Yesterday, I wrote about noise sensitivity problems and said I would write about how this problem affects the use of playgrounds (and other outdoor environments as well).
A few years ago, Amy Ritter and I observed children at a day camp. When the activities took place in the outdoor playing field, which was next to a highway (without any noise barriers), a few of the children not only stopped participating but covered their ears and started crying. This didn’t happen in quieter areas of the grounds, however.
The use of sound barriers does work. These don’t have to be concrete or wood fences, however. Some of the most effective are planted buffers. The plants, if chosen carefully, can also attract wildlife and foster engagement in children. Robin Moore, a professor at NC State University, has written extensively on how “natural playgrounds” — using plants to teach and engage children in the environment — are more valuable to educating children than traditional play equipment alone playgrounds. My own observations of children’s environments has found that when playgrounds are designed to take into consideration the scale of the children, providing shade, and drawing in wildlife such as birds and insects, these playgrounds fascinate children of all abilities and help connect them with nature and natural processes. These playground don’t cut down on physical activity; instead, they go the extra mile in engaging those children who don’t or can’t spend time on the play equipment (more on this later this month).
This past fall, I observed children at play at a school playground. Instead of playing on the new playground equipment, a small group of kindergartners were sitting behind a cluster of shrubs, digging in the mulch. One girl shouted when she discovered a grub and, as if from nowhere, the other children came to look at her find! One of the boys in the cluster also commented that he had seen a cardinal (bird) in the neighbor’s yard when he was sitting behind the shrubs. “It’s a good place to find things,” he confided. The teacher noted that this was one of the children’s favorite places in good weather. The area between the shrubs and the chain link fence on the property line provided enough room for five or six small children to play with each other. This form of play, according to developmental psychologists, fosters more advanced mental and social growth than the gross motor skill development found in traditional play equipment. I am not advising that we get rid of play equipment; however, just advocating for other types of environments that promote more advanced AND inclusive forms of play.
Next: Places to get away from noise.