How Playground Design Can Inspire Happiness
I was an archaeologist at five, biologist at six, chef by seven, and an architect at eight. Yes, it was a pretty busy childhood in the woods behind my house in North Carolina. I was a little bit of a wild child; so were all of my friends.
We dug for buried treasure, found turtles in the creek, we made nature soup from wild berries – and we made my little sister eat it. Sorry!
We built forts, bridges, swings – all in that small patch of pine trees. Those woods were my playground; they were my world.
If you’re an adult, you probably had a similar experience when you were a kid, right?
Playing outside, getting dirty, no grown-ups, no rules, no limits.
Recently, I took my kids to a playground near our house. It was brand new, shiny, full of kids and families. We played, had a good time, went home – but a few weeks later I asked them if they wanted to go back, and to my surprise, my son, who’s nine, said “no.”
“Why?” I asked.
“It’s boring,” he said.
Well, I’m a pretty tough critic, apparently so are my kids, but let’s face it, when kids think that the spaces created especially for them are boring, then you know something’s wrong.
And the fact of the matter is, things have gone terribly wrong. The nature of childhood has changed. And guess what? There isn’t much nature in it.
As a parent, a landscape architect, and the director of a program at the National Wildlife Federation working to redesign outdoor spaces for young kids, I want to make the case that childhood environments matter, more than we think.
21st century lifestyles are creating 21st century problems.
That’s leading to an increase in just about every negative health outcome for young children that you can imagine, rates of obesity, asthma, allergies, stress. All of these issues are on the rise in children, specifically preschool-age children. Let me say that again, preschool-age children.
When problems start this young, they track into adulthood, and the mounting issues faced by this generation, will ultimately become catastrophic.
So, now that I have thoroughly depressed you, I’m really sorry about that, but I wanted to get this out of the way so that we can spend our time talking about what we can do together to change this.
Take a deep breath. That’s better, right?
There’s a reason for that. There’s a lot of science behind why this image, this image, not this, this image, you know, why these spaces are compelling to us.
It’s because nature boosts our immune systems, it reduces stress, motivates us to move; generally, it improves our health, so we’re naturally drawn to it.
But before you start thinking that this talk is about everyone just going for a walk in the woods, it’s not.
Because many families don’t have access to these spaces, the reasons for which could be the topic of an entirely separate Ted Talk.
Even if access isn’t an issue, the annual family camping trip is no substitute for daily and weekly play in nature.
The spaces of everyday life where we can create real impact with an infusion of nature, it’s at the playground.
Those children’s health issues that I just charged out of the gate with, many of them can be prevented through daily contact with nature at a young age.
Spoiler alert: No amount of meditation when you’re 40 is going to replace a lack of nature in your life when you were four. Sorry. It’s not.
So, we know the value of nature of kids’ health and well-being, right? We know that there can be barriers to that “big” nature. So let’s bring nature to the places where kids are every day.
Have you been to a playground lately? Actually, let’s Google it.
How did we get here?
So how we got here is actually pretty fascinating, and I’m going to give you the history of how we ended up with this big, sterile, uninspiring plastic structure and society’s definition of the playground really quickly so that we can talk about where we go from here.
I call this fresh air!
So, the point is, we’ve known for a long time the benefits of getting kids outside, maybe we just haven’t gone about it in the right way.
Kids used to play anywhere. The streets were playgrounds. Traffic became a safety issue. Playground equipment came into fashion. Basically, adults got involved – this is what happened.
So, to be fair, many of these structures were, obviously, legitimately unsafe, and they caused actual injury.
I know. It’s horrifying.
Unfortunately, in our effort to protect our kids – and prevent lawsuits – the pendulum swung too far in the opposite direction, taking away all risk and, I would argue, all interest from playgrounds.
So, it’s no wonder that a recent study found that the average kid spends less time outside everyday than a maximum-security prisoner. Unbelievable.
In fact, the average kid spends less than seven minutes outside everyday in unstructured free play. Thirty years ago, the average kid spent over an hour and a half outside every day.
But when you reflect on the quality of the spaces that we’ve created for kids, fenced-in rubberised plastic, devoid of anything natural and interesting, it’s not surprising.
Designers have been really busy creating so many things that connect us to nature. Architects design nature-centric buildings; hospitals are designed around natural elements to promote healing. But we seem to have missed the nature connection in the creation of outdoor spaces for kids.
Our society has made a shift towards health-conscious practices, and we’re leaving our kids behind. We are afraid to make playgrounds interesting because we think interesting means unsafe. And it’s not true; we can design stimulating and creative environments and still meet regulations. Having designed so many of these spaces myself, I can tell you it’s possible.
So how do we change this?
As a landscape architect, I believe the path to change has to be led by the people that use these spaces and by the people that shape our built environment. So, this is where intentional design comes in.
This is where researchers, designers, communities are coming together to create rich natural outdoor spaces that engage a modern generation of children.
So, what does a natural playground look like? There are so many things to do. Kids can engage at their level: the space just meets them where they are, developmentally. There’s something for everyone; nature play is naturally inclusive. Kids can test new skills every time they visit, like rolling down a hill. There’s lots of vegetation, there’s places where kids feel hidden and immersed in the landscape – they’re not hidden, they just think they are.
Kids need time alone in places to de-stress too.
There’s elements that let kids take safe risks. So important.
There are loose materials. Would you ever send your child to a classroom where everything was fixed in place? I don’t think so. Kids need to manipulate items to build imagination, creativity, and fine motor skills.
These spaces provide opportunities for kids to engage in social play so they create games with rules; they work together to test outcomes.
These girls are farming, led by the girl in the middle; they will learn later that those grasses won’t grow, once they’re planted in the sand, but it’s such an important lesson, right? And it’s an important social dynamic. Spaces with just gross motor equipment, don’t provide these opportunities.
In well considered – or well designed – spaces, kids get dirty; they explore, discover, grow, create. They learn. These aren’t new concepts, but we need to get back to basics and look towards the future. And it really doesn’t take much.
Those woods that I’ve played in when I was little, when I go back to visit now, they seem so small, but little nature interventions go a long way.
These spaces aren’t only visually engaging, inviting, dynamic; they provide experiences that are critical for development.
So, let’s talk about biology for just a minute here. Early experiences affect the development of brain architecture. That’s the foundation for all future learning behaviour and health. 90% of brain growth occurs within the first five years, through interaction with, and synthesis of the child’s environment. So this is a critical window.
Time spent outdoors in rich, natural environments, like the ones we just saw, develop kids’ brains and bodies in a way that time spent indoors cannot.
As adults, it’s our job to prepare our kids for a future that we can’t yet imagine. True fact: About two-thirds of the jobs that young kids will hold in the future don’t even exist yet.
Playgrounds are like microcosms of the world, but adult life – my adult life – looks nothing like the modern playground: predictable, fixed, unchanging. Real life is messy.
We need spaces that teach kids to be flexible, adaptable and creative. We need to get kids in nature, we need to start young, and we need to start now.
Adults: go outside – not now – go outside, and take the kids with you. Get dirty. Let those kids truly play. As a result of our time together, you’re going to see playgrounds differently. Let’s reclaim our parks and outdoor spaces and build a generation of healthy happy adults who are ready to take on the world.