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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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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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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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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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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‘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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