Exploring a New Age for Playgrounds

Anyone who has given a child a gift and has experienced the box being more interesting than the toy knows what fertile ground a child’s mind can be with the blank slate of a very plain object. A box can be a house, a bed, a hat, a parking garage… the possibilities are endless! This is the thinking behind the concept of “loose parts”. Loose parts are any loose, movable objects that children can use in many different ways during imaginative play.

Natural playground advocates see all of the sticks, rocks, sand, leaves and other natural items available on a natural playground as wonderful loose parts. And they are right! But can loose parts be made available in a traditional playground, which are often stripped of trees, rocks and any other items which might cause injury?

One playground designer I spoke with lamented the fact that most of the schools and town rec departments he deals with don’t want to have anything to do with any “playground equipment” that can’t be bolted down. Teachers don’t want to have to deal with lugging materials out and then storing them away again, and administrators don’t want to spend money on materials that they feel will quickly disappear. Understandable, but disappointing…

Now it looks like there is a new concept in playground equipment that is completely structured around the concept of loose parts.

Imagination Playground's Loose Parts

A recent article in the New Yorker Magazine entitle “The State of Play” turned me on to Imagination Playground and the work they are doing in bringing the concept of loose parts to playgrounds all over the country. These gigantic blue foam blocks and tubes can be used in any playground or open space, even in water! They are the keystone feature in many new playgrounds, but can also be purchased as a “kit” to add to your local playground. Loose parts that are very unlikely to walk away! Check out their website for more information about their mission and all kinds of photos and videos.

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Social Skills Bloom in the Natural Playground

A few weeks ago I had the opportunity to observe a group of toddlers using the professionally installed natural playground. Normally, watching a group of toddlers playing outdoors is like watching TV at a big box electronic store. Each TV is set to its own channel, doing its own thing. There may be three toddlers in the sandbox, but they are each digging, dumping or piling, as if they had no idea the others were there.

On the natural playground, it was a completely different story. Here I found one toddler encouraging another to crawl up the big hill. The encouragement became more physical and animated the closer the climbing child got to the top.

One toddler encourages another to climb to the top

Friends celebrate success!

Not only were children encouraging one another to try new things. They were exploring together too! A brief conversation with the toddler teachers made it clear that they too are finding outdoor time with their children to be much more enjoyable. Children are discovering positive ways to challenge themselves and practicing these new skills over and over again. As a result, there are fewer incidents of children intentionally hurting one another or quarreling over toys.

Exploring is even more fun with a friend!

To see previous entries on the natural playground series, click here:

Watching 2 Natural Playgrounds Part III

Watching 2 Natural Playgrounds Part II

Watching 2 Natural Playgrounds Develop

Discover the Rewards of Embracing Risk

Think back to your childhood…the tree climbing, the bike riding, the neighborhood exploring. Would you let your child do that today?

Chances are some of your fondest, or most exhilarating, or most transformative memories are rooted in an activity that many parents today might think of as dangerous or risky. But is there a risk to keeping our children perpetually safe?

Author and early childhood educator, Deb Curtis, explores this idea in a great article featured in Child Care Information Exchange titled What’s the Risk of No Risk? In this article, the author describes the tranformation that took place in her early childhood program when a new director challenged teachers’ ideas about risk.

She advocated that children deserve and benefit from challenges and adventures that include risk. Their self-esteem grows, along with their physical and mental abilities as they negotiate risks appropriate for their personality and development. She wanted us to keep children safe, but insisted that it was just as important for us to guide them in becoming thoughtful decision-makers, able to one day assess and safely negotiate risky situations on their own.

Through a process that involved staff meetings (where teachers let their feelings on the topic be known) parent input, and identifying and consulting various resources on managing and preventing dangerous situations in early childhood settings, the staff came up with a risk-management strategy that allowed individual teachers to stay within their comfort zone, respected the values and perspectives of individual families and encourage children to test their abilities, build their self-confidence and develop a positive sense of self.

First, it’s important to distinguish between a risk and a hazard. A risk is something that can be negotiated, an activity or experience that may be appropriate for a child with the appropriate skill set or in the right situation, like negotiating the monkey bars, or walking a high-beam. A hazard is something that is inherently dangerous and needs to be fixed or dealt with, such as a protruding splinter on a climbing structure.

The author identifies several key steps in the process of embracing risk as an important element of a child’s experiences:

  • Know your own disposition to risk
  • Ensure your own comfort and engagement
  • Examine your own view of children
  • Inform yourself of good risk-management practices
  • Engage families in the conversation
  • Provide safe and appropriate challenges in your program’s environment
  • Have confidence in your ability to supervise your children

Here is a story taking from the article that does a great job of illustrating the way managing risk can be accomplished in a setting where staff may have very different attitudes about what is safe for children.

Several of the older children in the program were eager and able to climb the smaller trees in our yard. A number of the teachers were very fearful of this and others really thought it was something that these children deserved to have as a part of their childhood, just like they did when they were young. We decided that to keep the activity safe, the children needed ¬≠supervision and guidance when they were climbing the trees. So we agreed that the children had to be able to climb the tree on their own, a teacher would be right there to supervise, but no teachers could lift children up. Also, if children wanted to climb a tree they had to alert one of the ‘tree-climbing’ teachers (those who were enthusiastic about supervising and able to support and keep the activity safe). If none of those teachers were available, then children had to wait until they were. The children easily accommodated to these rules and came to respect all of the teachers’ points of view.

Not only can this type of “risky” activity build children’s muscle tone, coordination and self-esteem, it can open the door to all kinds of learning opportunities for children, especially those with strong kinesthetic, spatial or natural intelligences who may have a hard time getting engaged in traditional classroom activities.

Playdough Recipe and Ideas

It seems all children can get lost in playdough play, no matter what their age or ability. Here’s a quick and easy recipe to make your own playdough. This home made version works great and you don’t have to worry about toxic chemicals.

  • 1 cup flour
  • 1/2 cup salt
  • 1 tsp cream of tartar (keeps dough from getting gummy)
  • 1 cup water
  • 1 Tbs cooking oil
  • Food coloring
  1. Mix all dry ingredients in a saucepan.
  2. In a measuring cup or small bowl, combine the water, oil and food coloring.
  3. Stir the wet into the dry and put the saucepan on the stove at a medium heat. Continue stirring until the dough forms a ball and comes away from the sides of the pan.
  4. Remove from heat and let cool until you can knead it without burning your fingers. Knead 8-10 times to spread the moisture evenly.
  5. Store in an airtight container.

Kids love to experiment with new and different ways to use their playdough. The more options you lay out for them, the more opportunities they have to let their innate gifts or intelligences shine.

Linguistic intelligence– these children might verbally talk through their playdough play or talk out scenes with the creatures they create. Add alphabet stamps, or encourage children to form letters or write their name in the playdough.

Logical/Mathematical– children might count or sort the creatures/objects they make. You might also see them do some logical problem-solving if they are having trouble making an idea come to life.

Spatial– these children probably enjoy fitting cookie cutters into the rolled out dough. They’ll explore the shape of the cut out as well as the empty space it leaves behind. They enjoy the challenge of building more complex figures, or identifying and creating shapes.

Kinesthetic– rolling, pounding, slapping, moving. These kids are active playdough explorers.

Musical– while not directly related to playdough play, some interesting background music can have a big effect on the experience/engagement of these children.

Interpersonal– these children may coordinate an imaginary “group snack” and assign roles to others as they plan their playdough play. Play tea sets, plates, pots or platters can add to the experience.

Intrapersonal– children who loose themselves in the feel and manipulation of the dough may be focusing on how working the playdough makes them feel. Encourage them to talk about their thoughts. Telling them what you see them doing can help to start the conversation.

Natural– children who go beyond making one animal, and think more about making a network of creatures with different roles and responsibilities are using their natural intelligence. These children may also enjoy making imprints of natural objects or otherwise incorporating nature into their playdough creation.

Remember, when it comes to Multiple Intelligences, no child is all or nothing. Children will bring a variety of their strengths and interests into their playdough play. Be a careful observers and learn about them by watching what they do and how. When you can meet a child at their level, giving them a boost to a new level of understanding on any topic becomes much easier and more fun!

Watching 2 Natural Playgrounds Part III

The snow is melting fast as winter comes to an end and this seemingly endless and trickling water supply has caused a flurry of activity on the teacher-and-kid-engineered playground.

Kids at work in a natural playground

A large puddle made much of the playground inaccessible, so the kids did some problem-solving and, on their own initiative, created a canal system to drain the water. The teachers say the project has occupied them all week.

The conversations I heard were amazing.

Child one, “I want to make the water over-flow here. How do you think we can make that happen?”

Child two, “What if we dumped more dirt inside?”

Child one, “Yeah! Let’s try it!”

Other children had a different solution to the puddle problem and worked with their teacher to create this make-shift bridge.

Kids got the help of a teacher to create this bridge

Most schools in this part of the country dread the spring snow-melt. We call it “mud season” and often at school the kids are encouraged to stay on the blacktop. They run in circles or hover near the teachers and wait to go back inside. Here the outdoor world has become a natural science laboratory. Parents know to pack extra mittens and make sure the boots are waterproof. And while it is definitely messy, it’s amazing to watch!

Click below for previous entries in this series:

Watching 2 Natural Playgrounds Part II

Watching 2 Natural Playgrounds Develop

Even Toddlers Love Science

Toddlers love exploring cause and effect. It’s amazing how a toddler (who’s short attention span is legendary) can spend what seems like hours “washing their hands”. They are fascinated by turning the water on and off, exploring what happens when they plug the drain, and watching the water pour off their finger tips. This is a toddler’s science mind at work, and it’s a thing of beauty.

Unfortunately, the mere mention of the word “science” can make many early childhood educators tremble. Science is not scary. It is all about figuring out how the world works. No wonder it is such a great fit for toddlers! Here are some simple ideas for bringing more science into your toddler program:

  • Give toddlers plenty of opportunities to pour, fill, spill and transfer materials. You can use anything- sand, water, rice, seeds, gravel. It gives toddlers the opportunity to explore weight and volume, encourages fine motor skills and is a great sensory experience.
  • Explore nature. Invite children to use all of their senses as they dig in the dirt, crawl around bushes, lift up rocks, pick flowers or gather sticks. This helps them to understand the systems and cycles in the natural world, promotes gross motor skills and is great for the senses.
  • Cook with toddlers. This might sound daunting, but simple recipes, like mashed potatoes, biscuits or pretzels, are great fun to do with toddlers, encourage fine motor development and teach the basics of matter (solid, liquid, gas) as well as nutrition.
  • Explore light. Play with a Plexiglas mirror in the sunshine and watch the reflection dance around, Play with making shadows. Look through colored lenses. This is a great way to explore some early earth science concepts.
  • Talk about everything. You don’t need explain things to toddlers, just ask them questions to get them thinking. What did you find under that rock? What is the ant doing? What do you see when you look through the red lens? How does it feel to stir the mix now that we’ve added the flour?
  • Take their lead and set up opportunities based on their interests.

Over the years the national emphasis on helping children as young as toddlers develop language and early literacy skills has proven effective in improving reading skills as children enter elementary school. It’s time we take the same approach with science.

For great ideas to help you explore science with toddlers, check out our downloadable toddler themes.

Watching 2 Natural Playgrounds Develop

Right now, two of the local preschools I work with are in the process of installing natural playgrounds and they are taking two very different approaches. One school hired a well-known company to plan and build the playground. The other is taking more of a grass roots approach. Teachers are planing the landscape and parents are providing much of the labor.

Professional Playground

Professionally designed and installed natural playground

Professional Playground 2

Another view

The first program is a nonprofit that recently moved into a new building. Rather than installing a traditional playground, they chose to install a natural playground. When the workmen finish their job, the children will have a complete, professionally designed natural playground with new sod, shrubbery, and custom-designed play elements. The project broke ground in early September and it’s nearly complete. Watching the men at work has been fun for the kids, though I’m sure they miss having access to the playground. The space looks beautiful and very inviting.

Expanded View

Expanded view of home-made playground

Do-It-Yourself Playground

Teacher and kid made natural playground slide

The second program is a small private preschool and kindergarten that has a good sized outdoor play area set up with traditional playground equipment near the school building and then flat, wooded grounds that extend further back. Slowly, guided by the vision of the directress and the labor of teachers and parent volunteers, this traditional set up is morphing into a natural playground. Some of the old, traditional playground equipment has been moved and transformed. The swing set has been broken up and individual swings hang from tree branches. Dirt was piled up in one area to create a small hill and the old slide sits on top. The donation of a large plastic conduit of some sort enabled the teachers to create a tunnel that now goes through that hill. The project began last May and still has a long way to go, but the children are clearly enjoying the new space and it has already changed the way they use the playground.

The first approach is obviously well planned, while the second is continually evolving, shaped by donations and the input of the children as they use the new space. I’m curious to see how the children and staff will use each over time.

I love the idea of a playground conceived by the imagination of the teachers, built by hands of the community and further shaped by the children in the way that they use it. But one playground designer I spoke with commented to me that in his experience, programs who hire someone to create the design, but plan to do the work themselves rarely complete the project, and more often than not, don’t get far beyond creating a traditional playground.

Do you have experience with natural playgrounds? How did yours come to be? I’m curious to hear the experiences of others.

Follow the development of these playgrounds here:

Watching 2 Natural Playgrounds Part II

Watching 2 Natural Playgrounds Part III