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Nature Deficit Disorder: The importance of the built environment and children's health

posted by The Rabbit Hole
Saturday, December 8, 2012 at 10:00pm EST

Blogger Courtney Szto is a Master's Student studying the socio-cultural aspects of sport, physical activity and health (or as some call it Physical Cultural Studies). Bachelor's in Sport Management. Former tennis coach & ropes course facilitator.

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Photo from Playscapes."As the garden has grown over the last two years, its play value has increased. Kids play hide and seek inside mature native shrubs, dig holes to compost their recess snacks and use the boulders and logs to play games. One of the wonderful things that has been observed in the garden is that kids of all ages play together and often choose to play in this space rather than on nearby equipment." Brock Elementary, Skala Design, Vancouver, Canada.
The Globe and Mail recently published an article about a growing trend of using natural playgrounds for children titled "How kids can reconnect with nature on the playground". I think it provides a great discussion about our built environment and how it can impact our health, whether physical or otherwise.  What I found intriguing about the research observations was that moving children out of a traditional swing and slide playground removed the tendency for bullying and playground hierarchy.  Here is an excerpt from the article:

The movement to swap swings, slides and monkey bars for boulders, grassy hills and trees is gaining ground across Canada, the United States and other countries.  Advocates say natural playgrounds prompt much more imaginative free play, foster social interaction and cut down on bullying, and encourage the sort of risk-taking some experts say overcautious parenting has been unintentionally blocking. 
Their emergence can be traced back to the 2005 book Last Child in the Woods, by journalist Richard Louv.  He coined the phrase "nature deficit disorder, " cautioning that cutting children off from nature was linked to rising rates of obesity, depression and attention deficit disorder. ... 
Traditional playgrounds decide for kids in advance how they will play: Swings are for swinging; slides are for sliding.  But in a natural playground, it is not immediately clear how their elements should be incorporated, so it is up to kids to use their imaginations. ... 
Research has shown that natural playgrounds alter the way children in them relate to one another. 
"In a commercial playground, usually what ends up happening is that the most athletically gifted child ends up choosing the game and running the playground, "Mr.Belair says.  "With a naturalized playground, kids tend to play more co-operatively.... There's a wider variety of play elements involved than just who can climb the fastest or the highest."
Studies have reinforced the idea that these environments reduce bullying, nurture collaborative skills and stimulate social interaction.  Researchers at the University of Tennessee last year found that children more than doubled the time they spend playing in natural playgrounds compared with playgrounds with traditional wood and plastic materials.

It is interesting that as society has "advanced" we used our knowledge and resources to build things with the intent of enhancing our environment.  Yet, as this stage of our social development we now use our technology to move backwards to a more "natural" state.  We build playgrounds with rocks and trees and hills, which is ironic considering before we levelled the ground to install a state-of-the-art playground it probably already had trees, hills and rocks.  We now have to build "green spaces" within our concrete confines, which were laid over existing green spaces.  We are creating hyperreal spaces - they are simulations of the real.  We are buying and selling spaces and terrains that were free to begin with.  I think that we are moving in the right direction but it is also ironic that the right direction is the place where we began.  Should we not find it a hard pill to swallow when we from the "developed" world aspire to live in natural environments where those labelled as "undeveloped" already live.  We keep trying to show how backwards the rest of the world is but perhaps it is us who have had it backwards.

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