A natural playground has opened on the Belfield Campus, complete with a mud kitchen, tree cookies, balance logs, a sandbox, a gathering space, and more.
“Nature learning spaces are really great for kids,” said Grades K – 4 science teacher Kayla Wilson. “They’re not like traditional playgrounds where things are brightly colored and there are limited uses to each item. Take a slide for example, you can go up the slide or down the slide. Nowadays playgrounds are so safe that kids don’t really have a chance to challenge themselves, or grow their self-regulation skills and build self-confidence. But they still want to challenge themselves, so they begin using playgrounds in unsafe ways.”
In contrast, a natural playground affords children opportunities to challenge themselves with almost every available item. Stumps, for example, can be climbed or kids can hop between them pretending they are lily pads, or imagine that they are stranded on rocks under a waterfall, or even pretend that they are tables for a family dinner.
“Studies have shown that nature spaces allow kids to be more creative, that there is less bullying, and kids are less sedentary when they have access to a nature playground,” said Wilson. “They also engage many more of their senses, which makes it a richer play environment.”
For Wilson, the nature playground has already featured in her outdoor science curriculum with students in Grades K, 1, and 3 having science lessons in the space. In the Pre-School, students have begun to request nature playground time on a daily basis.
“Being outside in nature has so many benefits for young children,” said Director of Pre-School Programs Kathy Carpenter. “So many that they don’t fit into one category. Our children are often inside, playing with close-ended toys that an adult has designed with little opportunities for creative input from a child. Their hands are not getting the ‘work outs’ they used to from digging and making mud pie, for example, and their brains are not getting the input that nature provides. In turn then, if you analyze gross and fine motor skills, they have been significantly falling in young children in direct correlation to the lack of outdoor play. This has a long-term impact on growth and development.
“So, what does a natural playground do for young children? Digging and building provide numerous fine motor opportunities which our children so clearly lack. They gain sensory input from the smells and the feel of the soil and pebbles in their hands. This sensory feedback, in turn, provides a soothing and calming effect on children, allowing them to return to traditional classrooms with a more focused attention.”
Carpenter also mentioned the importance of imaginative play for young children, including the storytelling aspect of such play and bringing their own life experiences into the stories.
“Through this play, their social emotional growth expands,” said Carpenter. “They collaborate and communicate with others, work out strategies and conflicts together, and learn flexible thinking. The impact of creative play and exploration creates a motivation to learn. And when learning is self-directed, the impact is great. Children learn resiliency and take risks. They consider how to make new creations, ponder new strategies if something is not working, retest, and make new discoveries.
“Besides all of these skills being formed one of the happiest consequences of Pre-Schoolers in nature is that they develop empathy for our world. They care about that little bug crawling that they are investigating. They become genuine stewards for our world around us. The small, joyful world of the playground becomes integrated with an understanding of the larger world around us.
“Our job as educators is to guide and support and to expand upon their discoveries. We are observers of this play and provide the scaffolding to support each student’s divergent thinking. Social dynamics that may arise as teachable moments and this time and space provided through nature play has more long-lasting impact on a child’s development than many other learning opportunities.”
The natural playground is open to families during after-school hours. Adults must accompany children while they are playing in the natural spaces, and may find themselves not only supervising but joining in the fun themselves!
More photographs of the natural playground are available on the School's SmugMug account.