Tuesday, August 16, 2011

Adventure Playgrounds: An Introduction
Part 1 in a 3 part series

Janet Petitpas, Senior Associate, London; Maeryta Medrano, AIA LEED AP, President of Gyroscope, Inc; Chuck Howarth, VP, Gyroscope, Inc.

Museums, zoos, botanic gardens, playgrounds and parks within the United States have been observing and learning from our neighbors abroad about how to maximize the benefits of outdoor play environments for children and families. It is always a challenge to balance safety, maintenance, and general staffing while also providing child-led learning and creativity that natural environments can provide.

As human beings, we intuitively seek connection to the natural world and some have described this connection as “biophilia.” The term was originally used by Erich Fromm to describe being attracted to all that is alive and vital. Naturalist Edward O. Wilson suggested that biophilia is the connection that all human beings subconsciously seek with the rest of life and he proposed the possibility that the deep affiliations humans have with nature are rooted in our biology. Howard Gardner recognized the important of this connection and added “naturalistic” intelligence (having to do with nurturing and relating to one’s natural surroundings) to the now nine types of intelligence modalities included in his Frames of Mind framework.

When thinking about designing outdoor play environments for children, many American organizations have been inspired by the Adventure Playground movement that began in Europe in the 1940s. Inspired by the realization that children are currently growing up in over-scheduled, highly supervised and sanitized world that frequently keeps the natural world at a distance, a growing number of organizations (including schools and parks) are moving toward free play, natural environments.

Where it was once commonplace that kids got muddy at the edge of a pond, or skinned a knee on an old oak tree, children today have extremely limited access to wild, natural environments. In fact, in many neighborhoods, children are not allowed to explore, build forts, follow a creek, or even climb a tree due to development, covenants, zoning, liability issues, and fears of lurking danger. This lack of free exploration in the natural world cuts them off from their own adventures, narratives and discoveries. It also prevents them from learning their own boundaries, managing risk, navigating with their peer group, and utilization of their inherent creativity.

How has the movement away from unsupervised outdoor play affected children? A number of studies point to the rise in obesity, the increased use of medication for children’s behavioral problems, high blood pressure and other physical and emotional health issues that have grown over the same period of time that outdoor play has decreased. But what researchers are finding is that there is growing evidence that access to the outdoors provides important and significant benefits for children (and adults).

In Richard Louv’s book, Last Child in the Woods, there are a number of compelling statistics and studies that support this theory. When children interact with the natural world, they build their problem-solving and creative skills, learn to work with others, and gain confidence in their own abilities. What’s more, they gain a sense of ownership and mastery of their space, a sense of belonging-this is MY space. Children are natural explorers. All they need is opportunity.

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