Playgrounds for an iPad World

Evergreen School Rain Garden

Evergreen School Rain Garden

Should we re-design playgrounds for the iPad era?

Before we tackle that question, just imagine how sad the world would be without playgrounds.   For almost all of history, there were none. It wasn’t until 1887 that the first one in North America was constructed in San Francisco’s Golden Gate Park.

The rapid growth of cities at the end of the Nineteenth Century obliged the construction of urban play spaces. As families left farming communities for city life, children found themselves without trees to climb, rocks to hop, or hills to scramble.  Change was needed, and in 1907 Teddy Roosevelt used his bully pulpit to advocate for city playgrounds in Washington.

Now, 100 years later, technological change requires us once again to rethink our outdoor play.  Richard Louv points out in his seminal book, Last Child in the Woods, children today are disconnected from the natural world.  Louv, horrified, relates the story of child who told him, “I like to play indoors better ´cause that’s where all the electric outlets are.” Louv documents the emotional and existential distress caused by too little exposure to the natural, physical world. Air conditioning, iPhones, and the internet have made it harder for all of us to have intimate encounters with rain drops, earthworms and dandelions. Yet our souls need these encounters to center and balance us.

These days, playgrounds must do more than provide a place for safe, physical play. They must also expose children to natural elements—such as rocks, logs, water and other features that stimulate the senses. As Maria Montessori understood, we learn directly from our senses—thus sensual experiences are the foundation for learning.  Most modern, industrial playgrounds are constructed of painted steel frames careful constructed more for their Consumer Product Safety Rating score than their organic, natural elements.   Even the New York Times asked “Can a Playground be Too Safe” ( NYT, 7/19/2011) .

Fortunately, there are many educational leaders who understand the needs of children to experience the natural world. Last week, Lesley Romanoff, the director of the Takoma Park Cooperative Nursery School showed me her school’s fantastic play space; it has a squirrel bridge, tea house, canoe and creek bed. She directed me to Springzaad, an online network of teachers, nature educators, public servants, landscape architects, and horticulturists who are promoting natural space for children to play.   Springzaad advocates elements such as herb gardens, shelters, rafts and more.

At the one year anniversary of the Evergreen School Rain Garden, I find deeper appreciation for the wisdom of our play space design.  Even more wonderful than seeing Evergreen students floating wood chips down our  creek,  planting in the vegetable garden, hopping on logs, stepping stones and hiding among our native grasses—it is awesome to see children’s connection to nature deepened, even in our suburban patch of Wheaton/Silver Spring.

There are some things you just can’t do on an iPad.

You can see more pictures of our Rain Garden on our Pintrest page.

  1. April 30, 2012 at 6:15 pm

    What a great post! I love this idea of incorporating nature into the play space, rather than just a cookie-cutter pre-fab metal intrusion on nature.

  2. May 1, 2012 at 12:17 am

    Wonderful post! I am lucky enough to live in a community with lots of woods and wetlands; my kids were lucky enough to experience all of that in a wonderfully unstructured way. The question is, how do we provide those experiences for kids in cities?

  3. May 1, 2012 at 9:02 pm

    Thanks for the comments. We are thinking hard about what new ‘features’ to add to our play area in the coming year. Having our native grasses area grow this spring has added to the fun. And the vegetables are just starting.

    Any suggestions are welcome!

  4. Natalie
    May 9, 2012 at 5:49 am

    I definitely agree about playgrounds being critical for child development and learning. I used to work at a blind children’s preschool and the best way for them to experience various textures was through the playground setting. You definitely can’t replicate that feeling with technology.

  1. July 23, 2012 at 12:11 pm

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