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Natural playscapes: Healthy, diverse and inclusive

Published on May 24, 2012

Campers enjoy some open play time in Chimney Court, EBW's natural play space. Photo: Yuliya Tsoy.Campers enjoy some open play time in Chimney Court, EBW's natural play space (Photo: Yuliya Tsoy)

By Melissa Lem

The first modern jungle gym was patented in Chicago in 1920. Over the following decades, metal pipes and asphalt began to elbow aside green fields and forests in schoolyards across North America. However, we now know that compared to built playgrounds, nature-based spaces win hands-down at promoting children’s health and development.

Natural playscapes, such as Chimney Court at EBW, which merge land features like grassy hills, water and sand with creative native plantings and structures, are ideal for keeping youth active. Research shows that urban children prefer to spend time in green, well-maintained and attractive neighbourhood locations. Since more outdoor time increases physical activity, natural playgrounds are an effective tool to combat sedentary behaviours and the paediatric obesity epidemic. What’s more, a 2004 study from Norway demonstrated that children who played in a natural landscape improved their balance, coordination and motor fitness faster than in a conventional playground.

The diverse topography of green playgrounds also supports imaginative and open-ended play and learning that boost brain power. One 2003 study in Toronto (PDF) indicated that children with access to greened school grounds displayed enhanced creativity and knowledge retention. Other proven benefits of green play include better concentration, attention and self-discipline. Not only that, natural playscapes encourage social inclusion by enabling children to move freely and find inspiring play areas regardless of gender, age or ability. Say good-bye to king of the castle and dirty rascals!

This spring, strengthen your child’s connection to nature and health by advocating together for a green playscape in your neighbourhood or schoolyard. And as always, don’t forget to spend time with your family in the ultimate natural playground—your local green space.

A member of the Canadian Association of Physicians for the Environment, Melissa Lem is a Toronto family doctor who also works in rural and remote communities across Canada.