Kids’ Favorite Things to do Outside

by Ron King, Natural Playgrounds Company 

25 years ago, we started an assembly with a question to 600 kids in one school. They ranged in age from Kindergarten through 4th grade, and every student in every class participated.

We asked 

On a spring, summer, fall, or winter weekend, with a friend or not, and with no homework or chores to do, 

What is your favorite outside play activity?

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Kids Tell Us What They Want

by Ron King, Natural Playgrounds Company

25 years ago, we interviewed 600 kids in one school. They ranged in age from Kindergarten through 4th grade, and every student in every class participated.

We presented a slide show in which we showed the kids 4 different scenarios, with 2 comparison photos for each, told them there was no right or wrong answer, and asked them a basic question. 

Photo 1: was an 8’ shade gazebo in the middle of a playground with kids sitting under it. The comparison photo was a stone wall circle in the woods. I asked the kids where they would rather be sitting and talking with their friends.

Photo 2: was a photo of an 8 year old leaning against a large tree in open woods. The comparison photo was a bunch of kids on a playground. I asked the kids where they would rather be. 

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Natural Playgrounds last forever!

When we lecture about or discuss Natural Playgrounds, the one question we always get? "What about maintenance?" - asked in a challenging manner, and as though nothing else requires it....  

...and as though that question should stop us in our tracks, make us reconsider this foolish idea of bringing nature closer to children so they'll get healthier, be more well- adjusted, be happier, be able to learn more, be good stewards of the earth.

I don't know if people asking really want to know the answer, so they can plan long range, or if they're looking for ways to derail others from pursuing this "foolishness."

"What's the difference?" I want to say. "If you think it's best for your children, as all the research suggests, then it doesn't matter, does it? Because if it’s that important (and it is!), you'll find a way to take care of it!"

Instead we patiently explain that Natural Playgrounds are living, breathing things. They're natural environments, and like your garden at home, they need looking after.

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Create a fabulous sand play area on your Natural Playground

Sand is 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, so it’s unsettling that children see it stored in 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.

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.

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Natural Playgrounds are very affordable!

With the world of play dominated by manufactured playgrounds, it may be hard to understand the importance of going in a different direction, but there is good reason to change course and explore a much more viable playground option.

Montessori and other schools can save lots of money by creating sustainable, philosophically consistent, natural playgrounds that are safer and meet green standards, yet challenge kids emotionally, physically, and mentally.

Over the past six decades, playground equipment manufactures have been the sole source for answers to questions about play, children, and safety. When a new playground was needed, or one needed refurbishing, decision-makers always turned to these companies to give them the most up-to-date playground equipment that met the newest ASTM (American Society of Testing and Materials, International) and CPSC (US Consumer Product Safety Council) safety standards.

But the injury statistics suggest that this confidence may be misplaced. Despite the stringent safety regulations, over a half million playground equipment related accidents are reported every year.

In 2006, the American Academy of Orthopaedic Surgeons reported that most of these injuries occurred among people younger than 20. More than 177,000 injuries came from monkey bars or other climbing equipment, nearly 128,000 from swings, more than 113,000 from slides, and thousands more from other playground equipment.

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How kids can reconnect with nature on the playground

An earlier generation of kids may have spent all their free time playing in the woods, but in today’s world of helicopter parenting and stranger danger, letting their children do the same is unthinkable for many parents.

Now, park designers and officials as well as school boards are trying to reacquaint kids with nature, not by sending them into the forest, but by creating what are called natural playgrounds.

This week, the Toronto District School Board rejected a plan to sell off playground land to help pay for capital projects, reaffirming the importance of wide-open spaces to children’s development.

The movement to swap swings, slides and monkey bars for boulders, grassy hills and trees is gaining ground across Canada, the United States and other countries. Advocates say natural playgrounds prompt much more imaginative free play, foster social interaction and cut down on bullying, and encourage the sort of risk-taking some experts say overcautious parenting has been unintentionally blocking.

Their emergence can be traced back to the 2005 book Last Child in the Woods, by journalist Richard Louv. He coined the phrase “nature deficit disorder,” cautioning that cutting children off from nature was linked to rising rates of obesity, depression and attention deficit disorder.

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Physical Fitness Linked to Brain Fitness!

Physical fitness isn't just good for your health. It's also a good way to beef up your brain. New research shows being physically fit can improve the structure of brain matter that plays a role in learning!  

Greater aerobic fitness generates more fibrous and compact white matter which can lead to improved cognitive performance, says the team of researchers led by Laura Chaddock-Heyman, a research scientist at the University of Illinois at Urbana- Champaign's Beckman Institute! Compact white matter is a type of nerve tissue connected to learning and brain function.

"Our work has important implications for educational and public health policies. Sedentary behaviors and inactivity are continually on the rise and physical activity opportunities are being reduced or eliminated during the school day," Chaddock- Heyman says. "Hopefully these findings will reinforce the importance of aerobic fitness during a child’s development, and lead to additional physical activity opportunities in and out of the school environment."

The researchers used a type of magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) to look at five different white matter tracts in the brains of two dozen 9- and 10-year-olds, half of whom were more physically fit than the other half. White matter also works to carry nerve signals between different parts of the brain, and all of the tracts examined have been associated with attention and memory, the study says.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, only one-quarter of American youths currently engage in the recommended amount of daily physical activity, and research shows this to have a negative impact on their academics!

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Designing for outdoor play and learning

When it comes to designing outdoor spaces, creativity should be encouraged. An understanding of the characteristics and history of the site will helpt to establish a sense of place and relate to what is there already.

A skilled designer, most likely a natural playground designer, should lead the process, supplemented with additional expertise, such as from a play expert or civil engineer. Public artists can also add richness to a project, and art installations can sometimes offer children more play value than equipment. 

Back to nature

Natural play is growing in popularity in the UK. Natural play spaces contain playful landscape elements including landform, vegetation, and natural elements such as logs, stones, mud, and sand.

Research studies have documented the benefits that can come from natural play, including for children’s learning, healthy growth, and development. This year the Forestry Commission is publishing Nature play: simple and fun ideas for all, an illustrative guide that provides ideas for local forest managers to implement in their nature play areas. Many of the ideas in the guide can equally be applied to urban areas.

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How to make your playground more natural

by Ron King, President, Natural Playgrounds Company

Each year we get requests from Center directors asking for ideas on how to “soften” their playgrounds with more natural play elements.

Most of the 330,000 licensed child care centers in the US have metal and plastic playgrounds on top of wood/rubber chips designed to prevent injury from possible falls. Sometimes a concrete path with a dotted line straight down the center to mimic a road gets trike use, and typically there isn’t enough shade --- which all adds up to a pretty harsh outdoor play environment. 

Although most of our work is designing equipment-free Natural Playgrounds, we have also found ways to incorporate more natural play experiences in manufactured ones, so let’s look at some ideas you can try. 

Step One: Assess what you have

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Building your Natural Playground in phases?

Over the years we've noticed that many of our clients do not finish building their natural play environments. According to them, after building about 30% of the design, the playground looked so much better, and kids were having so much more fun, that the drive to finish their natural playgrounds died out.

Unfortunately, this meant that the few play elements that were completed got overused and rapidly deteriorated. The playgrounds then looked bad, everyone got discouraged, and instead of trying to complete the original natural playground design, traditional equipment was brought back into the playground to try solving the problems.

Soon the cycle will start again. Kids will be bored with the equipment, they’ll want more things to do, they’ll want to be more creative, and the appeal of natural playgrounds will loom large once again.

So this is a reminder: finish building the whole design as quickly as you can. It is meant to work as a whole. Expecting that it will function as it should when it’s only 30% complete, is like expecting your watch to work with only 30% of its parts, or like your school to function with only 30% of its staff.

And one last note: a change in administration brings in new people who may not be aware of the natural playground concept. Take the time to go over the Natural Playground design with them, and to discuss all the wonderful reasons why you initially chose to go in the direction of a more natural play environment.

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Comparing Grass, Fall Zones, and Rubber on Playgrounds

"Fall zones are required around elevated playground equipment from which children could fall." says Ron King, President of the Natural Playgrounds Company in Concord, NH. "The idea is to cushion the falls so the likelihood of children suffering major accidents is lessened."

"Fall zones are usually huge. They need to extend 6’ out from every part of any equipment, and need to be completely under all the equipment, so the area filled with fall zone material is, as I said, HUGE...."

...and therefore, obviously costly, regardless of the material used, so if you’re thinking about poured-in-place rubber (PIP), it has a typical lifespan of 10-15 years IF it’s installed perfectly over a perfect sub-base (which it usually isn’t), and it’s extremely expensive, so having to replace it every 10-15 years amounts to a significant yearly maintenance cost. (more later)

Just so you know, fall zones on Natural Playgrounds are very limited in size because many of the “elevated” structures are built into hills, so there is no place to fall off the sides(!!) which means that fall zones are required on only one side, and that means that fall zones are very much smaller, and therefore less expensive initially and over the long run.

One more good reason to consider Natural Playgrounds, right? :))

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Today’s children are in danger of losing their connection, or never getting a connection, to nature!

At this time of year, Dawn Miller from the Charleston Gazette would rather be outside watching BB-sized tomatoes emerge on her West Virginia garden, so she used her smart phone to attend a Congressional hearing in Washington called “No Child Left Inside.”

If you despair that your children, grandchildren or other young people you care about are completely isolated from the natural world, you’re in good company.

“Today’s children are in danger of losing their connection, or never getting a connection to nature,” Gina McCarthy, commissioner of the Connecticut Department of Environmental Protection, told members of Congress.

Society as a whole, as well as individual children, will suffer if this connection is lost, she said. They will grow up not understanding and even fearful of the natural world. Speaking to two subcommittees of the House Committee on Natural Resources, McCarthy warned that children who never get the chance to discover the wonder of the natural world will grow into taxpayers and voters who won’t care about forests, parks or the value of biodiversity.

Various panelists reported that national parks and forests are drawing fewer visitors, many of the nation’s locally run urban parks are crumbling, and after years of increasing enthusiasm for fishing, there’s a sag in interest. Children are less likely to play outside in their own yards or in their neighborhoods, to the detriment of their own health and fitness.

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Creating Unstructured Play Environments

"Weʼre wired to play and have fun!" says Ron King. President, Natural Playgrounds Company.  

"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? 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.

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Outdoor Time Boosts Academic Performance!

Mary Burnette for the National Wildlife Federation


Remember how great it felt to buy that new box of crayons? Selecting new school supplies is always fun for kids, but parents may be surprised to learn “nature” is one more thing they should put on the back-to- school supply list. According to a new report by National Wildlife Federation (NWF), Back to School: Back Outside, time spent outdoors both during school and at home helps children become high-performance learners and score higher on standard tests.

Unfortunately, American children spend only minutes a day playing and learning outdoors which presents a new educational challenge for our country. The report examines the impact of outdoor and environmental education, outdoor time and nature study on student motivation, effectiveness at learning, classroom behavior, focus and standardized test scores.

The report shows how outdoor time is connected with wide-ranging academic benefits including;

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Access To Nature Is Essential To Human Health!

Recent research at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, reports that children with ADHD have fewer symptoms after outdoor activities in natural environments. College students do better on cognitive tests when their dorm windows view natural settings. Elderly adults tend to live longer if their homes are near a park or other green space, regardless of their social or economic status. Residents of public housing complexes report better family interactions when they live near trees.

These are only a few of the findings from recent studies that support the idea that nature is essential to the physical, psychological, and social well-being of the human animal, said Frances Kuo, a professor of natural resources and environmental science and psychology at the University of Illinois. Kuo will present her own and other findings on the subject at the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science in Chicago on Feb. 13.

“Humans are evolved organisms and the environment is our habitat,” Kuo said. “Now, as human societies become more urban, we as scientists are in a position to look at humans in much the same way that those who study animal behavior have looked at animals in the wild to see the effect of a changing habitat on this species.”

Humans living in landscapes that lack trees or other natural features undergo patterns of social, psychological, and physical breakdown that are strikingly similar to those observed in other animals that have been deprived of their natural habitat, Kuo said.

“In animals what you see is increases in aggression, you see disrupted parenting patterns, their social hierarchies are disrupted,” she said.

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Natural Playgrounds Inspire More Play and are More Beneficial to Children!

According to a recent University of Tennessee study, children who play on playgrounds incorporating natural elements like logs and flowers tend to be more active than those who play on traditional playgrounds with metal and brightly colored equipment.

They also appear to use their imaginations more, according to the report.

The study, which examined changes in physical activity levels and patterns in young children exposed to both traditional and natural playgrounds, is among the first of its kind in the United States, according to Dawn Coe, assistant professor in the Department of Kinesiology, Recreation, and Sport Studies.

“Natural playgrounds have been popping up around the country but there was nothing conclusive on if they work,” she said. “Now, we know.”

For the study, Coe observed children at UT’s Early Learning Center. She began in June 2011 by observing the children while the center still had traditional wood and plastic equipment. She logged how often they used the slides and other apparatus, studied the intensity of their activity, and how much time they spent in a porch area to get shade from the sun.

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Green space is highly beneficial to children!

A house surrounded by nature helps boost a child's attention capabilities, a recent study by a Cornell University researcher suggests.  

"When children's cognitive functioning was compared before and after they moved from poor- to better-quality housing that had more green spaces around, profound differences emerged in their attention capacities even when the effects of the improved housing were taken into account," says Nancy Wells, assistant professor of design and environmental analysis in the New York State College of Human Ecology at Cornell.

Wells also conducted a study that suggests the mental health of adults improves with a move from poor to quality housing.

Although the green-space study sample was small -- only 17 children -- the statistical findings were highly significant, says Wells. Children in the study who had the greatest gains in terms of "greenness" between their old and new homes showed the greatest improvements in functioning. "The findings suggest that the power of nature is indeed profound," she says.

To conduct the study, published in Environmental and Behavior (2000, Vol. 32, pp. 775-795), the researcher assessed the extent of natural surroundings around the children's old and new homes by rating, for example, the amount of nature in the views from various rooms and the degree of the yard's natural setting. To assess their children's abilities to focus attention, parents answered a series of questions from the Attention Deficit Disorders Evaluation Scale, a nationally standardized measure of directed attention capacity.

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Nature makes children more resilient!

We see children daily trying to beat the odds, trying to stay sane amidst insane circumstances, writes Karen Stephens for the Child Care Information Exchange. The stresses vary, but they typically fall under the umbrella of family dysfunction, including domestic violence, drug and alco- hol abuse, and child abuse.

I don’t go a week without hearing someone say, “It’s a wonder that child makes it.” And yet, most do. Despite role modeling to the contrary, they become competent, responsible adults, capable of loving and caring for a family of their own. They don’t repeat the cycle of dysfunction.

There are many people who prove that one can be a successful adult even having lived a challenged childhood. How do they do it? What makes them resilient enough to maintain positive attitudes and behaviors in spite of having seen the worst in life during their most vulnerable time of life?

Researchers have identified multiple factors that contribute to children’s resilience. I will focus on one that is often overlooked (or perhaps just taken for granted): nature. I’ll illustrate with two people you may be familiar with.

For instance, does Margaret Wise Brown ring a bell? It should. Her 100+ picture books include classics, such as Goodnight Moon and The Runaway Bunny, both still popular in bookstores today. For over 50 years, her warm, sensitive, and touching stories have set the stage for cozy, affection- ate readings in millions of families.

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Overweight Kids Who Exercise Improve their Thinking and Math Skills

Reserarch suggests that chronic sedentary behavior is compromising children's ability and achievement,' says a recent report in Health Day News.  

When overweight, sedentary kids start to exercise regularly, their ability to think, plan, and even do math improves, a new study suggests.

In addition, exercise was linked to increased activity in the parts of the brain associated with complex thinking and self-control, according to brain imaging scans analyzed by the researchers.

"This implies that chronic sedentary behavior is compromising children's ability and achievement," said lead researcher Catherine Davis, a clinical health psychologist at the Georgia Prevention Institute at Georgia Health Sciences University in Augusta.

"We know that exercise is good for you, but we didn't have very good evidence [before this] that it would help children do better in school," said Davis.

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Everything can be taught outside!


by Ron King, Natural Playgrounds Company

Head Start uses 40 thematic units to teach kids about a number of topics, and over half of them are about nature. Below are the units having to do with the outdoors and nature:

  • Animal Studies 
  • Apples
  • Bears
  • Birds
  • Clocks/Telling Time (SunTime)
  • Dinosaur
  • Endangered Species
  • Explorers
  • Farm
  • Map Skills
  • Measurement
  • Native American
  • Oceans
  • Penguins
  • Rocks & Minerals
  • Snow
  • Spiders
  • Water
  • Weather
  • Wild Animals
  • Whales

I couldn’t figure out how teachers get children inside a classroom to really understand about snow, or farming, or map skills, or weather, or water, or about birds and bears, and apples, and spiders.

Wouldn't it be a lot easier for children to understand how apples grow by actually going to an orchard and seeing the bees pollinating the blossoms, or in the fall picking an apple off a tree? Or even better, by planting an apple tree in the schoolyard, watching it grow, blossom, get pollinated, and make an apple?

Wouldn't it be a whole lot easier to understand spiders by discovering a web spun between two stalks of weeds and watching a spider catching insects? Or understand the weather by actually being outside witnessing the wind, sun, clouds, temperature variations, and watching the clouds roll by?

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