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Natural Playground

Natural Playground Research Project

Play Behaviors Before and After a Natural Playground Installation In an Early Childhood Setting

Lisa Kuh Ph.D., Iris Chin Ponte Ph.D., Clement Chau A.B.D.
Eliot-Pearson Department of Child Study and Human Development, Tufts University


This study sought to assess the impact of a new natural playscape on children's play experiences and is part of an ongoing effort to support rich play in young children and their intimate connection to natural world (Allen, 1968; Dewey, 1938; Keeler, 2008; Rivkin, 1997). We hypothesized that intentionally designed outdoor environments that provide children with opportunities to play in naturalistic settings would promote the kinds of physical, cooperative, and constructive play that support a healthy developmental trajectory.

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For the contemporary child, play experiences in nature may be few and far between. The loss of play out of doors has sparked concerns as children spend more time in front of screens and schools reduce or eliminate recess - children are at risk both physically, socially, and cognitively (Bell & Dyment, 2006; Center for Disease Control and Prevention, 2010; Fjortoft, 2004; Louv, 2005; Taylor, Kuo & Sullivan, 2001; Wells, 2000). Educators, architects, and communities have responded to this loss of access to the natural world by developing intentionally designed playscapes that capture “naturalistic” features.

A natural playground, a term rooted in landscape architecture, is designed to capitalize on the characteristics of the natural environment and replace traditional playground equipment with landscape oriented features such as boulder climbing areas, water features, plantings that induce hiding and movement, pathways taking children up and down the geography, and features that promote social encounters, focused exploration, and interaction with natural materials (Churchman, 2003; Keeler, 2008; Rivkin, 1997).

There are few empirical studies that specifically look at changes in play behaviors as a result of an intentional shift in the design of a playground. The overall study posed the following research question:

What is the impact of environmental affordances, before and after the installation of a natural playground, on the duration of young children's play episodes, cooperative and constructive play, gross motor play, and engagement in nature-related play?

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