On a typical day, students at Holland Christian’s South Side Elementary School spend 60-70 minutes outside. They pull on their boots and take off onto the playground. They wait in line to take their turn on the slide and run around the plastic play structure behind school.
The parameters of childhood have completely changed, Principal Miska Rynsburger says as she looks out at the kids playing. Today’s generation of children is the first to be raised primarily indoors as parents worry about stranger danger and abductions in their neighborhoods. Children have lost 25 percent of playtime and 50 percent of unstructured outdoor activity over recent decades, according to the National Environmental Education Foundation. And kids spend more than seven hours a day with electronics.
But just because childhood looks different today than it did 10 or 20 years ago doesn’t mean the basic needs of the developing child have, Rynsburger said. Children desperately need to be reconnected with the outdoors and Rynsburger has big plans to make sure students at South Side do. This summer, the school will add a natural playscape to its playground.
Great minds think alike
Amy Alderink, parent to a 6-year-old at South Side, is on recess duty every Wednesday morning. During her time outside supervising kids, she began to notice a big portion of the playground would go untouched. No kids wanted to play in the open space. Having earlier heard Travis Williams, executive director of the Outdoor Discovery Center Macatawa Greenway, speak about nature playscapes, the idea popped into her head — why not build one at South Side?
Alderink approached Rynsburger who “already had the idea bubbling in her head” and the two sought out help from the ODC.
Plans were in motion.
Joy Funk, a naturalist from the ODC who has experience in landscape design, came to South Side to survey the playground and drew up a plan for the space. It includes balance beams and stools made from logs, a sensory walk with different ground surfaces and plants, a sandbox and a hollowed-out log slide.
The Outdoor Discovery Center Macatawa Greenway installed its first natural playscape in 2005 so staff there have seen its advantages and popularity among visitors, Executive Director Travis Williams said. Since 2005, they’ve added two more and incorporated one into the Little Hawks Discovery Preschool program run in partnership with Hamilton Community Schools.
The playscapes allow children opportunities to explore and discover and wonder which is needed, Williams said since children aren’t really allowed those opportunities much anymore. “We’ve removed that ability for a child to roam and explore,” Williams said. “Majority of our playgrounds are nothing but giant $80,000 plastic play structures with rubberized surface under them.”
In June, community volunteers, staff and parents from South Side will begin installing components of the playscape behind the school and local businesses are willing to donate trees, logs, plants and sand.
The project is estimated to cost about $5,000. The traditional playground equipment at South Side will remain.
Adding a natural playscape will give children the ability to dictate their play using their imaginations and creativity rather than allowing the play equipment to dictate play time, Rynsburger said. Traditional play equipment encourages excellent gross motor movement and exercise but diminished levels of creative thought.
Research shows that children who play regularly in natural environments show more advanced motor fitness, including coordination, balance and agility. Children also develop observation and social skills as they interact with their peers. “What I envision is a changeable, natural playscape that kids can use their imagination, get a little dirty and experience what nature has to offer,” Alderink said. “I see so much structure in my kids’ day but just to allow them to go wild for a little bit seems like a good thing.”