Should we re-design playgrounds for the iPad era?
Before we tackle that question, just imagine how sad the world would be without playgrounds. For almost all of history, there were none. It wasn’t until 1887 that the first one in North America was constructed in San Francisco’s Golden Gate Park.
The rapid growth of cities at the end of the Nineteenth Century obliged the construction of urban play spaces. As families left farming communities for city life, children found themselves without trees to climb, rocks to hop, or hills to scramble. Change was needed, and in 1907 Teddy Roosevelt used his bully pulpit to advocate for city playgrounds in Washington.
Now, 100 years later, technological change requires us once again to rethink our outdoor play. Richard Louv points out in his seminal book, Last Child in the Woods, children today are disconnected from the natural world. Louv, horrified, relates the story of child who told him, “I like to play indoors better ´cause that’s where all the electric outlets are.” Louv documents the emotional and existential distress caused by too little exposure to the natural, physical world. Air conditioning, iPhones, and the internet have made it harder for all of us to have intimate encounters with rain drops, earthworms and dandelions. Yet our souls need these encounters to center and balance us.
These days, playgrounds must do more than provide a place for safe, physical play. They must also expose children to natural elements—such as rocks, logs, water and other features that stimulate the senses. As Maria Montessori understood, we learn directly from our senses—thus sensual experiences are the foundation for learning. Most modern, industrial playgrounds are constructed of painted steel frames careful constructed more for their Consumer Product Safety Rating score than their organic, natural elements. Even the New York Times asked “Can a Playground be Too Safe” ( NYT, 7/19/2011) .
Fortunately, there are many educational leaders who understand the needs of children to experience the natural world. Last week, Lesley Romanoff, the director of the Takoma Park Cooperative Nursery School showed me her school’s fantastic play space; it has a squirrel bridge, tea house, canoe and creek bed. She directed me to Springzaad, an online network of teachers, nature educators, public servants, landscape architects, and horticulturists who are promoting natural space for children to play. Springzaad advocates elements such as herb gardens, shelters, rafts and more.
At the one year anniversary of the Evergreen School Rain Garden, I find deeper appreciation for the wisdom of our play space design. Even more wonderful than seeing Evergreen students floating wood chips down our creek, planting in the vegetable garden, hopping on logs, stepping stones and hiding among our native grasses—it is awesome to see children’s connection to nature deepened, even in our suburban patch of Wheaton/Silver Spring.
There are some things you just can’t do on an iPad.
John DeMarchi is the Head of the Evergreen School in Wheaton/Silver Spring. You can see more pictures of the Evergreen Rain Garden on their Pintrest page.