My elementary school playground was typical for 1980s suburbia. It had swings, a slide, teeter-totters, monkey bars, and a large ball field with a few trees scattered along the edges. The swings gave me a feeling of flying as I swung sharply downward. Sitting on top of the monkey bars, yelling at my friends running below, was exhilarating. What I remember most fondly is playing underneath an enormous tree in the far corner of the yard. The trunk was so large that four kindergarteners could hide behind it without being seen for hide-and-seek. In the fall, the leaves that accumulated under the canopy were crisp, bright, and snapped under my feet as I galloped below. In the dappled sunlight on the far corner of the school yard under my favorite tree, I listened to the delighted screams of my classmates, felt the gentle wind through my hair, smelled the moist, rich earth, filled my fingernails with dirt, and made lasting friendships. That tree was what I loved about the playground.
I was lucky to have meaningful outdoor experiences as a child. Many children don't. Over the past few years, much research has been done on the consequences of limited access to natural, green space, especially for children residing in high-density, low-income areas where the outdoors looks more like a concrete jungle. A 2009 report by Susan Strife and Liam Downy on environmental inequality shows that more children today suffer from long-term health problems like obesity and diabetes, severe cognitive disorders, and anxiety and depression than ever before. In determining the cause, links have been found to a lack of physical activity and the absence of nature in the everyday. These studies suggest that little or no exposure to nature actually hurts our bodies and our minds.
Outdoor Environments for the Soul
For safety concerns as well as handicap accessibility, the overall trend for outdoor design has moved in the direction of mass-produced, prefabricated equipment, limiting the amount of physical activity while decreasing the challenges inherent on the playground. Controlling risk by installing safeguarded equipment creates a feeling of safety for both parents and children that they are protected from threat of injury. Though it seems counterintuitive, children, as young human beings, are prewired to test their bodies and minds in order to learn. Conventional, manufactured playground equipment has a limited variety of challenge. Children may create risk while misusing equipment or overestimating the pliability of a synthetic surface. This behavior can produce more of a threat for frequency and severity of injury. It also takes away from the point of being outdoors and playing in a natural environment where challenge is inherently multilevel and fits all developmental stages and ages.
With health and child development in mind, there has been a rising interest in the creation of play areas for children that use the natural landscape, vegetation, and seasons as the foundation of the playground. These playgrounds, called natural playscapes (a phrase coined by Rusty Keeler, author of Natural Playscapes: Creating Outdoor Environments for the Soul), are a small but growing trend in outdoor design for children.
In the Hudson Valley, there have been several places that have latched on to the knowledge that children need appropriate challenges for growth, that nature has a powerful, positive effect on health, and that fond childhood memories are made in beautiful, natural environments. With the help of Keeler, the Esopus Library in Port Ewen, as well as two schools in Kingston—George Washington Elementary School and Livingston Street Early Childhood Community—have committed to creating these natural play areas for children and adults.