Sliding Down Nature's Playground
My family from the Netherlands visited us for the summer--from strolling around D.C. to playing board games late at night, I've had an exhausting load of fun. One morning, we took my little cousin to the local playground- a never-ending, vibrant jungle gym of imaginative possibilities. Stairs climbed towards the sky, the yellow swings made us fly, and the farm of plastic animals became a great place to ride a horse without actually moving. I was sweaty from chasing my energetic cousin around, but I was definitely impressed by the scale of this playground--I live so close but never really had the opportunity to check it out. A space like this would be any child's dream.
My cousin's father looked around him in awe. "We don't really have playgrounds like this in Holland," he said.
"Oh, you don't have playgrounds this big?"
He shook his head, "Not just that. I mean, the playgrounds we go to are made out of wood. This is all plastic."
I stopped in my tracks. I don't think I considered what materials make up our play time. He was right: everything was plastic. I felt my skin burn from direct contact with the overheated blue slide and my hands smelled like hot metal from the banana-colored swings. The speckled rubber flooring also began to feel warm underneath the late morning sun.
In reality, our biggest playground comes from nature--logs become our balance beams, rocks become jagged obstacles, and flora add the much needed dash of color. Our outdoor play spaces should be lush and encourage wonder, but they shouldn't pose threats to the environment--petroleum-based plastics on playgrounds can accumulate toxins over time, which will carry over to the surrounding soil. Synthetic materials are derived from fossil fuels; behind the scenes, intensive manufacturing processes and exploitation of non-biodegradable resources are the drivers behind our bright, cheerful playgrounds. Additionally, since plastic decomposes over time, equipment needs to be replaced and revamped in order to ensure the safety of their energetic visitors, thus contributing to our worsening issue of plastic waste.
While they appear attractive and do offer a place for people to interact and play together, these plastic playgrounds may not be necessary. Unlike the pre-designed attractions of constructed spaces, natural playgrounds offer infinite possibilities for children to envision different adventures and make unique use out of what's around them. Nature is multifunctional: a gnarly tree can be a perfect hiding spot, a home base, or a place to climb.
When we walked around the lake, my cousin was entranced by the turtles that were nestled on the sides of the path and chased after the dashes of red cardinals. She jumped over the branches and tossed small stones into the water to watch them make a delicate splash. She even knelt down to communicate with the hardworking ants and ensure that no one stepped on them. There wasn't a playground in sight, but she built one on her own and made friends along the way.
Of course, having dedicated playgrounds help form special memories and encourage children to spend time outside. However, there now needs to be more consideration as to how these playgrounds fit within a green planning scheme. We can still create specialized play spaces while seeking natural materials that require less maintenance and blend more harmoniously with the environment around them. Moreover, playgrounds don't need to be limited to just people--natural spaces can welcome biodiversity, as they offer homes for native plants and vivacious wildlife. Nature-inspired aesthetics can foster appreciation for the natural world whereas colorful plastic playgrounds offer a different sense of connection that may exist separately from our natural environment.
Playgrounds made out of locally sourced products offer opportunities for community members to give input on how they envision the playground. In the Netherlands, my family lives near Cascadepark- a project built from what children and parents wanted to see. They offer spaces for recreational sports, have a hill for sledding during the winter, and best of all, their attractions are primarily made from wood. Not only does wood reduce the waste produced by plastics and metal, but their blank slates are customizable and versatile. The Speeldernis in Rotterdam is another playground project that involves users in the design process and intertwines play with education. Children can build huts, search for insects, and get their hands dirty.
When children can cherish just how wondrous of a play space our natural world is, perhaps they can kindle a deeper connection that lasts as they grow and learn about their environment. They can begin understanding the changing color palettes from the different seasons, the different waves of wildlife that come and go, and venture on infinite quests to defeat monsters and reach their dream paradise.