Play is essential in the development of our children. It helps them to develop social skills and emotional intelligence and linking this with play in the natural environment enhances this process with demonstrable and well-studied benefits in physical and mental health as well as assessing risks.
The loss of experience of the natural environment at a young age will have obvious knock-on effects on attitudes towards the environment in later life. The push to get our children out into the environment is not a new idea or movement. This has been a concern ever since populations started to gravitate towards urban centres and organisations like the Wildlife Trusts; RSPB et al have been encouraging this for years.
Phrases such as Nature Deficit Disorder and Project Wild Thing’s push of ‘wild time’ are entering the public lexicon. But how do you address these if you are a parent living in a heavily urbanised area, or can’t afford to travel the distance to the nearest area of ‘wilderness’? Natural Play structures are those made from natural, preferably local, preferably unprocessed materials. The range is wide, but a desire to avoid metals, plastics and construction on a large scale is a generally common factor. Searching for images online will show you the breadth of designs in what is an area of growing interest, but from the perspective of those advocating their use from within environmental charities, the more rustic the better is the guiding principle.
Natural vs Traditional playgrounds – users perspective
Natural play areas are shown to have benefits to emotional and physical wellbeing as well as improving opportunities for social interactions. There is a wealth of literature published by national agencies expounding the value of natural play for social development in children (eg. Play England and the Forestry Commission). They also re-engage children with the natural environment in a safe and approachable surrounding, providing a bridge between traditional play and exploring the wilder areas. This is especially significant for children from urban communities, who can experience barriers to enjoying and appreciating the environment. This is where their true future value may lie. It may be difficult for those of us with a more environmentally engaged background to comprehend. Many of us will find it difficult to deal with or socialise with those who have no love or even a passing interest in things that grow or can be found scurrying in leaf mould, but many in our city centres are unaware just exactly what nature is and how easy and rewarding developing an affinity for it can be. I have worked with young people and teenagers throughout London and the ignorance and on many occasions outright fear of what we would think of as the simplest, easily identified component of our biota can illicit. By providing an environment where the very young can scramble, climb and interact with the uneven and irregular surfaces of tree trunks, rocks and plants in a safe and familiar environment, such as that created by the local traditional playground, we can encourage greater adventurousness and willingness to venture forth into our woodlands and forests, unimpeded by fear of the unknown.
Natural vs Traditional playgrounds – landowners perspective
Natural Play areas are growing in popularity as a low cost and low maintenance alternative to traditional man-made structures. Comparative to standard, metal and plastic playgrounds, natural play areas are cost effective. Where materials can be provided locally through tree falls or using the natural features of the area, the only resource required is installation and landscaping by staff or contractors.
Natural Play structures offer a focus for play at honeypot sites and are more in keeping with the surroundings of local parks and green spaces, as opposed to formalised play areas, which can appear incongruous in an environmental setting.
As the structures are formed from natural material, they will degrade providing habitats and giving a more natural feel over time, as opposed to a manmade play structure which will degrade and appear ‘run-down’ without effective maintenance. This can further exacerbate issues of vandalism, litter etc. by giving the impression that no one cares.
Natural Playgrounds – the future for meeting community needs while maintaining a green aspect?
Natural playgrounds of trunks, logs, rocks, sleepers, landscaped hills and depressions, puddles and shallows streams, may begin to replace swings, roundabouts and seesaws as the main elements of play areas in our green spaces. They offer a much more economically viable alternative, with maintenance costs dropping to almost zero, and materials being readily available. In fact, decay is an actively beneficial feature, adding to the biodiversity value and interest to the inquisitive youngster by providing habitat for endless beetles and insects, whereas rust and dilapidation in traditional playgrounds can lead to unsightliness, health and safety concerns and can encourage anti-social behaviour. It might be too early to call time on the old-fashioned play area, but natural playgrounds are offering a real, viable alternative.