phone 888-290-8405. Their website is full of research, pictures, fundraising sources, and information about Natural Playgrounds. Their store carries many of the items mentioned in the article.

Monday, September 15, 2014

Playing in the Sand - Naturally; Part 2

School may be back in session, but there's still plenty of time to get outside or get to the beach and PLAY in the Sand. A few short months ago, we wanted to share our thoughts about the importance of sand play. We believe that sand represents an empty canvas to children. Sand is something that children can explore, manipulate and learn from.

But many playgrounds are designed to use sand in restrictive ways. Used within typical playgrounds, sand is usually found in a small "sand table" or in buckets. But how can children explore their vivid imaginations if they can't experience SAND as nature intended? That blank canvas quickly becomes a scrap piece of paper with pre-determined lines drawn on it.

Children find sand boxes limiting. Whenever we've seen a sandbox adjacent to a sand pile, children are never in the confined box. They're always in the free-form area, playing with abandonment.

When sand is where it’s supposed to be, children love playing in it. They can dig to China, find “fossils,” hunt for gems, make roadways, build mountains, create waterways, build sand castles, dig tunnels, and discover hidden treasures. If they mix sand with water, they can make shapes of almost any kind.

And while children are in the sand playing, they are still learning. What are they learning?

*      When sand is wet, it changes color. And when wet sand gets very cold, it freezes solid.
*      When sand is wet, it can be shaped, and the finer the sand, the more intricate the shapes can be.
*      Sand is comprised of many tiny particles of various sizes and colors which children can sort and collect.
*      Sand, like other fine materials, slips through the small cracks in their hands, so children learn to clasp them together more tightly when trying to contain fine materials. 
*      If children try building a bridge using sand, they learn that it won’t support itself and that they need something with more “structural integrity” like a stick or a piece of wood.
*      Sand can be portioned and divided, and added and subtracted. More is heavier, less is lighter, and to get more, you take more, and keep adding until you have just the right amount, a decision in itself.
*      Sand can bury or “hide” things, like treasures, which can be found later.
*      Sand particles get into everything: pockets, fingernails, sneakers, hair, lunchboxes, and classrooms. Sand makes a floor very slippery.
*      When it rains, rivulets can move sand, and make beautiful, smooth patterns.
*      But if children try making a sand dam, they soon realize it won’t hold water.
*      Children learn to control their bodies in different ways when they’re kneeling on the sand, sitting and twisting, or turning and reaching.

If our firm were designing a Natural Playground for a childcare center, school, or community, this list would comprise the “design parameters” for a free-form, sand play area. Similar parameters would be developed for every other aspect of a Natural Playground, because they’re the ultimate outdoor classrooms that should challenge and inspire children while teaching them lessons about themselves and about nature.

For more information about Natural Playgrounds, visit our website at www.naturalplaygrounds.com

By Ron King, M.Arch, CPSI
President, The Natural Playgrounds Company

Monday, May 19, 2014

Playing in the Sand – Naturally

Sand. It’s one of the few manipulatives that truly allows children to explore their imaginations. 

Unfortunately, in most play settings, sand is treated as just one more controlled play item: it’s kept in containers until it’s used in a plastic “sand table.”

The beauty of sand, is that it’s a material found almost everywhere on earth. It’s unsettling that children see it stored in a table or in a bucket on a shelf along with crayons and toys, totally disconnected from its natural setting.

Not much of it fits in a sand table, and there’s no room to build anything complex, such as road systems or mountains. Children stand at the table, rather than play on their hands and knees, and many are required to wear aprons so they don’t get dirty.

We’re pretty certain that these are not good lessons for children.

Children also find sand boxes limiting. Whenever we’ve seen a sandbox adjacent to a sand pile, children are never in the confined box. They’re always in the free-form area, playing with abandonment.

And while children are in the sand playing, they are still learning. What are they learning?

  • That sand has what is called a “slump” characteristic, so when poured, sand will form a mound, the slopes of which vary in angle depending on the size of its granules and the dampness of the sand.
  • That on a sunny day, the surface of the sand will be hot, but when children dig down, they find coolness.  
  • That when water evaporates from a structure made with sand, it collapses. 
  • That when too much water is added, structures don’t hold their shape.
  • That sand is portable, so children find many ways to move it by pushing it, pulling it, putting it in and pouring it out of containers, carrying it by hand, shoveling it, moving it by dump truck, and pouring it out of funnels.
  • That if they dig deep enough on a beach, and children find water; deeper still, they’ll discover that their holes collapse.
  • That when children are barefoot, their feet and bodies have to adjust in surprising ways to accommodate the ever-changing surface of sand.

To children, sand is an empty canvas.

By Ron King, M.Arch, CPSI
President, The Natural Playgrounds Company

For more information about Natural Playgrounds, visit our website at www.naturalplaygrounds.com