Essential Elements for an Authentic Playground

Natural Play” has long been a buzz phrase in early years education. Ros Harker of Playgarden cuts through the jargon and explains how nature’s finest materials can be used to create authentic and exciting play areas.
 
natural materials collage

Before we consider my top five materials, a quick note. I have not included water as a separate item in my list because it is a big subject. So, water aside, here are my top five natural materials, and how to use them:

Sand
Sand is a versatile material with great appeal to children. First, forget the principle of less is more. More is more: the larger the sand area the more it can be used in play and learning. Aim to create a beach-like sand area, ideally with water alongside it. Vary resources in the sand pit (shells, stones, pebbles) and tools (moulds, spades, buckets) but also have times when the sand is uncluttered so that children can interact with it directly and simply.

Soil
Schools tend to reserve soil for flower beds and not for use as a play material. But its properties make it ideal for play. Children can dig in it, turn it over, bury and find treasures, make holes, fill vessels, research mini-beasts, etc. When dry it is hard and crumbly, but when moist it can moulded. Wet, it becomes mud: a material particularly fascinating to children, who can use it to make imprints, marks and noises, and generally squish and squelch around.

Boulders
Boulders are becoming popular features for playgrounds. It is easy to see why. They enhance the landscape, provide great opportunities for balancing and jumping, and are perfect for weary staff and children looking for a seat!

Wood
Bark and wood chippings make an excellent safety surface. Wood is tactile and pleasant to touch; it blends in with the natural environment and is strong, durable and versatile.  Wooden trunks or beams can be balanced on. Trees with low lying branches are great for climbing or for creating dens. Slices of trunk make brilliant stepping stones that children can move around.

Plants
It wouldn’t be a play garden without plants. As well as creating a more pleasant environment, plants offer further benefits. Herbs, for example, are perfect for sensory development and can be used in home economics lessons. Flowers and petals are very appealing and can be used to create patterns, potions and broths. Latin could even be introduced in the form of spells and incantations associated with such creations – though it is of course essential that children do not eat or drink anything they shouldn’t!