Revolutionizing recess: nature playgrounds benefit children in McKinley Park
A public school teacher reaches beyond CPS resources and curriculum to find new earth-focused ways to educate her students.
Jessica Fong still remembers the hours she spent playing outside and making mud pies as a kid growing up in Humboldt Park. Now the pre-K Chicago Public Schools teacher worries her students won’t have those memories. Up against a national trend of children spending hours staring at their phones, laptops, tablets and TV screens every day, Fong is employing a new kind of playground to help inspire a love of nature in her students.
From a raised wooden platform among a sea of wood chips, Fong surveys the Mckinley Community Play Garden, where she takes her students twice a week. Located in McKinley Park, the play garden is a hybrid between a forest and a traditional playground, and was developed by Chicago’s only nonprofit community land trust, NeighborSpace.
“Chicago is sort of new to this,” Fong said. “Within the last five years it’s started to gain a little more ground, and people are starting to talk about... all of the benefits of nature play and all the negatives that are coming with all the technology that we have.”
At the Mckinley Community Play Garden which opened last summer, plastic is nowhere to be seen. Every structure built with wood remains unpainted, so the garden retains natural earth tones of brown and mossy green. In front of a row of pine trees, a wooden rowboat half-submerged in wood chips instantly sparks inspiration for a pretend-play game of pirates, or travelers, or anything else a child might dream up.
Nature play is a reinvention of the typical school playground, where the play structures are fixed and generally limited in the ways children can interact with them. In contrast, nature playgrounds feature natural structures that are designed to be played with in an infinite number of ways.
Fong attributes this to the abundance of “loose parts” in the garden, which leave more room for imagination than the fixed installations generally found in school playgrounds. “Everything in nature is a loose part,” Fong said. “Loose part play is a little bit more rich than, say, playing with Legos because a leaf can be anything. It can be food, it can be an animal. It can be millions of things that children come up with.”
Fong's insistence on the necessity of nature play and loose parts for her students is grounded in the research she completed last year as an Action Research Leadership Institute fellow. Her ARLI research, funded by the Chicago Foundation for Education, outlines the social emotional, gross motor, and language development benefits of nature play. The data gleaned from her observation study of children playing showed that cooperation between kids increased 36 percent.
Likewise, her observation showed that children at a nature playground displayed a 29 percent increase in “pretend play,” which is widely accepted among child development experts to have significant benefits. In the 2013 article “Pretend Play and Creative Processes,” psychologists Sandra W. Russ and Claire E. Wallace credit pretend play with increased use of organization, cognitive integration of seemingly separate ideas and divergent thinking.
After observing her student’s behavior in nature playgrounds, Fong concluded in her research that cooperative language and pretend play occured far more often in the nature playground than anywhere else, even the classroom.
The benefits of nature play stand in stark contrast to the developmental setbacks occurring in children who are growing up with far more access to technology than ever before.
“Pediatricians are starting to see children are not able to hold a pencil by three or four years old when they should be able to hold something because all they do is use the touch screens,” Fong said. “So it’s really having an effect on children’s development.”
But the benefits of nature play are not being gained by children everywhere.
“It’s always been a really hot thing for upper income families, white families,” Fong said.
In a presentation of her research and observations last year, Fong cited a statistic from North American Association for Environmental Education stating that 16 percent of children exposed to nature play are kids of color while 83 percent of children with access are white.
In Chicago specifically, Fong’s research showed that there are more nature playgrounds on the North side than the South or West sides of the city. “There already is a lack of green space on the South Side,” Fong said. “So in addition we’re also not having as many nature play spaces for kids.”
While CPS is trying to implement more gardening into its curriculum, Fong isn’t sure nature playgrounds will ever be a priority for the district.
“I haven’t heard anyone within CPS say ‘Nature playgrounds, let’s build them!’ Gardening was a big push, as well as eating healthy,” she said.
Preserved and kept up by neighbors nearby, the McKinley Community Play Garden is a hub of the neighborhood where schoolchildren go during the day and older kids hang out after school.
The day Fong tours the playground is no different. While she points out different structures, a cluster of middle schoolers sit in the shipwreck boat while another group kicks around a soccer ball, despite the thirty degree weather.
Fong is happy to see children using the space in their free time, outside of the school day. If the kids weren’t here, she guesses they’d be inside using technology. “They’d probably be home,” Fong said. “Watching TV or on their tablets or on their phones.”
As the sun sets and the kids trickle out of the nature playground, one boy turns to his friend and groans, “I need wifi.”