Healthy Active+ist

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Rethinking Slides, Swings, and Jungle Gyms

Despite the growing popularity of Crossfit for Preschoolers (yes, this is real), most little ones are still getting their exercise via the good old fashioned playground. But not all playgrounds are not created equal, especially when it comes to promoting physical activity.

I bet you think this playground would really get the kids up and moving:

Plastic playground

And you’d be right. Sort of. The problem is, playgrounds like this get boring, fast, especially if they’re at a school, where kids are on them every day. Here’s a University of Tennessee study that found that “Children who play on playgrounds that incorporate natural elements like logs and flowers tend to be more active than those who play on traditional playgrounds with metal and brightly colored equipment:” Here’s a quick synopsis of that study.

There is good research to show that more naturalized playgrounds have more to
offer. Playgrounds like the one below, with lots of natural elements, have been shown to be extremely positive for children’s mental and physical development. And they’re easier on the eyes, too, aren’t they?

Natural Playground

A project I work on, called Shape NC, is addressing the childhood obesity crisis by helping child care centers be healthier places for young children. Renovating and naturalizing the outdoor learning environment (OLE) is one important strategy of the project. A well designed outdoor learning environment in the toddler and preschool years encourages active play and produces kids who are excited about playing and learning outdoors. Kids who love being outdoors are more likely to grow into adults who love being outdoors which often translates into living a healthier lifestyle.

So what does a well-designed OLE look like? Here in North Carolina we’re really lucky to have help from the folks at NC State’s Natural Learning Initiative who research just that question. They’re looking to discover what elements in an outdoor play area spark not just movement and activity, but also learning and imagination.

curved pathway

The best way to get kids moving and active is a wide, curvy, looped path for wheeled toys to push or ride on. The pathway should be at least four feet wide. Creating a continuous loop encourages children to use it for longer. No stopping and turning around necessary!

veggie gardenAnother key element of a great outdoor learning environment in a preschool is a vegetable
garden. Young children love to get their hands dirty and to water the garden. And they are much more likely to eat a vegetable they’ve grown themselves. Veggie gardens offer endless opportunities for learning about science, nature and health.

Other elements to consider include loose partsloose natural materials for imaginative play like the ones to the left.

A grassy open area open for games is important. Consider a small stage for performing, and maybe a water play area like this cool creekbed creekbedfor splashing.





Natural playgrounds can be surprisingly affordable, especially when you compare them to the cost of great big molded plastic structures. You don’t have to take an all or nothing approach, either. The Natural Learning Initiative’s Green Desk is full of practical ideas and how-to’s.


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