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Natural Church Playgrounds And The Concept Of Play Value
By: Margaret Ryan

The commercial playground industry is abuzz about natural playgrounds. Natural playgrounds are outdoor play spaces where children can play with and among natural elements, such as sand, stones, water, and living plants.

Seemingly overnight, terms like "natural play" and "nature-deficit" proliferate the industry's vernacular. In actuality, the trend toward natural playgrounds, also called outdoor classrooms, is part of a much larger movement to return play to its roots, when children played with and among natural elements.

John Ogden, president of Progressive Design Playgrounds, www.pdplay.com, which designs and manufactures commercial play structures and natural playgrounds called Outdoor Learning Environments, www.outdoorlearningenvironments.com, believes the escalated interested in natural play is rooted in both environmental and economical concerns.

"We've seen an absolute interest in natural playgrounds in recent months," said Ogden. "Our customers are hyper-aware of the movement toward natural play, but it is the concept of natural playgrounds delivering the most play value that has captured their immediate interest."

According to Ogden and consistent with child development experts, the best play spaces have the right mix of natural and physical play elements to attract and engage children.  A play space that dually offers children physical and mental challenges holds the most play value. Play value is measured by a play element's ability to hold a child's attention.

Creating multi-age family gathering areas with picnic tables and seating under a shaded tree also increases the overall play value of a play space because it influences how often a child visits and the duration.

Jim Greenman*, author of Caring Spaces, Learning Spaces: Children's Environments that Work, believes the natural world serves the dual function of entertainment and education of young children because it is filled with patterns, textures, and continual change. According to Greenman, children need a balance of play and opportunities to learn.

"In early childhood, our job is to help children live in the world, but also to love the world," said Greenman. "Interaction with the natural world is the most powerful way to teach them to love the world."

Ogden believes the playground industry is on the verge of a major shift, with more and more customers requesting natural elements to be incorporated into their new or existing playgrounds.

According to Cheryl Charles, president and chief executive officer of the Children & Nature Network, www.childrenandnature.org,  the movement to reconnect children with the outdoors has steadily gained momentum for years because children today are far less likely than past generations to spend time playing outdoors.

"In order to reconnect children with the natural world, we must connect them in their everyday lives," said Charles. "The benefit is that children are more self confident, less stressed, more filled with joy, have fewer problems with obesity, and are more creative and better problem-solvers. In short, they are happier, healthier, and smarter."

According to Charles, incorporating natural elements into play spaces is a move in the right direction for harnessing the potential and value of play places in the lives of children.

* Note: Jim Greenman passed away earlier this year. He was an inspiration to early childhood development professionals worldwide.

Margaret Ryan is a freelance writer and marketing consultant. She jointly owns Progressive Design Playgrounds in Oceanside, California with her husband John Ogden.

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