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Outdoor Environments for Children (page 2)

By — Pearson Allyn Bacon Prentice Hall
Updated on Jul 20, 2010

History of Playgrounds

Playgrounds in the United States began to appear in the 1800s (Moore, Bocarro, & Hickerson, 2007). Preschool playgrounds were influenced by Froebel, the father of kindergarten, and John Dewey, an American educator and philosopher who emphasized experiential learning. These playgrounds included gardens, sand play, woodworking, natural play materials, and equipment (Dempsey & Frost, 1993; Frost, Brown, Sutterby, & Thornton, 2004). The American parks movement, on the other hand, influenced elementary school playgrounds. These playgrounds emphasized equipment that contributed to physical development and were often placed on flat expanses of pavement or dirt (Dempsey & Frost, p. 316). What planners forgot in designing elementary school playgrounds is that this area is used not only for physical development but is like “the city square” where children meet, play, interact, and socialize (Sebba & Churchman, 1986).

Types of Playgrounds

Playgrounds have evolved from their early beginnings into several different types: traditional, contemporary, adventure, creative, and natural. Each type has advantages and disadvantages.

The traditional playground features fixed equipment such as jungle gyms, designed primarily for exercise. The contemporary playground often contains complex climbing equipment that is more aesthetically pleasing than the traditional. However, it may not be more advanced developmentally.

The adventure playground began in Europe after World War II when a designer noticed that children preferred playing with rubble and scraps rather than on traditional playground equipment. Using scraps of lumber, other building materials, nails, hammers, and saws, children build, design, and manipulate their own play environments. Adventure playgrounds are supervised by play workers or play leaders. While few exist in the United States, more than 1,000 adventure playgrounds exist in Europe (NPR, March 9, 2006).

The creative playground is a combination of contemporary and adventure playgrounds. It contains both equipment and open-ended materials (Dempsey & Frost, 1993).

Natural environments, sometimes called adventure gardens (Fjortoft, 2001), use the natural habitat instead of equipment for learning.

Children want to play in unmanicured places. They want the adventure and mystery of hiding places and wild, spacious, uneven areas broken by clusters of trees and shrubs. In adventure gardens, children can experience other things that live in the outdoors, water/vegetation, including trees, flowers and long grasses; animals, including fish, frogs and other living things; sand; natural color; places and different features to sit in, on, under, and lean against, and that provide shelter and shade; different levels and nooks and crannies, places that offer privacy; structures, equipment and materials that can be changed, actually or in their imaginations. (White, 1997, p. 4)

The adventure gardens include elements such as water play in ponds and bogs, butterfly gardens, mud play, secret hiding places, tree houses, natural obstacles to climb on, animal farms, and musical experiences (White, 1997, p. 4). One example is the Environmental Yard in Berkeley, California.

There are limited research studies comparing child outcomes on different kinds of playgrounds. Furthermore, because these studies have typically compared and contrasted only two types of playgrounds, it is difficult to make comparisons across all types of playgrounds. However, to see the current research that does exist on playground types and child outcomes, read the table below.

Type of Playground Research Findings
Traditional Children spend most of their time in physical activity, favors children with high levels of physical skills (Barbour, 1999; Frost & Campbell, 1985; Frost & Strickland, 1985).
Natural environment More effective in developing motor fitness, balance, and coordination than traditional playground (Fjortoft, 2004).
Contemporary Encourages children of all ability levels to interact. Children are more passive than in traditional playground. Children engage in more creative and pretend play than when playing on traditional playgrounds (Barbour, 1999; Hart & Sheeham, 1986; Susa & Benedict, 1994).
Adventure Children engage in play for longer periods of time, engage in more cognitive play activities, participate in a wider range of activities, and participate in more adult interactions than in contemporary or traditional playgrounds (Hayward, Pathenberg, & Beasley, 1974; Moore, 1985).
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