The Nature of Playgrounds

Although child development specialists have long understood playtime as an important time for cognitive and social wellbeing, playground bullying has caused school principles and teachers to rethink outdoor playtime. In an effort to reduce instances of bullying, administrators have placed stricter rules on outdoor play[1], added more supervisors during recesses hours, or drastically cut recess time. But John Evans, author of the Deakin University study, In Search of Peaceful Playgrounds[2], believes the solution to playground bullying must center on the playground environment and its relationship with child aggression.

That’s right – the way playgrounds are set up have a direct effect on child behavior! The inadequacy of playground construction and the dullness of asphalt-built structures deny children the cognitive development playtime should cultivate. Instead, Evans advocates for green play areas where natural environments can improve mood, social interaction, and the overall quality of play.

The way playgrounds are set up have a direct effect on child behavior.

Studies found dull or uninteresting playground environments cause kids to find greater amusement by teasing, intimidating, or annoying other students. Rivkin[3] and Higgins[4] argue that boredom is a major factor in contributing to anti-social behavior in the playground at recess times, which can result in aggression.

Advocates for redesigning school playgrounds have listed research-based theories that promote child wellbeing as best developed through the implementation of green play areas with open grassy areas, shrubs, and flora and fauna growth[5]. There is growing research exploring the links between natural environments and personal development, and its benefits in improving mood, reducing stress, and alleviating aggression[6].

In a Swedish study[7] comparing green, natural play areas to blacktop playgrounds, the children on asphalt playgrounds had short, segmented, and interrupted play where children in natural environments created whole adventures and narratives that could last days or weeks. In asphalt playgrounds, children were more likely to create social hierarchies based around athleticism and physical ability, often encouraging aggression and violence. In natural play areas, the children engaged in more creative forms of play that promoted a more egalitarian structure of inclusion. Social hierarchies were based on competence of language skills, creativity, and inventiveness. In conclusion, the more creative children emerged as leaders in natural play areas.

  • To date, existing literature exploring the specific social wellbeing benefits of contact with green space point to its role in promoting social cohesion, alleviating crime and aggression, and generating a sense of place[8].
  • Children who play regularly in natural environments show more advanced motor fitness, including coordination, balance and agility, and they are sick less often[9].
  • Exposure to natural environments improves children’s cognitive development by improving their awareness, reasoning, and observational skills [10].
  • Nature buffers the impact of life stress on children and helps them deal with adversity[11].
  • Early experiences with the natural world have been positively linked with the development of imagination and the sense of wonder[12]. Wonder is an important motivator for life long learning[13].
  • Nature helps children develop powers of observation and creativity and instills a sense of peace and being at one with the world[14].
  • Children who play in nature have more positive feelings about each other[15].
  • Natural environments stimulate social interaction between children[16].
  • Outdoor environments are important to children’s development of independence and autonomy[17].
  • Playing in natural environments allows children to test their boundaries and take risks; it generates a sense of freedom and adventure and teaches children important lessons of how to interact with other people[18].

Social connectivity and team building in natural environments allows cultivation observation, creativity, and healthy strategies for conflict resolution. Our outdoor summer camps focus on an education model that sees the environment as a vehicle for collaborative problem solving, promoting the cognitive development skills students need to be successful, not only in school but also for the rest of their lives. Sign up your child up for summer camp today at sierranevadajourneys.org/camp!


  1. http://opinionator.blogs.nytimes.com/2011/04/07/the-power-of-the-playground/?_r=0
  2. http://www.erpjournal.net/wp-content/uploads/2012/07/ERPV28-1_Evans-J.-2001.-In-search-of-peaceful-playgrounds.pdf
  3. RIVKIN, M. (1995), The Great Outdoors: Restoring Children’s Right to Play Outside. Washington, NAEYC
  4. HIGGlNS, C. (1994), Improving the school ground environment as an anti-bullying intervention, in P. Smith & S. Sharp (Eds), School Bullying, London, Routledg e.
  5. http://www.fondazionesvilupposostenibile.it/documents/Riferimenti/NEWTON%20Wellbeing%20and%20Nature%2007.pdf
  6. http://www.colorado.edu/journals/cye/13_2/Malone_Tranter/ChildrensEnvLearning.htm
  7. Mary Ann Kirkby, “Nature as Refuge in Children’s Environments,” Children’s Environments Quarterly 6, no. 1 (1989): 7-12
  8. http://www.fondazionesvilupposostenibile.it/documents/Riferimenti/NEWTON%20Wellbeing%20and%20Nature%2007.pdf
  9. Fjortoft, Ingunn (2001). The Natural Environment as a Playground for Children:  The Impact of Outdoor Play Activities in Pre-Primary School Children. Early Childhood Education Journal, 29(2): 111-117 and Grahn, P., Martensson, F., Llindblad, B., Nilsson, P., & Ekman, A., (1997). UTE pa DAGIS, Stad & Land nr. 93/1991 Sveriges lantbruksuniversitet, Alnarp. s
  10. Pyle, Robert (2002). Eden in a Vacant Lot: Special Places, Species and Kids in Community of Life. In: Children and Nature: Psychological, Sociocultural and Evolutionary Investigations. Kahn, P.H. and Kellert, S.R. (eds) Cambridge: MIT Press
  11. Wells, Nancy M. & Evans, Gary W. (2003). Nearby Nature: A Buffer of Life Stress Among Rural Children. Environment and Behavior, 35(3), 311-330
  12. Cobb, E. (1977). The Ecology of Imagination in Childhood, New York, Columbia University Press.
  13. Wilson, Ruth A. (1997). The Wonders of Nature – Honoring Children’s Ways of Knowing, Early Childhood News, 6(19).
  14. Crain, William (2001). Now Nature Helps Children Develop. Montessori Life, Summer 2001.
  15. Moore, Robin C. (1986). The Power of Nature Orientations of Girls and Boys Toward Biotic and Abiotic Play Settings on a Reconstructed Schoolyard. Children’s Environments Quarterly, 3(3).
  16. Bixler, Robert D., Floyd, Myron E. & Hammutt, William E. (2002). Environmental Socialization: Qualitative Tests of the Childhood Play Hypothesis, Environment and Behavior, 34(6), 795-818
  17. Bartlett, Sheridan (1996). Access to Outdoor Play and Its Implications for Healthy Attachments. Unpublished article, Putney, VT
  18. Maan, N. (2005) “The delivery of environmental play projects by the Better Playfunded organisations”, Barnados Briefing 4