A More Natural way to Play

Nature-focused playground blooms with benefits for children’s health and development

Children play a little differently in a new playground at a child care facility in the east Edmonton neighbourhood of Fulton Place.

They climb a net tied in the shape of a spiderweb, hop across stone platforms, and scoot through a tunnel shaped like a log. When zooming down the smooth stone slide, they see nearby garden boxes and young apple trees lining the 896-square-metre space.

Inspiring children with a nature-focused playground was a priority when the Fulton Child Care Association created the outdoor space for babies and infants up to five years old under their care.

“We wanted to create a play space that enables tangible interaction with nature and also facilitates opportunities for caregivers to develop related activities,” says Chantelle Leidl, former co-chair of the Fulton Child Care Association playground committee. It also “provides esthetic value for all who walk by.”

The Fulton Child Care playground committee received $72,000 for the $250,000 site from Edmonton Community Foundation. The committee found that, for at least 20 years, researchers have identified an array of benefits for children who play amid such natural elements as trees, boulders and sand, instead of traditional playground equipment like metal monkey bars.

The children’s self-directed play is more imaginative, they develop cognitive and problem-solving skills that help them learn better and they have less depression and more social interaction. In the book Dirt is Good, microbial ecosystem scientist Jack Gilbert says playing in outdoor and unsanitized spaces greatly improves children’s immune systems and overall health, and a study by Telemark University College in Norway showed that playing in natural, uneven terrain improved children’s motor functions.

A survey taken five months after Fulton’s space was completed also revealed that 75 per cent of children surveyed talked at home about the space, showing that an appreciation of nature is something children take with them wherever they go.

In 10 years, when its trees and shrubs have grown, Fulton’s space will be even more effective than now, says Leidl, who envisions the fruit of the apple trees someday providing quick, nutritious snacks for active youngsters, too.

“And every year it will get better and better.”