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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


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 Playground).

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 playground.

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 version.

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.

Data Analysis

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 frequency.

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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