En­cour­ag­ing our kids to con­nect with na­ture

Outdoor Lifestyle Magazine - - Contents - By ADAM BIENEN­STOCK – DUN­DAS, ON

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. | nat­u­ralplay­

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