THE NATURE DEFICIT
Encouraging our kids to connect with nature
Play, in a sensory-rich and natural environment is vital for a child’s mental, physical, and emotional health. “The more contact with nature, the better the outcomes,” says Dr. Francis Ming Kuo of The University of Illinois’ Human Environment Research Laboratory. But for parents, educators, and urban planners seeking outdoor environments to nurture a child’s well-being, traditional playgrounds fall flat, both figuratively and topographically.
Our urban parks and playgrounds are sterilized and controlled as if they had been built to avoid enriching children’s play.
Adam Bienenstock, founder and principal designer of Bienenstock Natural Playgrounds is a staunch advocate of a child’s right to connect with nature. “Built on barren, sun-scorched surfaces that have little to no topographical or horticultural interest, playgrounds made of plastic, steel, and rubber are sterile, and lacking in the sensory experiences children need to thrive,” he says.
Bienstock argues that traditional playgrounds are designed exclusively for gross-motor and upper-body engagement (think climbing and sliding). Rather than encouraging interpretative, open-ended, sensory and collaborative play, traditional playgrounds are prescriptive, which does little to inspire a child’s imagination let alone development. “In a uniform sensory environment of plastic and steel, kids basically go into auto pilot and repeat the same activities over again and play devolves into muscle memory,” says Bienenstock.
In this kind of environment, children don’t have to think about their play and therefore, don’t develop their minds. These unstimulating environments can even be dangerous. “Small risks can become big hazards when a child’s brain is switched off,” Bienenstock says.
While one of the only advantages of traditional playgrounds is their focus on gross motor skills, not all children reap these benefits. Decades ago, Fred Danner of The University of Kentucky’s Department of Educational, School and Counseling Psychology, pointed out that, “only 20 per cent of the children in a traditional playground are getting 80 per cent of the physical activity.” These are the physically fit, kings and queens of the castle. While the kids who are less fit, less co-ordinated, less dominant, disabled, or simply less social are on the sidelines.
But this is all changing as Brienenstock brings Natural Playgrounds to North America. Natural Playgrounds represent the dawn of a new era in playground design. They use natural materials like wood, rocks and water to provide an inclusive place for all children, not just the top 20 per cent.
These sensory-rich spaces are placed on natural slopes and include sand, animal prints, climbing obstacles and sensory stations. They not only benefit a child’s gross motor skills, but also their cognitive and social skills. Children in these environments have opportunities to exercise fine-motor skills and engage in full-sensory creative and contemplative solitary play.
Children will play for longer in a natural playground than in a traditional playground. Their overall ability for physical play improves as well. “With only their imagination as the limit, a log isn’t just a log. It has the potential to be a pirate ship, a snake or, simply a thing to climb or a place to sit,” Bienenstock says. This kind of free play is critical to encouraging creativity, problem-solving, flexibility, and resilience. Kids are also given opportunities to take risks, learn about their limitations, and ultimately feel capable. “There may be some bumps and bruises along the way, but those are learning injuries,” he says.
By offering more types of enrichment to all children, and encouraging children to learn to manage risk, Natural Playgrounds is the antidote to traditional playgrounds that parents, educators, and urban designers have been looking for.
Quality, locally-sourced, and handcrafted natural playgrounds that are ground-breaking and accessible, Bienenstock Natural Playgrounds is an award-winning design and build firm with studios in British Columbia, Ontario and Denver, Colorado, U.S.A. | naturalplaygrounds.ca