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Playing Dirty

March 5, 2013

Children at the ELC explore the natural playscape

By Meredith McGroarty

Dawn Coe loves seeing her daughter come home from school dirty. Especially on rainy days when the teacher takes everyone outside to jump in mud puddles scattered around the playground.

Playing outdoors in a natural setting may be tough on kids’ clothes, but it has been found to ultimately benefit their exercise habits and is a cheaper, easier alternative to more formally structured play areas, according to research by Coe, an assistant professor of kinesiology, recreation, and sports studies at UT.

Children at the ELC explore the natural playscapeShe originally became interested in examining playground activity at UT’s Early Learning Center for Research and Practice (ELC)—where her daughter attends preschool—when the center decided to renovate its traditional playground into a more natural playscape. The ELC wanted to assess its decision, and collaborated with Coe on the research idea.

Coe began by observing the children’s play habits in the original playground with its standard slide, swings, and shaded cement porch. She continued throughout and after the seven-month renovation as natural elements—including a slide built into the side of a hill, logs for balance exercises, and trees with low-hanging branches on which children can (safely) swing—were incrementally introduced.

“Having these elements in the playground helps children make connections with nature. And they provide natural ways for children to learn motor skills development, like walking on the logs for balance,” Coe explains.

Children at the ELC explore the natural playscapeOne of Coe’s major findings was that the children appeared to participate in more continuous physical activity, whether it was walking up and down the hill to the slide, wandering over to the tree branches, or playing with the water. She believes this increase is partly due to the structure of the natural elements that allows several children to walk on a log or swing on branches at once. In contrast, only two or three kids can play on a standard see-saw or swing set at a time, making the rest stand and wait their turn.

By providing features that allow several students to play at the same time, and interactive elements that emphasize exploration over competition, the new playground encourages a more inclusive style of recreation.

“The environment is very non-competitive, and it allows a broader range of children to play and engage with the elements at once,” she explains. She adds that the ELC has also been able to use the play area for practical instruction, such as teaching students how to lash sticks together.

Another advantage of the renovated area is its coolness. “Before the renovation, the kids spent a lot of time sitting on the porch in the shade, especially when it got warm. But the porch was just a cement area with some chairs; it wasn’t very engaging. Now there’s shade from trees and other plants across the area, so they can keep playing and not leave the shade,” Coe says. Shade is an important component in a hot climate like Tennessee’s.

Children at the ELC explore the natural playscapeEncouragingly, Coe found that the children’s interest in the play space didn’t wane after its novelty wore off—the children remained drawn to the activities long after the new space was completed. She notes that the landscape changes also led to the emergence of new styles of play for the children over time.

“The kids were engaging in more moderate to vigorous activity—anything that’s a brisk walk up to a jog or a run—and spent less time sitting down. We didn’t measure this, but it seemed like they were being more creative and engaging more in active play, like using water from the creek. They also were engaging more with each other, rather than just sitting on a piece of playground equipment,” Coe explains.

With playground renovations, questions of safety and cost are always at the forefront of discussion, but Coe says that natural playscapes are cheaper and safer than formally structured environments when planned properly. Grass or wood chips are a softer landing surface than asphalt, and logs can be more easily replaced than fitted parts for a swing set. Because the play structures can be simple things, like ropes courses or log balance beams, a natural approach can easily be adapted to a variety of environments, from urban to rural.

Children at the ELC explore the natural playscapeWhile Coe found measurable benefits in physical activity among the children, she next wants to look at whether these benefits translate into gains in academic and other cognitive areas, such as classroom concentration or fine motor skills. She also is looking at turning her findings from the ELC research into a journal article.

“I think there needs to be more research in this area, and the ELC is using this playground as a recreational and educational resource, which is great,” Coe says.

The only possible drawback to the more natural playground is the added laundry burden, but Coe says it is well worth a few extra loads to see her daughter interacting with nature and exercising in ways that hopefully will carry over later into her life.

“My daughter is definitely a lot dirtier when she comes home now, but that’s really okay. It just shows she’s having fun,” she concludes.