The History of Playing Outdoors

By Dexter Lane, Nature Explore Consultant

DSC_0054Playing outdoors has a history. Until fairly recently, children playing outdoors was widespread.  Yet back in the 1880’s, as America’s cities become more densely populated, children’s options for free play outdoors became more limited.  At the same time, people began realizing that young children needed the benefits of outdoor play, and America’s first playgrounds were created.

A Letter Seeds a Movement

In 1885 while travelling in Germany, an American woman noticed children playing in large sand-piles that had been constructed in public parks, and which were supervised by police. These were the result of the German Kindergarden movement, that had spawned sandboxes in homes and schools as vehicles for free play outdoors. She mentioned the sand piles in a letter sent to a friend in Boston.

In 1886, Boston introduced what were then called “sand gardens.”  Placed largely in poor neighborhoods, these sandboxes featured digging toys and wooden building blocks.  Sand gardens proved extremely popular and were widely replicated.  Over time, sand gardens became the inspiration for larger outdoor recreation spaces catering to people of all ages.

The Playground Association of America, formed in 1906 began concerning itself with all forms of outdoor recreation, and itself soon became the Playground and Recreation Association of America.  As the movement grew, the “free play” of the sand gardens gave way to activities directed by adults.  Around the turn of the century, play equipment became staples of the playground.

Free Play Becomes Standardized

The sand gardens’ free-play for young children transitioned into supervised activities for all ages, and increasingly involved swings, merry-go-rounds and other similar equipment.  Various movements then swept the playground landscape.  “Adventure,” “Novelty,” “Standardized,” and  “Modern” designs took turns as the paradigm.  Your local school playgrounds have probably reflected some of these ideas in the equipment they feature.  Yet despite periodic updating, our school playgrounds still promote repetitive play on standardized equipment.

Outdoor Classrooms Return Free Play to its Roots:

As early as the 1920’s, the outdoors was seen as an environment rich with possibilities for learning.  The very first “forest schools” started in 1927 in Wisconsin, and their adoption in Europe, beginning in the 1950’s, largely involved children in their preschool years.  The forest school movement has always been small, whereas the school playground has dominated America’s school landscape for over a hundred years.

During the past few generations, for many Americans, nature has been seen as too “risky” for children.  As families increasingly retreated indoors, visionaries in the outdoor classroom movement passionately believed that much was being lost to America’s children.  The true Outdoor Classroom, as exemplified by the many Certified Nature Explore Classrooms around the country, returns to children the profound physical, educational and spiritual benefits that “playgrounds” leave largely unaddressed.

Nature Explore has been at the forefront of organizations that reconnect children with nature. In a very real way, Nature Explore is returning children to the benefits of nature that were routinely experienced generations ago.  Yet this time, due to the research behind Nature Explore’s classroom design services, these benefits to children’s health and learning can be experienced even in small spaces, and in nearly any setting; from urban to rural.  Nature Explore’s outdoor classroom design services are constantly informed by research on children’s learning processes, and on the benefits of tested natural materials.  The outdoor classrooms are not so much “designed by adults,” but rather by the results of our research that are translated and tailored for each client’s needs and resources.

American children’s relationship to nature has changed drastically in the past 150 years.  What had originally been free play in nature became routinized play in playgrounds.  Of course, for many of those years, play in nature was the staple of many suburban and rural children- but even that became lost to most.  Now, with the added background of solid, ongoing research, Nature Explore outdoor classrooms bring these lost benefits of nature to a diversity of children in urban, suburban and rural environments.

Discover compelling pathways for reconnecting the children in your life with nature.  Visit