A render of what a natural playground might look like. Artist: Alex Ricketts; screen-capture indaily.com

By Gabe Goldman

All parents learn three “truths” about playgrounds early in parenthood. First, they learn that playgrounds differ very little from park to park or school to school. Playgrounds have things to swing on, to climb up and to slide down. Occasionally there are wheels to spin or sand to play in. Second, parents learn that few playgrounds are equally as satisfactory to their five year-old as their ten-year old. Finally, and most importantly, parents learn that no matter how excited their children are to go to the playground, once there, they get bored in a relatively short period of time. That’s when children discover more creative (and more dangerous) ways to play on the equipment or beg their parents to play with them.

Playgrounds originated in Europe in the 1800s, with the first ones being constructed in America in the early 1900s. In this historical period, children commonly played in public streets filled with jostling horses and buggies, merchants, adult pedestrians, etc. The primary purpose of playgrounds was to provide an alternative space in which children could play without being in constant danger of losing life or limb. They were designed to enable children to be “rigorous and active” (even the earliest playgrounds had swings, slides, Jungle Gyms and see-saws, along with early swings that were more like May Poles with long ropes children would swing up onto as they ran around the pole). These playgrounds also typically featured a large open space to accommodate  games like Tag (which required space to run) and Red Rover (which required teams to line up facing each other and send members running at the other team in the hope of breaking through its line). Play was equated with energetic activity which needed to be “siphoned off” (in the early 1900s “excess energy” was viewed as a primary reason for truancy from school) and playground design and equipment reflected this understanding.

Since their inception playgrounds have not changed much. The only real development has been to make them safer (slides are not as tall or as steeply inclined; swings have safety bars; see-saws have disappeared; and asphalt surfaces are now cushioned rubber). But playground equipment is still designed for the single purpose of “getting out excess energy” and doing so in pre-determined ways. For example, there is only one correct (safe) way to go down a slide.  Of course, children want more than just to be active. They want to challenge themselves and try new things. There are only so many times children can slide down the same slide the same way before they get bored and try to figure out how to go down the slide in other ways (resulting in teachers or parents telling them not to). In this scheme of things, the role of adults (read “teachers” in the school playground setting) is limited to supervising children’s play to ensure their safety.

Our understanding of play, however, has changed significantly over the years and yesterday’s playground equipment and design are no longer in sync with our new views. Today, we know that play is far more than an opportunity for children to let off steam. It is, in fact, one of their primary ways of learning. The list of ways play serves as a learning experience for children is nearly endless. Through play they acquire concentration skills, as well as social interaction and conflict resolution skills. Through play they learn to take chances, to try new things, and to share with and respect other people. Through play children experiment with language and create their own games – complete with rules (another important lesson). Now when we think about play, we think of it as Self-Initiated Learning Time.

This view of play has dramatic implications for playground design and equipment. Instead of playground equipment that determines and limits children’s activities and experiences, we need to give children resources that their imaginations can discover endless and boundless ways to use. We need to provide children with resources that make it possible for them to create cooperative projects to work on together. We need to provide children with resources that will enable them to discover, to experiment, to hypothesize, and to express their feelings and findings.

This is why so many Jewish early childhood centers are transforming their conventional playgrounds into natural playgrounds.

These natural playgrounds feature the use of natural resources and resources that make nature more accessible to children. They include mini-trails with objects to discover; logs and tree stumps for children to climb or to imagine as their private castle; fences filled with objects for creating sounds and music; birdfeeders and birdhouses with mini-cameras hooked up to viewing screens; piles of dirt for children to dig in, tunnel through, fill buckets with and create miniature worlds that only they understand; upraised gardens for developing relationships with plants; and so much more.

Such playgrounds do not come with pre-designated learning goals. Rather, in natural playground settings, children create their own learning opportunities and children themselves determine what they learn. For example, two children might spend time playing in piles of dirt with the same type of shovels and buckets. Later, though, when asked by their parents “what happened in school today,” they might give very different answers about what they did during playground time. One girl might say that she tried to build tall towers from the dirt but they kept falling down so she’s going to try a different way tomorrow, while the boy who was playing next to her might say he that he was trying make a tunnel and found out that it was hard to do that if you don’t add water to the dirt.

Not only does our current understanding of play have implications for the design of playgrounds, it also has implications for the role of school teachers monitoring students on the playground. Instead of supervising for safety (don’t touch the sliding board if it’s too hot, don’t run and crash into anyone, don’t fall off the monkey bars), teachers can now serve as informal outdoor educators who encourage children to question and to wonder, to find their own ways of doing things, to create and “try out” new experiences. Playground time thus becomes an opportunity for teachers to become outdoor educators who observe their students, noting what excites them, what scares them, what engages their attention and imagination. Later, children’s outdoor interests can be integrated with their indoor classroom experiences so that the two become seamlessly connected, with the playground becoming an extension of the classroom and vice versa.

In a 1907 presidential address, Theodore Roosevelt declared that “play is a fundamental need [of children]” and that “playgrounds should be provided for every child as much as schools.” The exciting task we have, now, is to build on this fundamental truth by re-imagining playgrounds so that they reflect our current understanding of the role of play in developing children not only physically, but also emotionally, intellectually, and spiritually.


Dr Gabe Goldman is the Director of Outdoor Jewish Classroom and Consultant for the Pittsburgh Jewish Federation Jewish Early Childhood Initiative.