When the newly renovated Willie “Woo Woo” Wong Playground opened in San Francisco’s Chinatown in February, its sand play zones and abstract Dragon- and Phoenix-themed climbing structures came alive with raucous children enjoying a welcome respite from months of covid lockdown.
Today, in countries around the world, children are leading more structured, indoor lives than ever before; one British study found they spend just four hours a week outside, half that of their parents. It’s only worsened during the ongoing lockdowns. And when children do play outdoors, it is increasingly within the safe, controlled confines of a playground. Fading are the days when children were turned loose in a world of dirt, bugs, sticks and rocks that could, with a bit of imagination, become swords or building blocks.
Those brightly-coloured play structures that dot the suburbs are all fixed largely synthetic objects that leave little room for imagination. As parents and playground designers learn more about the importance of open-ended outdoor play, so-called “natural playgrounds”, such as the Willie “Woo Woo” Wong Playground, have emerged to deliver the benefits of nature in a more controlled space.
“A lot of times a natural playground is defined by what it’s not,” Mike Salisbury, a landscape architect and lead designer at Earthartist Planning and Design, told Reasons To Be Cheerful. For example, Earthartist’s “playscapes” are designed to avoid being static or overly programmed. Nor are they manufactured en masse and sold unit by unit like most public playgrounds — which, for all the excitement they promise, are designed to guide and manage movement in a way that minimises opportunities for unscripted play.
Missing out on free play has consequences for healthy development. Research shows that children who spend more time engaged in free play during their formative years are more likely to contribute to their families and communities and less likely to have behavioural problems later in life. Free play has more immediate benefits, as well; one Scandinavian study demonstrated that children who play in unstructured environments develop better motor skills than those who play in programmed playgrounds.
Natural playgrounds are designed to nurture free play. They have movable materials such as dirt, sand and water. When natural playgrounds include play structures, they’re often abstract, their use not immediately apparent. A structure that looks like a larger-than-life fish to one child might become a spaceship or a prehistoric cave in the mind of another. “When we’re doing a structure, whether it’s a tower or a giant animal . . . part of the design process is abstraction,” says Nathan Schleicher, lead playground designer at Earthscape. “It is always about how many opportunities a kid has to use their imagination with the space.”
At Earthscape, Schleicher says the design process is collaborative. Designers begin by working with city or park officials to arrive at a vision for the space that honours the local landscape. “It is very much about doing design every single time so the space is really imbued with a unique character,” he says. Once the team has a vision, it uses natural materials to produce the features of the playgrounds — from boulders and towers for climbing to the abstract animal-shaped play structures that distinguish their work.
The loose parts and changeable environments that characterise natural playgrounds invite constructive play, which naturally appeals to children’s active brains. Studies show that children spend twice as long in natural playgrounds as they do in traditional playgrounds.
“These types of playgrounds really encourage [them] to stop, to think, to figure things out — using the executive functioning part of the brain,” says Dr Regine Muradian, a clinical psychologist specialising in children and adolescents. Executive function skills are those that enable us to plan, remember instructions and multi-task, and they can only be developed through experience and practice. She says using a combination of motor and cognitive skills to traverse abstract play structures also helps children hone their executive function, critical thinking and conceptualising abilities.
These spaces mimic the benefits of wild environments children used to play in without sacrificing the safety or hygiene many modern parents fret over. “The beauty of [a natural playground] is that we’ve taken the same level of engagement you might get climbing a tree in the forest . . . and introduced it into a formal environment that meets the requirements of safety,” explains Schleicher.
As children spend even more time indoors lately, Muradian has seen more impulsivity and frustration. Children are also growing tired from hours of screen time. Natural playgrounds can help lessen these problems, even for city families.
TOP A playground in Georgetown Day School, Washington, DC, USA
BOTTOM A playground in Scissortail Park, Oklahoma City, USA