It’s time to invite nature back into children’s lives. Deliberately designed naturalized play areas and outdoor classrooms do just that, while simultaneously enhancing biodiversity and ecosystem health. Unfortunately, the before pictures above represent an uninviting space where no one is beckoned to come hither. Sure, spring fever will hit as it always does, and teachers and students alike will yearn to taste the fresh air and soak in the sun’s warmth, but most of the year this space will largely go unnoticed and unused.
Put simply, there is nothing in this space to spark creativity or spur imagination. There are few trees, shrubs, and herbaceous plants, few insects, birds or amphibians, and it lacks an inviting gathering space for people to enjoy (the enclosed gazebo feels more like a prison, and couldn’t comfortably accommodate an entire classroom of kids).
Unfortunately, this is the same scenario at many schools. The state mandated curriculum asks our children to learn and understand the principles of ecology and the environment. Yet, despite the widely recognized benefits of naturalized spaces, most schools lack an educationally stimulating outdoor environment.
Research identifies naturalized spaces as areas which promote creative and cooperative play, encourage broader inclusion of children of various abilities, and lead to increased social interactions between children with different socioeconomic and ethic/racial backgrounds. Additionally, by providing a diversity of play opportunities, they reduce social conflict on multi-use structures where crowding and boredom can lead to the potential for bullying and increased risk of injury.
Time spent in nature increases the ability of children to focus, fosters creative problem solving, lowers stress, and motivates kids to be more physically active. In teens, access to naturalized areas can enhance self-esteem, self-confidence, independence, autonomy, and initiative. In fact, children who attend schools with outdoor classrooms show gains in competence across all subject areas.
Naturalized spaces can be as simple as placing a few large deciduous shade trees on the south side of an existing playground and installing a few planting pockets in and among the existing play equipment and pathways. They can be installed in phases and managed by a task force made up of parents, teachers, and students, as well involvement from outside groups (gardening clubs, 4-H, scouts, local businesses, and non-profits). Additionally, they should have an established management plan that outlines a strategy for ongoing fundraising and maintenance, thereby ensuring school officials that these spaces won’t be underfunded or neglected.
Naturalized play areas benefit our health, our minds, and our spirits. They also serve as good models of environmental stewardship and promote healthy ecosystems through increased biodiversity. Children who spend time in nature develop a deeper emotional attachment to the natural world making it more likely that they will become environmental stewards as adults, something the entire planet could benefit from. Who’s onboard?
Natural Learning Initiative
Boston Schoolyard Initiative
National Wildlife Federation Schoolyard Habitats
Children and Nature Network
Children, Youth and Environments links to scientific literature on the subject
Richard Louv (2006), Last Child in the Woods
Robin Moore and Herb Wong (1997), Natural Learning: Creating Environments for Rediscovering Nature’s Way of Teaching.
Examples of successful Public School Gardens: Gullett Elementary School Garden (Texas), The Grateful Garden (Vermont)