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Nature Playgrounds

For all the benefits of playing in nature, we live in a modern (and urban) world, and are unable to escape easily into the forest. So how to do it? Bring the forest to us.

When Richard Louv's seminal book Last Child in the Woods was published in 2005, it catalyzed a national movement to get kids not just outside, but into the woods. There is now new, compelling evidence that playing in natural settings has specific benefits beyond those associated with free play. A University of Illinois study found that playing in nature increased creativity, improved interactions with adults, and, most important, reduced the symptoms of ADHD. Still, for all the benefits of playing in nature, we live in a modern (and urban) world, and are unable to escape easily into the forest. So how to do it? Bring the forest to us.In downtown New York City, the Teardrop Park, designed by Michael Van Valkenburgh, is the ideal natural park. Apart from the slide built into a rock formation, there is barely any physical equipment. Children can play virtually anywhere, from the pebbles that line the paths, to sand- and water-filled areas. They can make their own fun. And make fun they do-on a recent weekend at Teardrop, kids were running up and down the rolling hills and rock formations, delighted.The equipment itself turns out to be less important than you think-though it's hard to convince people of that once they've hired you to build a playground. "We're looking all the time for park systems that want to do these sort of things," says Robin Moore, who helped work on the Teardrop Park and is a strong proponent of natural elements in his playgrounds, "and I have to say, we've not so far received many invites." A playground made up of rocks and trees and sand is a hard sell, so Moore tries to incorporate nature with manufactured equipment as best as he can. It is what the North Carolina Natural Learning Institute, where Moore is the director, did with its signature park in Cary, North Carolina, just outside Raleigh. Kids Together, as the park is called, features typical playground accoutrements (jungle gyms, tires swings) surrounded by thick vegetation.And while it's taking time to catch on, Moore is fairly certain that Teardrop Park won't be the last of the full-nature versions of the vision. "They're starting to feel the heat," he says of communities around the country. In recent years, powered by Louv's book as well as the obesity crisis, a handful of organizations and groups have sprung up to help reconnect us with the natural world. And the idea of a set of standard playground equipment rising starkly out of concrete is rapidly becoming a thing of the past.SEE ALSO:Fall Down, Go BoomMORGAN CLENDANIEL rummages through the wasteland of contemporary playgrounds and finds some promising-and dangerous-innovations.Alternative Playgrounds-Adventure Playgrounds-Nature Playgrounds-Loose Parts Playgrounds

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