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
Setting and Study Design
This year-long mixed method study focused
on children's play, pre- and
post-construction, of the new natural
playground in school serving a diverse
population of approximately 90 students ages
4-8 years (Phase I: Traditional Playground,
Phase II: Transition to a Natural
Playground, and Phase III: Natural
The study design consisted of a 30-minute
time-sampling observation. In each Phase, 34
randomly selected students across three
classrooms (matched for age and gender) were
observed as they played. Each primary
feature of the playground was assigned a
quadrant number that allowed observers to
reference a particular part of the
Children were observed using the Outdoor Play Inventory
(Chau, Kuh, Ponte, 2009).
This instrument codes for 35
literature-based play characteristics.
Children were observed and behaviors such as
cooperative, parallel, associative, and
solitary play (Parten, 1932), functional,
constructive, dramatic play, and games (Smilansky,
1968), and characteristics including
child/adult initiated play, gross motor
activities, and props used in play.
Click on the photos below to see a larger
In addition to observation of children's
play in Phases I and III all students and
six teachers participated in a
semi-structured interview which garnered
details about play themes and children's
recollection of their play. Children were
allowed to show interviewers what they did,
often acting out their play during the
course of an interview.
Within each phase of the study we compared
time-sampling data, coded interview
responses from students and teachers, and
field notes from observers in order to
corroborate themes and trends.
An integrative mixed-analysis approach was
employed to contextualize the various data
sources. These data sources were essential
to uncovering the evidence about what
children gain from their experiences of
‘place' (Spencer & Blades, 2006).
Observation time-sampling data were
analyzed for duration, activity type, and
Interview analysis was guided by the
Grounded Theory approach (Strauss & Corbin,
1998) and data were coded using Atlas.ti.
Researchers reached moderate kappa
reliability rating of 0.78.
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