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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


Table 1: Affordances and Changes in Play Experiences
Preliminary Findings: Phase I- Traditional to Phase II- Transition to Natural Playground

Pre-Construction Elements

Affordances Changes in Play Experiences




Hiding location shift

Decrease in climbing

Increase in construction


Swings and Bike Paths


Swinging and Circular Biking

Increase in Biking*

Increase in play episodes and number of children


Block Access and Decking


Increase in climbing

Block access promotes construction in other areas

Small Sandbox

Beachfront Sandbox, Waterfall, Boulders

Construction, Water Play, Climbing

Increase in sand and water play related to cooperative play*


Multiple Paths and Varied Surfaces

Multiple Entry Points to Other Areas

Increase in biking activity combined with cooperative play*

*Indicates increase in duration of play as well as frequency within the play feature.

Biking: From Functional Activity to Cooperative Explorations
Biking dramatically increased in episode and duration (from 9-47 episodes) and was evenly distributed throughout areas. A typical biking pattern post-construction shows a child starting in shed, moving to swing area, through the climber section and back through with maximum biking times shifting from 3 minutes pre-construction to 13.5 minutes post-construction. The multiple pathways freed children from the static biking patterns of a single path where a back and forth pattern with an awkward turning radius was the only option. The varied elements of the path (multiple terrains and path options, a bridge, natural stopping points) allowed the biking path to become a more interesting experience physically and cognitively. In addition, the path became an entry point to other areas of the playground facilitated more complex, cooperative, and constructive play. Biking shifted from being a purely functional, physical activity to an important component of multiple types of play experiences.

Click on the photo to see a larger version.

Climber: Into the Treetop
The traditional climber was replaced by a treehouse. Constructive and cooperative play went up in Phase II by almost double despite the fact that the physical activity associated previously associated with the climber went down. It seems that the new feature is no longer just a vehicle for gross motor activity but a place for other types of play that by design extended the affordances of the new structure. In addition, children are appropriating materials from other areas and bringing them to the treehouse, staying and playing there rather than continually moving up and down as in Phase I.

Swings: The Watering Hole Effect
Post-construction data revealed interesting increases in play behaviors in the Swing area. In Phase II there were over three times as many play episodes in this space (from 219 to 864). While there were also 2.5 times more episodes of swinging, this activity did not account for all of the increases in children's presence in this area. There were also increases in cooperative play here, whereas pre-construction the area was most closely related with purely functional activity. Increases in swinging were also accompanied by increases in passive non-interactive (6 pre, 25 post) and passive interactive (16 pre and 52 post).

In addition, because of the bike paths surrounding this space, play episodes now include biking. The increased fall zone, addition of seating areas, and expanded biking trail brings children to this area to wait for a turn on the swings, sit and watch or talk to children swinging or biking by resulting in more interactions between children on swings and those on the ground which range from observation, to general conversation, to more cooperative ventures and games. The changes in this area created a “watering hole” effect where children gathered to exchange information, check in, negotiate turns, and engage in play.

Click on the photos below to see a larger version.

Shed: Taking Construction on the Road
Results showed a significant increase in time spent in constructive play after the construction, F(1,18) = 6.698, p <0.05. However, despite the increase, the duration and episodes of constructive play were lower than expected. The large hollow blocks were now stored in a section of the shed accessible to children by a separate door whereas prior to construction blocks were mixed in with non-play equipment and children needed teachers to help access them. Children were indeed retrieving the blocks from the new storage space but instead of building on the shed deck, they loaded the blocks onto bikes or into wagons, or carried them to other areas of the playground – primarily the Treehouse and the Sand areas – notably the areas with greatest potential for play in nature with natural materials.. Children's need to move, explore, and transport was facilitated by new bike path and a desire to explore the treehouse and sand areas. Interestingly the amount of climbing in the Shed area increased. Alongside the Shed are railroad ties in a step formation and children engaged in climbing up and down these “steps” to ultimately reach the hillside behind the Shed, an activity rarely recorded in Phase I.

Sand and Water: Focused Play - Channels and Bridges
There was a decrease in overall gross motor activity in the sand area indicating that children are not engaging in movement such as running and skipping through the area. Instead, there was an increase in the number of constructive play episodes (from 288-379) and the duration of such play episodes also increases. During Phase II children were primarily building and digging. They are engaged in focused play, engaging in initial investigative explorations and navigating the affordances of this feature. Children are giving each other simple clear directions that are enacted as peers go about the business of digging, bridging, and damming up streams, engaged in an initial joint experience. There was a significant increase in duration of children's overall play episodes.

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