Value of Outdoor Play

There are many benefits to a well-planned outdoor space. Outside, children can play vigorously, use loud voices, release excess energy, and engage in large, messy projects. In the outdoors, children can experience climate, openness, messiness, wildlife, and different landscapes such as hills, holes, streams, and mud puddles (Greenman, 1991). They can test and strengthen their physical skills and engage in social, cognitive, and creative pursuits. Research indicates that children who play outdoors demonstrate better visual motor integration, imagination, and verbal and social skills than children who play inside (Yerkes, 1982). There are also health benefits to playing outdoors, including opportunities for exercise, exposure to sunlight necessary for the body to produce Vitamin D, and an environment with less-concentrated disease organisms than are found inside (American Academy of Pediatrics, American Public Health Association, & National Resource Center For Health and Safety in Child Care and Early Education, 2002).

The outdoors provides invaluable learning opportunities, promotes health, and encourages lifelong dispositions (Cuppens, Rosenow, & Wike, 2007). However, we need to protect this right to outdoor experiences.

Protecting Children’s Right to Play Outdoors

As Rivken (1995), the author of The Great Outdoors, states, “Children’s access to outdoor play has evaporated like water in sunshine. It has happened so fast, along with everything else in this speed-ridden century that we have not coped with it well. If someone had said to our grandmothers, ‘Bet your great-grandchildren won’t know where to find worms,’ they would not have believed it” (p. 2). There is growing concern about the decrease in children’s time outdoors. For example, between 1981 and 1997, the time children between the ages 6 to 8 decreased by 27% (Hoffert & Sandberg, 2000). In one study, 70% of mothers played outside everyday when they were young, while only 31% of their children do (Clements, 2004). Children today have limited opportunities for free play or exposure to nature due in part to a “culture of fear” (White, 2004). Eighty-two percent of preschool and elementary children’s parents stated the main reason they do not allow children to play outside is concern about crime and safety (Clements, 2004). Parents are concerned about stranger danger, sun exposure, insect-carrying diseases, and pollution (Pyle, 2002; Wilson, 2000). The recent trend in some elementary schools to eliminate recess so that children can spend more time on academic skills has exacerbated the problem. This lack of free time to play outside has resulted in what some call a “childhood of imprisonment” (Stoecklin, 2000).

The trend to spend less time outside is also a concern in other countries. For example, the lack of time children spend outside, rising obesity, sedentary activities, and the amount of time children spend watching or using electronic media is a concern in Norway and several other Scandinavian countries (Fjortoft, 2001). To counteract this, some kindergartens in Scandinavian countries are provided entirely outdoors. Results show that children in these programs are more creative in play, engage in increased play activities, have less illness, and are more physically fit than their peers (Fjortoft, 2001, p. 112).

To gain full advantage from outdoor play, children need an appropriate space. “Space is the backdrop to play, supplying content, context, and meaning. It is bound to communicate a variety of possible messages to children (Titman, 1994): welcome, dismay, excitement, intimidation, warmth, coldness” (Cosco & Moore, 1999).

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).