Inspiring Outdoor Play Spaces

[ 1 ] May 12, 2011 |

By Mary Scott Hackman, Early Childhood Programs Coordinator, Providence Children’s Museum

“In childhood play, it is a safe assumption that kids need more than a two-dimensional screen to gain competency.  Children need free, hands-on play that is kid-organized, to maximize their potential.  Nothing lights up a child’s brain like play.Stuart Brown, M.D., founder of the National Institute for Play

Years ago, I attended a workshop given by an architect of children’s spaces.  One remark that struck me that day and lingers still was, “Next to food, the element that is essential to the health and well-being of our children is light.”  I remember thinking, “Well, we should close down all childcare centers housed in basements!”  And now I think it’s just another reason to advocate for getting our children out of doors and into the natural light of day.

Rhonda Clements, Manhattanville College faculty member and advocate for children’s outdoor play, did a study where she interviewed children ages 5 – 12.  She cited this response from one youngster when asked whether he preferred indoor or outdoor play: “ I don’t like playing outdoors because there aren’t any outlets to plug a computer into.”

When I was a child, when the season allowed, we played outside all the time. One of my favorite play memories is when, after a rainstorm, the kids in the neighborhood gathered where two yards joined.  One yard was at the top of a hill, the other at the bottom.  We started at the top, got a running start, and careened down a stream of mud into the next yard, winding up in a huge puddle.  It took a bit of courage the first time, then nobody hesitated — we just all lined up again and again.  In fact, it was almost as much fun watching as it was taking your turn!

Things are admittedly different today.  Kids have more competing for their attention.  But given a bit of encouragement and a few props, a fun, free, magical experience in the outdoors awaits them.  So what do they need?  A wooden spoon or stick to tap out a rhythm on pieces of wood or stone.  A cardboard box with a hole cut in the side for a door.  Or better yet, discovering an opening in the base of a globe of vines or a forsythia bush for a secret get-away space.

My current guru on outdoor play is Rusty Keeler, founder and designer of Planet Earth Playscapes, who suggests that, “well-arranged plants for children can become playhouses, hideouts, castles…”  One idea you might try is to scatter sunflowers in the shape of a square.  Think about it, a living fortress of looming sunflowers.  Intriguing for the children, a veritable feast for the birds and a grand, natural play space all for a few pennies.

When considering an outdoor play space for your kids and your neighbors’ kids, think about these things: freedom, opportunities for risk-taking, natural materials, a water source, ropes, things to dig with.  Oh, and no adults!

Yes, that’s right.  No adults.  Kids need unstructured, unsupervised hours of time outdoors where there are no rules (except for the ones they create…and recreate!).  No one telling them what’s what, so they have to negotiate with one another and figure it out.

Let’s think of outdoor play spaces where kids create — they create the things they play with, they create the rules they play by.

Providence Children’s Museum is a great place for active, hands-on fun — inside AND out!  Explore two exciting outdoor play spaces: The Climber, a sky-high climbing adventure, and Underland, a subterranean journey through worm tunnels and critters’ burrows.  And in May, kids invent their own outdoor fun with hoops of all sizes and colors (May 21 & 22) and try out new tricks with an array of jump ropes (May 28 & 29).  Plus, try fun-filled outdoor challenges in the Museum’s Children’s Garden each Tuesday and Thursday.  Click here for details.



Category: play, Providence Children's Museum

Children's Museum

about the author ()

The mission of Providence Children's Museum is to inspire and celebrate learning through active play and exploration. The Museum creates and presents interactive play and learning environments and hands-on programs for children ages 1 - 11 and their families. Located in Providence's Jewelry District. Museum educators and other staff contribute monthly articles about topics related to children's play and learning. Articles advocate for the importance of play to children's healthy development and are full of great ideas and resources, activities to try at home, and much more. For additional ideas and resources, visit the Museum's website and blog. Also join the conversation about the need for play on the Museum-hosted PlayWatch listserv (

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  1. Pink says:

    I just love the idea of planting sunflowers seeds in a square – or in a more elaborate shape, space permitting – also the list of what could make a great play space. Getting ready to buy a house and will tuck this into my scrapbook! Great article.

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