Why Kids Need Nature!

"When I was a kid, I’d be out the door first thing in the morning and back home when the sun set. I can’t even remember eating," Ron King told Playground Magazine during a recent interview. 

Not far from our home there was a foothill to the small mountain behind our house with an old growth pine forest covering the hillside. The dense pine canopy limited the undergrowth, so it was nice and open beneath the branches.

There was bedrock on the hill, and water would seep out between its layers in the early part of winter, slowly flow down the hill, and freeze over. And then it would snow, so we had a perfect combination of white fluff on the sides (to cushion potential crashes) and a center run that was almost sheer ice, and fast. Our Radio Flyer sleds (I still have mine!) had steel runners and a crossbar handle that bent the runners left or right to make you feel like you had control.

The run was only about 500 feet, but to us it seemed like a mile, and we would do it over and over and over again, all day long, up and down the steep hill, up and down. No supervision, no rules, just lots of exercise, and free, natural play we happened to discover one day.

Summertime was glorious, and freed us to travel further on our bikes to other parts of town, discovering backyards, stream corridors, swamps, wildflowers, and tall trees.

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Climbing Trees Helps Cognition

Physical activity that makes a person process new information, such as navigating a tree with the hands and feet, can improve cognitive skills and working memory in children and adults.  

Physical activities such as climbing a tree, running barefoot and navigating obstacles, even for a few minutes a day, can improve cognitive abilities, researchers found in a new study.

The aim of the study was to see the effect of proprioceptive activities, which involve the awareness of body positioning and orientation, on potential gains in working memory.

"Improving working memory can have a beneficial effect on so many areas in our life, and it's exciting to see that proprioceptive activities can enhance it in such a short period of time," said Tracy Alloway, an associate professor at the University of North Florida, in a press release.

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Children Need Nature

Sissy Walker went hiking with a group of old pals – four couples, actually, who became fast friends more than two decades ago when all their children went to the same parent co-operative preschool in Alexandria, VA .

There was something about that preschool, with its emphasis on outdoor play in its natural wooded environment, that drew them there and shaped them over time. It provided the gestational environment for an enduring friendship built on many outdoor experiences they enjoyed with their preschoolers.

As to this particular hike and what got Sissy pondering the child-nature connection, the day promised glorious warm weather after many days of sub-freezing temperatures.

Sissy went on to say: "Our path, the Potomac Heritage Trail, starts off rather easily if a bit too close to cars zooming by on the Parkway. From the Chain Bridge there’s an absolutely stunning view of the Potomac below, and indeed we stopped to watch a couple of kayakers running the rapids and an eagle circling above. As we navigated the twisty, frozen and root- gnarled path we saw huge boulders to our side with iced waterfalls running down them. There were little, half-frozen rills of water coming through the large rocks on the shore. Patches of ice floated down the river, recently frozen over and now melting. A fair amount of ice and granular snow covered the ground and many of the rocks we had to traverse. The footing was definitely tricky. I was reminded of how magnificent and complex a forest environment is!

In no time I was conjuring up scenes and emotions from my childhood: the pure clarity of the ice with its small holes and magical dainty filigree, the rivulets of water running underneath, the impulse to step ever so lightly on an edge to see if it would crack, the pleasure in hearing that precise cracking sound, and an appreciation for nature’s delights—and dangers. A feeling of exhilaration arose within me, a mixture of pleasure at the raw, stark beauty of winter, apprehension because the footing was quite challenging and anticipation for what might lie ahead. One had to pay attention! Nature! Wild!

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Adventure Playgrounds and Outdoor Safety Issues

How is it that children’s play yards have evolved from sand piles to the manufactured slides, climbers, and swings found on most playgrounds today? Children’s outdoor play environments have been influenced over the years by play theories that date back to Jean Jacques Rousseau of France in the 18th century, who advocated for a return to nature speaking to children’s need for a sense of freedom (Christianson & Vogelsong, 1996). Playgrounds have taken many forms over the years, with an overriding recognition of the important fact that play is essential to early development. Play is the work of early childhood and the way by which children learn and grow.

Attempts to provide the ideal outdoor setting for children’s play have been inspired by the desire to support physical challenge, play and recreation, organized games, and exploration of the natural world. In the 1970s and ‘80s we saw adventure playgrounds develop using discarded materials such as scrap lumber, rubber tires, old vehicles, and other recycled materials. This concept of adventure playgrounds began in Europe in the 1930s. Sometimes referred to as “junk playgrounds” these were informal areas found most frequently in Scandinavian countries where children create their own design and structures under the supervision of a play leader. The popularity of adventure playgrounds has re-appeared over the years (like bellbottom pants) and still has many supporters.

More recently, safety concerns have been raised as an increase in playground injuries have received media attention. The concern for safety is justified. Over 200,000 children are treated in hospital emergency rooms in the US each year as a result of playground equipment-related injuries (Tinsworth & McDonald, 2001). There has been a strong emphasis on identifying the cause of these injuries and constructing safer playground equipment. Much progress has been made in playground equipment safety. As a result of guidelines published by the Consumer Product Safety Commission in the Handbook for Public Playground Safety, and the publication of the 2001 American Society of Testing and Materials Interna- tional Standard 1487, important equipment-related safety issues such as unsafe surfaces, spaces that can entrap a child, protruding hardware, and unsafe equipment layout to name a few, have been addressed.

Many existing playgrounds, however, still have unsafe equipment (US PIRG, 2001), and this has received a great deal of public attention and concern. A simple solution that corrects all problems quickly is difficult to find. The cost of replacing unsafe equipment or purchasing equipment for new develop- ment has been difficult for many organizations, schools, and child care programs. Many programs find themselves with open areas where unsafe equipment has been removed, but nothing has yet replaced it. As dollars are being spent to upgrade playgrounds with safer equipment, there also appears to be growing awareness that children in our country are spending less time outdoors than in previous generations. In our culture, we seem to have lost sight of the health bene- fits and learning opportunities that abound in the outdoor environment that have little to do with playground equipment.

For previous generations spending time outdoors was a given. Children walked to and from school, played outdoors after school every day, played outdoors all day until dark on weekends, and their families had picnics, went to parks, or camped to make outdoor time a part of everyday life.

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‘Bringing in Risk’ to Build Resilience in Britain’s Playgrounds

Educators in Britain, after decades spent in a collective effort to minimize risk, are now getting into the business of providing it. Note the boy about to send a pile of bricks flying at the risk-enhanced playground at the Richmond Avenue Primary and Nursery School in Shoeburyness, England.  

Four years ago, for instance, teachers at the Richmond Avenue Primary and Nursery School looked critically around their campus and set about, as one of them put it, “bringing in risk.”

Out went the plastic playhouses and in came the dicey stuff: stacks of two-by-fours, crates and loose bricks. The schoolyard got a mud pit, a tire swing, log stumps and workbenches with hammers and saws.

“We thought, how can we bring that element of risk into your everyday environment?” said Leah Morris, who manages the early years program at the school in Shoeburyness in southeast Britain. “We were looking at, O.K., so we’ve got a sand pit, what can we add to the sand pit to make it more risky?”

Now, Ms. Morris says proudly, “we have fires, we use knives, saws, different tools,” all used under adult supervision. Indoors, scissors abound, and so do sharp-edged tape dispensers (“they normally only cut themselves once,” she says).

Sand has been used more sparingly in public playgrounds in recent decades because of the danger of hidden glass or animal feces, part of the “sterilization” of play that risk advocates complain about. Andrew Testa for The New York Times

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When schools re-open, kids will be safer outside!

The COVID-19 epidemic made us take a much deeper look into the role of playgrounds in children's lives...

…and we found research that may be vital to the safety of your children!  

We discovered that wooden play and learning elements may be much, much safer for children than the traditional plastic and metal equipment found on most playgrounds. 

“When pathogens, such as COVID-19, land on most hard surfaces [such as steel and plastic playground equipment], they can live for up to four to five days." says Bill Keevil, professor of environmental healthcare at the University of Southampton.

But that's not the case with wood! Studies show that cellulose in wood absorbs pathogens but will not release them! “We've never been able to get bacteria that's down in the wood back up so it contaminates things on the surface,'' said Dean Cliver, PhD. about his research at the University of Wisconsin.

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You may find the following educational resources helpful   

What Are Natural Playgrounds?

If you've ever climbed trees, rolled down hills, scrambled up rocks, made mud pies, dammed up water, hid in grass, played house in bushes, built snow forts, dug in sand, played in dirt, planted seeds, jumped in leaves, tracked animals, or had fun outside in other, similar ways, you've experienced natural play.

Our unique design process helps our playground designers work with you to combine existing and new landscape elements, movement corridors, sun paths, weather patterns, drainage courses, plant groupings, and other site amenities with carefully chosen natural materials, structures, berms, hills, and other features to create safe, accessible, age-appropriate play, social, and learning opportunities in natural play areas that look and feel like they've been there forever.

Our natural playgrounds look like miniature natural landscapes, and they're full of intriguing play and learning opportunities just waiting to be discovered by children of all ages. Sometimes they're referred to as ecological parks, play parks, or nature parks.

In urban settings, we adhere to the same philosophy, but use several techniques to alter it to accommodate the higher impacts occurring in high use areas.

As vegetation plays a major role in the cooling down and softening of play environments, we use it extensively and capitalize on its three-dimensional characteristics to highlight and envelop the urban playscape. This way, the natural world can be observed, cared for, and appreciated close up.

Depending on the scope of the project, fitness structures, furniture, and site fixtures are incorporated into both urban and rural designs. 

If you'd like our help exploring the possibilities on your site, please call us toll free 888-290-8405 or email us This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.!

What Does A Natural Playground Cost?

During our presentations to prospective clients, we always know there'll be a time when someone will ask "how much do natural playgrounds cost?"

I take a deep breath and say "That's a hard one, but if you give me a minute, I'll give you an answer."

It's hard because there are no direct comparisons. A few of the tangibles might be sort of comparable, but it's almost impossible to compare the intangibles. For instance, a slide is a slide, so the experience of actually going down a slide in a manufactured playground and going down a slide built into a hill in a natural playground will be pretty close. But it's really more complicated than that.


  • They are the same initial investment as a traditional playground
  • 10 times more play and learning elements
  • Significantly higher play value
  • Tailored to your budget
  • Last longer
  • Lower maintenance costs

Here's an example: a 35' long slide gives a great ride for kids of all ages, 5 years to 65 years. To achieve the proper slope for this long a slide, the ladder has to be 20' high. 20' is way off the ground. If kids try climbing the slide and fall off one side, they'll get hurt. If they fall off the ladder, they'll get hurt. Further, if they're afraid of climbing ladders, or are intimidated by height, they won't have a chance to even try the slide.

On the other hand, if this same slide is built into a hill, there is no ladder (so no one can fall off), there is no way a child can be intimidated by height, and there are no sides to fall off of, which makes the slide very safe. Further, if the access up the hill to the top of the slide is made challenging and fun (rock walls to climb, or interesting paths to follow), then children will find the whole experience more interesting and may therefore be more inclined to repeat it -- thus making them exercise more while they're learning more than just climbing up and sliding down. The actual cost of the slide for the natural playground will be far less, as the slide is simpler (no structure, no ladder, no ladder enclosure, no tube to keep kids from falling off), and there is no need for a fall zone all around the slide (it's just at the end).

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Natural Playgrounds: Best Choice in a Tight Economy

Safe, sustainable, and more challenging Natural Playgrounds cost less than traditional playground equipment and are catching the eye of childcare centers, elementary and Montessori schools, and communities wanting to save money in this tight economy.

The Natural Playgrounds Company® says it can save communities, schools, and childcare centers lots of money by creating sustainable, Natural Playgrounds that are safer and meet green standards, yet challenge kids emotionally, physically, and mentally.

“For the past 60 years, everyone, including bottom-liners, has relied on playground equipment companies providing answers to questions about play and children,” says Ron King, President of the Concord, NH-based Natural Playgrounds Company.

“When a playground needed refurbishing, or a new playground was needed, decision-makers turned to playground equipment companies to give them the most up-to-date playground equipment that met the newest safety standards,” said King.

“Then every ten years or so, when that equipment became outdated, out-of-code, and out of compliance, it was dumped in the trash and replaced without a thought, sometimes at great sacrifice to other, more pressing program needs, and certainly at great cost to the environment.”

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