Natural playgrounds

Benefits of outdoor play for children and parents

Hiding in the bushes, making mud pies, creating twig sculptures and tree climbing - it's all child's play. Yet, according to researchers, it's much more. Playing regularly outside in childhood boosts physical activity, stimulates creativity and develops social skills. It helps create an appreciation of the natural world, can relieve stress, develop resilience and bring learning to life - and it's a lot of fun!

Playing outside is also great for parents and families. Parents report that when their children play outside more they tend to eat well, sleep better and be less irritable. Playing outside as a family can be a great, low-cost way of enjoying quality time together.

So, why does this generation of children spend less than half the time playing outside than their parents did? In part, it's due to the rise of screen-based play, but it's also because children do not have the same freedom to play and roam outside that their parents did, largely due to fears about traffic, 'stranger danger' and anti-social behaviour.

There are no easy answers to these challenges, but one way of helping our children to enjoy more outdoor play in natural spaces is to make more use of a valuable outdoor space at the heart of every community - the local school playground. Although there are some good examples, many Scottish children grow up in uninspiring asphalt playgrounds with limited opportunities for natural play.

Most of our Northern European neighbours place a much stronger emphasis on the importance of year-round outdoor play in natural spaces. Twenty years ago, an escalation in playground violence in Berlin led to a radical transformation of the city's school playgrounds - from flat asphalt yards to green naturalistic play gardens.

During break times, children can happily hide from adults, clamber over rocks, build dens in bushes and dam streams. After school and during the weekend, they can do the same as the space becomes a public play space, often attracting parents who meet up to socialise after school while their children play. It is common for parents to play an active role in developing and managing these community play spaces. For example, one school organised a monthly community work day, complete with picnic or barbecue in the summer months, which attracted around 60 parents.

Twenty years on, playground violence has almost disappeared, teachers report that behaviour in class has improved and although there has been an increase in minor accidents, major accidents have decreased.

Is it too big a leap to imagine this kind of scenario in Scotland? Perhaps not, according to the results of a survey of parents published in December by the Scottish Parent Teacher Council. The survey revealed overwhelming parental support for better school playgrounds, greater opportunities for 'risky play', more opportunities for wet weather and snow play, a high degree of tolerance for wet and muddy clothes and support for shrubby spaces for children to hide from adult supervisors. Parents also indicated high levels of willingness to help their local school, through fundraising and contributing their own ideas, expertise and labour.

Why not pester or support your school to make more of its playgrounds? Grounds for Learning is a Scottish charity that supports parents, teachers and pupils to develop school playgrounds into natural, active, sociable and fun spaces that communities can enjoy and be proud of. Find out more at www.ltl.org.uk/scotland or phone 01259 220 887.

More information: Matt Robinson, Grounds for Learning programme manager mrobinson@ltl.org.uk

Also in this issue

Other articles published in our April 2011 newsletter: