Tuesday, May 17, 2016

Creating naturalistic play areas

We all know that letting children play outside is a must.
Research has been done and we have all heard about the benefits of outdoor playing. It builds up the children's immune system, provides physical exercise, stimulates imagination, develops problem-solving skills etc.. The list goes on.

Now there is a huge gap between what I call modern "fixed" outdoor play areas and "naturalistic" playgrounds. Because of new demanding safety guidelines from Health and Safety executives, many childcare outdoor environments today consist of isolated pieces of equipment in a "monoculture" of grass, concrete or rubber tiles. Yerk! Though that type of outdoor play area is better than none, I agree, I find them depressing. They might offer slides and swings, climbing apparatus and monkey bars. But where is the learning in it? There is no creativity involved in the play for the children, no real cooperation, no challenge (apart from physical maybe), no flexibility.
But if you install natural materials and other natural landscape features and if you give room for Nature to take over, then the children's spatial cognitiviness starts shifting. The children start socialising more and pretend more.They estimate, build, and compromise. They make their outdoor play more constructive while improving their physical skills and competences.

In a perfect world, childcare settings would be set up beside a forest, a meadow, or by a stream allowing the children to experience untouched natural environments. Actually, my friend Karen works in a preschool in  Evansville, Indiana (check their Facebook page). Their outdoor area is right beside a stream and some woodland. They are so so lucky! It must be pure Magic to watch the kids play outside! 

The truth is that many of us are not so lucky. Many of us don't have a wild natural environment right at their doorstep. And many of us have had to start their outdoor play spaces from scratch and very often on a tight budget (and that's the understatement of the year!). But we can still create nature-filled outdoor areas that will allow children to learn and experience the world around them.

I have been lucky as a private provider. I have been able to use my private back garden as our preschool outdoor area. And it's quite a big one!  But I have had to be patient and to think hard to turn our garden into a natural environment that can provide the children with a wide range of opportunities to connect with their natural surroundings. As I mentioned above, you can't expect  children to make new experiences with just grass and plastic toy cars! Yet, this is what I started with (especially after my back garden was turned completely upside down when I build the preschool!). How boring when you compare it with Karen's outdoor setting (as shown above).

Our garden about 5 years ago

It has been a long road to transform our garden. Am I happy with our garden yet? Of course not! There is still much more to do. It's an ever-evolving process.

There are many examples of what can be done or what has been done on Pinterest. Some of them are absolutely out of this world. But let 's face it: my budget is tight and I am not a great DIY person. I am crafty but I am not good with a chain saw and not great at all with a shovel.


Over the next few weeks I will share with you my vision of what I call "Naturalistic play areas". I am  by no means a gardener, a landscaper nor am I an ecologist. I just know as an Early Childhood educator that children learn through their senses and become more creative while playing in natural environments. That's how they gain their awareness of how the world works and of their own capabilities.

What I call "naturalistic play areas" are basically man-made play spaces /gardens /environments but which are using Nature as  a canvas and a provider to engage children.

In the next series of posts, I will reflect on what I have done so far in my own setting. The key word is simple, and cost-effective and nature-filled. Some ideas are inspired by Pinterest or by other bloggers ; others were more spontaneous ones. I have seen great structures with good engineering designs. Yet, they require (unfortunately) too  much money: hiring a digger, buying new materials, and paying some professionals to do job. I am trying to find ideas which are easy to implement on a tight budget, which  involve recycling (when possible) and which I can do myself (with the help of my husband of course!)

Nature is in general a great provider. And when Nature cannot provide, I search for discarded materials or scavenger car boot sales around the area. You just need to follow your instincts. Nothing is too small to start with. "From small things Mamma, big things one day come" as the song goes!

So stay tuned for our first post in this series on "creating naturalistic play areas".

Check our next post in this series: Part1 - Sand and Gravel pits

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