Q&A about natural spaces for children

Child sitting on a low tree branch.It was a perfect early summer day with temperatures in the low 70s (F) and a gentle breeze that make it easy to be outdoors for hours. We had a combination of shade, sunscreen or hats to protect from the sun’s ultraviolet radiation and a pitcher of water to drink when thirsty. And we had a play space that engaged the children in running after each other, digging and moving sand, climbing in the low trunks of a shrub-y tree, and swinging on the tire swing. It was a perfect day to reflect on what elements make a successful outdoor play space.

The preschool program is soon moving to a new location where a play space will be created in an area with some trees bordering a grassy space. What elements should be in place before school begins in September and which elements can be added later, if they seem appropriate once we see how the children and the teachers use the space? How can we choose elements from all the examples of beautiful and creative play spaces we’ve seen that will work best on this land with this preschool program?

Continued research can help, beginning with a book, The Great Outdoors: Advocating for Natural Spaces for Young Children, Revised Edition (2014 NAEYC) by Mary Rivkin. Dr. Rivkin is an associate professor of education at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County. Her research focuses on children’s outdoor play.

Other resources included:

Two children walk and dig in snow.Child examines a tree leaf.Children need an outdoor play space all year round so rainy days and snowy days need to be considered when planning to meet children’s needs. Dr. Rivkin’s examples will inspire me as I advocate for elements to engage children in learning about the natural world—mud kitchens for fully experiencing this earth material, learning about solids and liquids while digging in melting ice and snow, finding one’s center of gravity while balancing on logs and walking among trees and noticing the diversity of leaf shapes.

Dr. Mary RivkinYou can ask Dr. Rivkin a question by posting it on the National Association for the Education of Young Children’s (NAEYC) website on the “Q&A with the author of The Great Outdoors” page this week, June 16-20, 2014. I’m going to ask an impossible question:

If you could only afford one play space element, what would you choose?

Maybe you all have suggestions for me too!

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2 Comments

  1. Dr. Ken Roy
    Posted June 17, 2014 at 12:37 pm | Permalink

    I read the review of the book by Dr. Mary Rivkin – interesting for sure! I don’t totally agree with all of the ideas from a health and safety prevention perspective based on legal safety standards and better professional practices. I certainly agree that playground activities involving elevated risk levels are a function of developmental age of students and the number of them at the site at one time. However – especially at the elementary and middle school levels (and even at the high school level), the legal standard of “Duty of Care” ( see NSTA SAB safety paper:http://www.nsta.org/docs/DutyOfCare.pdf) comes into play. “Duty of Care” is defined as an obligation, recognized by law, requiring conformance to a certain standard of conduct to protect others against unreasonable risk (Prosser et al., 1984). “The breach of a particular duty owed to a student or others may lead to liability for both the teacher and the school district that employs that teacher” (Ryan, 2001). The key here is “unreasonable risk!” It does not say absence of risk. Bottom-line is – there needs to be a health and safety compliance assessment done for each activity or piece of equipment to determine if there is unreasonable risk. It also is critical to make sure there is proper adult supervision – even with reasonable risk – to help prevent accidents – especially those which are unanticipated. There is an expectation by the courts and legal system in general, not to mention parents or guardians, that schools will take the proper precautions and planning to help keep their children out of harm’s way while attending school, including playground activities.

  2. Peggy Ashbrook
    Posted June 17, 2014 at 3:15 pm | Permalink

    Thank you for the resource on the legal standard of “Duty of Care,” Ken. Information about the kinds of accidents that happen on playgrounds help designers plan to help keep children out of harm’s way. Supervision and regular maintenance are also important. While planning for safety we also need to plan for enriching environments. Heather Olsen reviews guidelines for early childhood outdoor environments and opportunities for developmentally appropriate practice in the outdoor spaces in “Creating and Enriching Quality and Safe Outdoor Environments” in SECA’s journal, Dimensions in Early Childhood, volume 41 number 3, 2013. http://www.southernearlychildhood.org/upload/pdf/Dimensions_Vol41_3_Olsen.pdf

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