Transform your school’s playground into a dynamic space that engages students’ imaginations and encourages exploration of nature—add a garden!
All too often, playgrounds are limited to large, hard structures made of metal and plastic placed in a bed of mulch. Without a doubt, kids love their playgrounds and need the physical activity they promote (just think how many kids consider recess their favorite time of the day), but by adding a touch of living green, they have the potential to offer even more benefits.
Playgrounds with plants, wildlife habitats, and water features provide youngsters with a chance to interact with their environment and participate in creative, self-directed play. Leaves, flowers, pinecones, sticks, and rocks have more creative power than narrowly focused, man-made toys. Seasonal and lifecycle changes, such as leaves changing colors and flowers moving from bud to bloom to seed, add to the intrigue of the natural play space and build excitement. Natural spaces can give kids more freedom to move at their own pace and practice decision-making skills.
Being located on the playground also provides benefits to the school garden program. Most importantly, it allows for regular, unstructured time for kids to visit with their plants. They can stop to smell the roses and enjoy the garden without being focused on a certain lesson plan or tasks. Of course, many kids don't consider gardening work. They may choose to spend their recess caring for the garden and return to class with a sense of accomplishment and pride. As a result of the increased attention by both students and teachers, the garden will be better maintained.
Here are a few ideas for starting the process of redefining play spaces to incorporate nature:
1. First, involve students in the design. What better way to see the space through their eyes than to let them share their vision. You will probably discover that students desire a space with a wild feeling rather than the manicured landscape that usually appeals to adults. Some fun, kid-approved garden features that encourage play include bridges, hiding places, such as bean tepees and sunflower houses, mazes and vine-covered arches.
2. Use a range of plants -- annuals, perennials, shrubs, and trees -- featuring a variety of colors, textures, and shapes. Avoid plants with poisonous or otherwise hazardous parts, like large thorns. Look for hardy plants that will tolerate and encourage sensory exploration, such as lamb's ears for touching and herbs for smelling.
3. Find simple ways to incorporate water and sand features because they are favorites with kids and provide lots of opportunities for experimentation.
4. Include loose natural items to encourage active play. This can include pinecones, sticks, rocks, acorns, leaves, and flowers, as well as equipment that can be used to explore and/or manipulate nature, such as watering cans, hand lenses, small trowels, spoons, and buckets. Don’t forget an open area of soil for digging and exploring.
Interested but not sure how to dive in? Transforming a playground does not need to involve a complete redesign of your space or a huge budget. Start small by just adding a few containers of herbs scattered around and then look for opportunities to grow from there.
If greening the playground is not a possibility, instead incorporate some play time into your gardening schedule. Although it is important to connect the garden to your curriculum, don't underestimate the value of play. A report from the American Academy of Pediatrics states that "free and unstructured play is healthy and, in fact, essential for helping children reach important social, emotional, and cognitive developmental milestones, as well as helping them manage stress and become resilient." Through play they explore their world and practice skills they need to become successful adults.
Benefits of Nature-Focused Play
White Hutchinson Leisure & Learning Group compiled an extensive list of benefits children receive when playing in nature, including:
- Children with symptoms of Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) are better able to concentrate after contact with nature. (Taylor et al., 2001).
- Children with views of, and contact with, nature score higher on tests of concentration and self-discipline. (Wells, 2000; Taylor et al., 2002)
- Children who play regularly in natural environments show more advanced motor fitness -- including coordination, balance, and agility -- and they are sick less often. (Grahn et al., 1997; Fjortoft & Sageie, 2001)
- When children play in natural environments, their play is more diverse and includes imaginative and creative play that fosters language and collaborative skills. (Moore & Wong, 1997; Taylor et al., 1998; Fjortoft, 2000)
- Children who play in nature have more positive feelings about each other. (Moore, 1996)
For more details about benefits, visit the White Hutchinson Leisure and Learning Group Website.