Few children would disagree with the idea that playgrounds are magical spaces. Hours of imaginary and active play in neighborhood playgrounds provide the foundation of childhood. School playgrounds are no different, and most students will gladly volunteer that recess on a playground is the best spent time of the day. Spaces can transform to so many new and exciting worlds. Life can be experienced, lessons learned, and ideas challenged on a daily basis.
The first playgrounds were just large piles of sand provided by a group of female philanthropists who felt concern for the children of arriving immigrants in Boston. (I have to say that when a large pile of sand appears in the Little Reds playground outside my office, there is no better day on earth for these young builders!) Eventually, playgrounds became places designed by adults and overseen by well-meaning authority figures knowledgeable about safety and the law. Sandboxes were often deemed unclean and equipment needed to be redesigned for safer play. These are not altogether bad things, however over the years educators and child advocates have expressed concern over the lack of age-appropriate risk taking children are shielded from. Playgrounds are fun, but do they afford the growing child a chance to be challenged and learn from trial and error? Studies have shown that children need to experience some risk and feel the sensation of mastering a difficult physical task. There are some studies that have tied acrophobia, or fear of heights, in adults to a lack of experience with high play activities in childhood. As RPCS designed the updated preschool playground, these considerations were front and center.
Many successful playgrounds are being seen as more playscapes, areas of open space with “loose parts”. Both our preschool and lower school playground benefit from large areas of grass, trees, and mulch. They are outfitted with such “loose parts” as gutter pieces, wood construction blocks, sticks, stones, bricks, tin buckets, baskets, objects that roll or move, and more. The imaginary games that take place each day reflect a growing understanding of the world. There are fairy houses to be built with natural materials collected in tin buckets, construction sites that include parts of working towns or homes made out of crates and bricks, and community jobs to be done with hose parts, fireman hats, and buckets filled with sand. Outdoor environments with more natural elements than prescribed playground equipment is being studied and the early analysis is that it is much better for the developing brain of a young child. Stephen Merill, in the Edutopia article linked below, states, “Mud can be anything we want it to be, but sometimes a seesaw is just a seesaw.”
The other day, I read a lovely book to the students in lower school that illustrates the beauty of imaginary child play in the natural world, Roxaboxen, by Alice McLerran . This story retells the oral history of the author’s grandmother who grew up in Arizona at the turn of the century and enjoyed the many benefits of hours spent creating an imaginary world in an abandoned lot. I highly recommend this charming little book. I also highly recommend a visit to a playground. Are there sufficient risk-taking elements, enough loose parts, and wide open spaces to run and imagine other worlds? Hopefully, the answers to these questions will increasingly be – yes!