Research support for naturalized playgrounds

The Natural Learning (NLI), a research and design assistance program of the College of Design, North Carolina State University, has conducted a number of studies that support the benefits of playground naturalization. Findings that support the program are derived from studies at one or more of the following research sites:

  1. The Environmental Yard, Washington Elementary School, Berkeley, C.A., where study results showed play activity equally divided between community-built play structures, a hard surfaced games area, and a richly diverse, custom-designed nature area. This finding suggests that children enjoy a mix of permanent, anchored play structures, open areas, and natural settings.
  2. Blanchie Carter Discovery Park, Southern Pines Primary School, N.C., which demonstrated the attractiveness of a playground containing a mix of manufactured and natural elements.
  3. Kids Together Playground, Cary, N.C. is an example of the new naturalization paradigm, which integrates manufactured play equipment and the living landscape (Kids Together Playground: A case study of naturalization).
  4. Research at a variety of childcare centers throughout North Carolina produced findings, which showed that curvy pathways, anchored play structures, open areas, and compact layouts support higher levels of physical activity. A further study demonstrated that children were more active in playgrounds where equipment and nature were integrated or “mixed.”
  5. Bay Area Discovery Museum, Sausalito, C.A., where study results demonstrated the attractiveness of settings designed for socio-dramatic play.

Child development benefits of naturalization

Naturalized playgrounds can be designed, managed, and programmed to integrate three crucial agendas for children's healthy development: active living; educational success through engagement with diverse, living environments; and healthy social and psychological development through spontaneous creative play.

  • Naturalized playgrounds increase diversity of play opportunities, thereby supporting social interaction and physical development of a wide range of children. Diverse play settings meet individual needs according to stages of development, learning styles, personality types, friendship patterns, and culture.
  • Children in nature are engaged in more creative and cooperative play.
  • Naturalization provides broader inclusion of children of various abilities and increases social interaction among children with different socioeconomic and ethnic/racial backgrounds.
  • More creative play opportunities around play equipment can reduce social conflict on multi-use structures where crowding and boredom can increase the potential for bullying and the risk of slipping or tripping.
  • Increased levels of physical activity result from chasing and hide-and-go-seek games stimulated by topographical variety, curvy pathways, and shrubs and shade trees located around manufactured equipment. This may reduce the possibility of children running on the equipment, which is discouraged by the industry.
  • Naturalized playgrounds are aligned with education philosophies that consider the outdoor environment as an educational resource supporting child development as a holistic psychological, social, and cognitive process. Naturalization provides hands-on experiences and opportunities to bring classroom learning outdoors.
  • Gains in student competence, social studies, science, language arts, and math occur for children attending schools with outdoor classrooms.
  • Heightened sensory stimulation, exploration, and discovery of natural objects and phenomena stimulate active learning, creativity, and imagination.
  • Environmental educators see nature play as a key strategy for engaging urban children with the experiential richness of the natural world. Opportunities for extending learning processes outdoors increase options for meeting state-mandated curricular objectives, certifications, and learning through play.
  • Changing seasons and daily natural environment dynamics contribute to novel play experiences for children.
  • Deeper emotional attachment to nature and increased understanding of the natural world by children can increase long-term environmental stewardship as adults.

Health benefits of naturalization

  • Reduces attention deficit disorder symptoms in children as young as five years old.
  • Produces feelings of peace, self-control, and self-discipline within inner city youth, particularly girls.
  • Reduces stress in children through contact with plants, green views, and access to natural play areas.
  • Increases children’s ability to focus and enhances their cognitive abilities.
  • Develops capacities for creative problem solving, as well as intellectual and emotional development.
  • Motivates children to be more physically active, more aware of nutrition, more civil to one another, and more creative by experiencing diverse, natural school playgrounds.
  • Enhances self-esteem, self-confidence, independence, autonomy, and initiative in teens.
  • Provides sun protection and skin cancer prevention.

Register for the guidebook

New health research recognizes everyday outdoor play in nature as a powerful preventive strategy for healthy childhood development — including protection against childhood obesity.