Tuesday, February 10, 2009

Natural Playgrounds

How often have I heard from other parents that they got their kids a great toy and all the kid wanted to play with was the box it came in????

While the council has not yet had a goal setting session, our discussions so far have indicated similar goals:
  • a green community
  • attracting good jobs and building a community that would attract young professionals.
  • strengthening neighborhoods
  • innovative ideas not costly solutions
  • and fresh ideas.
I believe that natural playgrounds offers us an opportunity to combine all of these goals.

Natural playgrounds use natural elements to create safe, accessible, age-appropriate play, social, and learning opportunities. Examples of elements, some in the pictures here, include
  • hills which integrate climbing aspects and slides,
  • shrubs for play forts or labyrinths,
  • sand areas,
  • ampitheaters,
  • butterfly or rain gardens, and
  • fairy villages made from willow branches.
Natural playgrounds provide unique advantages.
  • Educational: Research shows that the natural environment fosters more creative play.
  • More ages: More of the park is considered play space, but it appeals to all ages. (Many of the standard pieces of equipment are skill based and therefore limited to narrow age groups.)
  • Environmental: The materials are natural, often from local sources or native plants, while plastic playstructures are environmentally costly to manufacture, ship, and dispose of.
  • Jobs: Construction of natural playgrounds utilizes primarily local landscapers rather than remote manufactures.
  • Budget: More unique play elements can be constructed per dollar
  • and so forth
Common concerns voiced are accessibility, safety, and maintenance. However,
  • They can be built to ADA standards, and some elements may exceed standards. For example, a slide embedded in a hill would be easier for kids to access than one that was reached by a ladder.
  • Most of the safety problems with playgrounds are from the high elements, which a natural playground lacks. Kids may scrape their knees while climbing boulders, but they could do the same on a sidewalk.
  • Information that I have found has indicated that they are less costly to maintain, but comparisons are hard, since they include general park maintenance rather than just checking bolts.
They are different from what we are used to. In this high-tech era, we expect “clean” playgrounds. Nature is unknown and sometimes scary. Kids would get dirty. But I think that is a good thing.

Bryant Park and the new Tryon library will be a great asset for our community. Therefore, I believe that making this park unique by capitalizing on current research in playgrounds provides an exceptional opportunity for our community.

In our committee meeting yesterday, I asked that we wait until our next committee meeting, in two weeks, to vote on purchasing a new, plastic playground structure. I believe that there is no shortage of similar structures in our city (though this one was commendable for going beyond ADA requirements), and a two week delay in purchasing equipment would not seriously impact playing in this community.

For the next two weeks, I will be working with staff to find ways to overcome obstacles and bring this idea forward. We may still be faced with a delay in terms of the opening of the park if we go the natural playground route, but I believe that the result would be well worth it.

  • Checking nature kits out from the library, with field guides and magnifying glasses to explore the nature in the park.
  • Rolling down a hill.
  • Making daisy chains.
  • Hide and seek possibilities.
  • Reading a book under a muscadine grape arbor.
These types of parks could become destinations and unique assets, putting an environmental face on our community.

In short,
  • these playgrounds are green—both in terms of the environment and based on my research, in budgetary terms.
  • They are more aesthetically appealing than rigid plastic equipment. They appeal to a broader age range.
  • And they help us make Pensacola a progressive, innovative, family-friendly community.
I welcome your input on this kind of park. There is much work ahead to make it happen, and I would like to know if you think it is worth the effort.

There is an over-used cliche about thinking outside the box. Here, let's not think inside the box or outside; let's think about kids and creative play and rather than a new plastic toy, let's give the kids what they really want, what will stimulate their creativity: the cardboard box.