Natural Play and Equipment

What is natural play?

In a sentence, natural play is creatively interacting with different elements of the natural environment. Natural play encourages children to engage with nature and the outdoors. Sadly, in many places, natural play is absent, limiting children’s ability to play in controlled outdoor settings. It is more important than ever to develop natural play areas in society, whether this is in schools, farms, or other local businesses. Natural playgrounds reimagine the natural resources provided from the environment and turns them into beneficial entertainment for young people. A natural playground is a play area that is made up of elements and textures that can be found in the natural environment. These playgrounds promote the idea of children being able to engage with their natural surroundings. Different elements of natural play aim to challenge children with different experiences and provide them with opportunities to be creative and play imaginatively. It also helps to provide them with both visual and physical stimulation which can provide many benefits.

How much does it cost to build a natural play area?

Natural play areas can vary in cost, depending on the size, shape and level of interactivity that you want to promote. These areas can also be more cost-effective than the traditional playground. It is estimated that up to 50% of a playground budget is spent on different safety measures such as surfacing. Natural play often does not need this safety surfacing and so this money can be spent on expanding the designs and adding to the construction of the playground. Natural play elements are also typically cheaper than manufactured play equipment and many of these elements can be naturally sourced.

Why is outdoor play important in child development?

Due to advances in technology in today’s society, children are becoming less dependent on the outdoors for sources of entertainment. It has become easy to find entertainment and interact with friends online, leaving no reason to play outside, as it were in the past. Natural play aims to encourage children to enjoy being in the surroundings of the natural environment. Young children learn skills through sensory and physical activity. The more natural the setting that the child learns in, the greater the benefit for physical, mental, and emotional development of the child. A great benefit of natural play is the amount of physical activity that it requires. It has become easy for young people to lessen their levels of physical activity due to the increase in entertainment that doesn’t require physical activity. Some examples of this are:

  • Television – Tv shows, movies.
  • Media service providers – Netflix, Disney+, Now TV.
  • Video games.

In a day and age where streaming services are providing endless entertainment to people, and video games becoming more and more popular, it can be easy for children to become increasingly inactive. Natural play has become a response to this pressing issue. It encourages children to not only be active but to be active in the natural environment. It has been proven that children who play often in natural environments develop more advanced balance, coordination and agility. Exercise also releases endorphins which is important for a healthy mind and it also helps to reduce stress. In a normal playground with fixed equipment, such as swings and slides, there are only so many ways that a child can interact with it. They have an intended purpose and can’t typically be used to play in other ways. With a natural play area, there are many different ways that a person can engage with different activities, which allows the child to express their creativity and imagine new ways to play. Giving a child an area to play in that doesn’t have one specific function allows them to think about how they would like to engage with their surroundings, as opposed to how they’re supposed to interact. Natural play also encourages teamwork rather than competition that is often present in playgrounds. For example, only one child can go down a slide at a time. However, in a natural playground, children can work with their resources to create collaborative games. There is more opportunity for teamwork.

Play is an opportunity for a child to be in control over their own mind and imagination and mastering these challenges that they create for themselves can give them a sense of accomplishment. It has been argued that simply encouraging a child to climb a ladder and go down the slide, is actually limiting their creative ability, whereas, in natural play, there are more opportunities for them to express their own ideas and turn them into games. Playing outside has health benefits of its own. Being outdoors provides children with a natural source of vitamin D. This is important as vitamin D helps the body to regulate the amount of calcium and phosphate in the body. This is essential to keep bones, teeth and muscles healthy, especially in still-developing children.

Is natural play safe?

Natural play is just as safe as any other playgrounds. It is impossible to completely eliminate all risks in a natural playground, just as it is so in normal day to day life. Child safety is greatly considered during the planning and building stage of developing a play area as safety is very important. It is also important for young children to be supervised by a responsible adult as they would be for any other activity. These play areas typically, though not always, eliminate fall heights due to the lack of complex structures.

It is a natural element of life for children to take risks in order to learn. Some examples of this are learning to walk, ride a bike and even learning to swim. This is how they develop and learn key life skills and with the correct supervision and monitoring, these situations aren’t actually dangerous at all. These natural environments are created in a controlled manner to reduce risks and eliminate any danger.

What equipment/materials are used for natural play?

Many different types of materials and equipment are available to use when it comes to building a natural play area. Typically, wood edging is used to section off each different natural play activity. An example of a material that can be used for edging is timber. Half-round timber logs, that are often seen in parks, are great for creating boundaries and providing security to the area. Some key elements and materials that can be found in
natural play are:

  • Trees – Logs, bark textures, tree stumps.
  • Rock – Pebbles, pathways, gravel.
  • Plants – Flowers, grass.
  • Planters – Where children can experiment with planting.
  • Space – Places to explore and be imaginative.
  • Sensory interactivity – Sand, movable objects.
  • Natural wood benches – A great place for resting.
  • Tools – Child-friendly trowels or spades for digging.

The possibilities of natural play are truly endless. Wooden circles in the grass can be used to jump from space to space. Patches of grass can be used with creativity for children to play games such as ‘tag’. Sandpits can be used as sensory activities or even for building sandcastles. One element of nature can be twisted into many different things in a child’s imagination, becoming an ongoing list of endless entertainment.

How can natural play benefit my school or business?

Natural play is becoming increasingly popular in schools due to its benefits in child development and simply because it is an enjoyable and interactive activity to engage with. As natural play provides so many benefits to children, the best way to take advantage of this is to provide it for free. A school would be the perfect place to take advantage of natural play and the benefits that come with it.

It can also be used as a great way to educate children on the natural environment. Children can learn through natural play not only by interacting with the different elements that it provides but also by learning about the materials that they engage with. Planters provide space for children to plant, but they are also gaining valuable knowledge about how to plant flowers and even vegetables and other crops.

Outdoor learning has also been proven to boost academic performance. It is known that natural play:

  1. Promotes physical activities – Accompanies physical activity programmes in schools and demonstrates a healthier lifestyle.
  2. Helps children to be more social – Children are learning to communicate with one another and work together, boosting confidence and teamwork skills.
  3. Natural play teaches children to problem solve – Key skill for later in life learnt by solving puzzles and games.
  4. Relieves stress – A healthy distraction.
  5. Improves concentration – Problem-solving, and other tasks help children to be more attentive and improve their concentration skills.
  6. Helps to make children more aware of risks that are present in day to day life – A critical skill to be able to conduct risk assessments.
  7. Makes children more aware of the natural environment – Important lessons to be learnt.
  8. Allows children to feel a sense of freedom – More choice involved.
  9. Teaches children to respect the natural environment – Opportunities to learn about protecting and preserving the planet.