Although it’s eons ago, I can still conjure up the playground of my old elementary school, The Briscoe School, in Beverly, Massachusetts.
On my playground, metal fencing and trim ringed a square of black macadam. That playground seemed a vast expanse to my 6-yearold eyes. In one corner, the girls skipped rope and drew hopscotch squares in white chalk. In another corner, the boys played dodge ball, chase and tag.
Although the school was in a bucolic seaside town, no one then considered that the playground needed improvement. Today, however, decades of research yield a different story. We now know that greening play spaces is far more than prettifying the school grounds. There’s a direct payoff in enriching children’s physical, emotional and cognitive development. Let’s look at the evidence.
A recent study took advantage of a natural experiment when a traditional playground for preschoolers was being renovated into a natural one. This enabled before and after measurements of children’s physical activity. The traditional playground had play structures, such as slides and swings made of colorful plastic and metal. Trikes could use an oval concrete track. In that setting, on average, 16 percent of the children were engaged in moderate to vigorous physical activity, such as walking or running.
Tree logs, stumps and boulders replace plastic and metal play structures and recycled materials, such as old tires and ropes, are added when a playground is naturalized. A grassy hill enables children to climb up and slide down. Once the playground went green in these ways, 40 percent of the children were running, jumping, walking and climbing at any given time. More children were playing games of chase, hide-and-seek and tag. The rate of physical activity nearly tripled.
These findings are significant, given the obesity epidemic among young children. In the U.S., 21.2 percent of 2- to 5-year-olds are overweight or obese. Only 54 percent of young children meet the physical activity guidelines of at least three hours of physical activity spread throughout the day. Time spent in outdoor play has been declining in recent years. Because children build motor skills and physical coordination through outdoor physical activity, greening play spaces can help children get fit and become more agile.
Connecting children with nature enriches the mind and spirit as well. A recent study of preschools in Stockholm illustrates this. The researchers mapped the location of 134 preschools, all of high quality, throughout the city in terms of nature experiences. For example, they asked: How close was the school to a lake, forest or even picnic areas? If green spaces were close by, how much did the school integrate them into the curriculum? Using such questions, 10 nature rich schools were identified and contrasted with 10 nature poor schools. The children in the nature rich schools scored significantly higher on measures of empathy, responding with distress and concern to the pain of others. In addition, these children had more emotional responses to environmental behaviors, feeling good about caring for the environment—for example, by watering a dry garden—and feeling distressed at destructive behaviors, such as pollution. The children even knew more about ecological issues, responding more accurately to questions about what resources humans need and what the effects of environmental behaviors, such as pollution and conservation, are. Finally, the children in the nature rich schools had greater appreciation for nature and more desire to go out and play in natural settings.
These studies, and others, make a powerful argument for “greening” early childhood education. They challenge educators and parents to think of creative ways to bring nature into children’s schools and bring children out into nature.