Home » The top 10: how natural playgrounds can help to benefit children

The top 10: how natural playgrounds can help to benefit children

When it comes to childhood development, playgrounds play a key part. Climbing structures help with confronting dangers, while the interaction involved with a play environment helps to develop social skills. Clearly, playing outside helps children grow and develop.

Built using wood, stone, sand and water, adventure playgrounds that are designed in this way are a growing trend thanks to their sustainability and their suitability in a wide variety of landscapes. Put simply, they blend more seamlessly into different environments – from National Trust parks to schoolyards. However, the natural elements of play also benefit children’s development. Here’s how:


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1. Play that is versatile

Unnatural playground equipment can often hinder a child’s development. There is a finite number of ways for children to play creatively. When children become bored, accidents are more likely to occur and, as such, providing versatility in play is key (Frost 1985, cited in Striniste & Moore, 1989).

2. Greater visual appeal

Children actively prefer natural materials and forms in playgrounds, one study had found. This helps engender imagination and encourages children to interact with the playground. Again, boredom can cause accidents in playgrounds – so visual appeal is also vital. Installing natural play elements was also found to improve children’s spatial cognitive awareness, socialisation and fantasy play skills (Herrington & Studmann, 1998).

Furthermore, natural playgrounds suit national parks and other natural landscapes when the environment is considered.

3. Developing construction skills

Sand, logs, pebbles and other moveable objects can be incorporated into a natural playground design, which could also include buckets, spades, string and fabric. These can be used by children to learn construction skills. Natural play encourages creativity through the interaction of these elements. These construction projects, such as digging channels in sand or creating dams in water channels with pebbles, provide satisfaction to children.

By utilising materials and equipment that help children learn the fundamental principles of construction, research has shown that they are able to work cooperatively. Research has shown that this helps with problem solving and creative thinking. A further study by Hestenes, Shin & DeBord (2007) found that in playgrounds that used natural elements, children were far more likely to use constructive play over functional play.

4. Helping to increase fitness levels

Landscapes that are uneven, as well as including equipment within their design, can also improve a child’s fitness levels: whether that’s climbing a wall, jumping over barriers, climbing over log structures or building their construction skills, a child’s physical fitness will improve.

5. Developmental social skills

Through the size and variety of equipment available, outdoor areas can offer more compared to indoor playground environments. These larger projects generally encourage more sociodramatic play themes, as children tackle bigger obstacles in groups (Davies, 1996).

6. Developing cognitive skills

Studies have shown that pretend play and divergent thinking is supported by outdoor playground designs. Creativity varies as a result of playground design – more pretend play and creativity occurs as a result of contemporary natural playgrounds compared to traditional designs.

7. Becoming a team player

As opposed to encouraging competition, natural playgrounds encourage teamwork – as the adventure element of exploring an outdoor space promotes the idea of working together. Natural playgrounds create opportunities to construct solutions or confront problems together.

8. Extending the length of playtime

Natural playgrounds can also help to encourage extended periods of playtime. This increase in playtime has the additional benefit of providing better physical fitness. Put simply: your child will absorb more of the benefits of playtime, since natural playgrounds increase overall time playing.

9. Helping with interaction between children and teachers

Teachers have a fundamental role to play in outdoor play, by being an observer and guide. Teachers were found to be more likely to support and facilitate a child’s development when in the presence of higher quality outdoor play equipment (DeBord et al., 2005).

10. Educating students of risk

What is also important within childhood development is the ability to analyse and assess risk. Natural play areas are a good way to present elements of risk thanks to climbing and jumping challenges – but balanced with safety measures such as soft landing surfaces and generally softer equipment.