Putting nature back into play

Written by Vince Thompson, Contributing Editor

Does your community playground look more like urban scaffolding than a nature setting? This is the case for most of us and is one symptom of a problem defining a national movement to reconnect children with nature. The lack of access to nature, or “nature deficit disorder,” is at the root of this movement. Many child development experts believe that failure to connect with nature combined with the proliferation of technology toys is responsible for a range of childhood epidemics from obesity to learning disorders. The problems and solutions have been documented in books like Richard Louv's "Last Child in The Woods" and by organizations like childrenandnature.org.

In response to feedback from child development experts, John Ogden's commercial playground company Progressive Design Playgrounds (PDPlay) recently launched a line of natural playgrounds called Outdoor Learning Environments that incorporates nature into play.

John, who's buying your products?

PDPlay's clients include park and recreation departments, real estate developers, homeowner associations, cities, churches school districts, PTA groups, private schools, day care centers and government agencies. In the last year, we have seen a marked increased in orders from child development centers for our line of natural playgrounds.

Does getting back to nature cost more?

Not necessarily. There are numerous things an organization can do to incorporate nature into their existing playgrounds to reap the benefits of natural play. One could even argue that natural playgrounds are more cost efficient than traditional play structures because they offer the most play value. Play value is measured by a play elements ability to hold a childs' attention. The best play spaces have the right mix of natural and physical play elements to attract and engage children.

How do you innovate?

We start with what we want for the children and work backwards. Options include physically challenging play, dramatic play, interactive play, cause and effect stations, motor skill development, art areas, and planting areas. In most cases, a natural playground should involve a combination of the above. The most important thing is that a playground should not be a drop in place solution. This quickly becomes boring for children. We work with our clients to create an imaginative play space where the children will want to stay and play and return often.

What other industries could benefit from getting back to nature?

There is no short answer to this question! Childhood development experts believe that in order for children to fully reap the physical, emotional and educational benefits of nature, it must be a part of their everyday lives. Putting natural playgrounds into schools and communities is a step in the right direction, but it is not the end solution. The movement to reconnect with nature is focused on children because they are in such a critical stage of their development. That said, adults, particularly in urban environments, are experiencing the same disconnect. We also work with businesses and universities to create outdoor seating areas and peaceful outdoor spaces because adults can also reap the benefits of natural spaces.

What are some solutions parents can deploy on their own?

There are many things parents can do to bring nature into the lives of their children. Most are simple and require little or no financial investment including bringing natural elements into the home, scheduling weekend excursions to the woods, the lake or the beach, or simply taking a walk around the block. When you live in the city, like I do with my two young girls, it requires a little extra effort. We created a small herb garden and my daughters are responsible for caring for it. The simple act of caring for and watering a plant teaches them the important lesson of cause and effect in nature and the environment.

What's next for your company?

We plan to continue the momentum of Outdoor Learning Environments by expanding our product line so that it is more accessible to smaller educational centers. We are also working with more higher education facilities to offer natural environments like shaded seated areas. In the 21st century nature has become a destination for children and adults. We see a great business opportunity in working with all of types organizations to change this and bring nature back into our everyday lives. In doing so, children, adults, businesses, communities and ultimately the environments benefits.

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This post was originally published on Smartplanet.com

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