Local Spotlight: Zucker Natural Exploration Area

One of our favorite places to visit in Prospect Park is the Zucker Natural Exploration Area.  It is often referred to as “the natural playground.”

The Prospect Park Alliance created this space using trees from the park that were downed during Hurricane Sandy.  These trees and other other elements of nature such as a large sand area, tree stumps of varying heights and a water pump feature form a natural playground for children.

 

My kids can spend hours there.  We usually only bring a bucket and shovel and the rest of the time they play only with the natural materials in the area.  While there, my kids are immersed in sensory, imaginative and unstructured play, all outside.  What a gift for city kids!

I think it is interesting to note that there are many, many traditional playgrounds in NYC.  We have been to a lot of them!  My kids do not have as much fun and do not have lengthy sustained play sessions like they do at the natural playground.  My kids, like others, definitely prefer to interact with nature.

My kids love Zucker because they have so much fun there.  I love Zucker for many other reasons!  There are so many opportunities for my children’s health and development simply by being at a natural playground.  I feel lucky that we have this amazing place to play, so close to home.

At a natural playground like Zucker, children have the opportunity for risky play; something that has been all but eliminated from traditional playgrounds which are covered in rubber padding and where jumping off the swings or climbing up the slides is prohibited.

Wait, isn’t risky play dangerous?  Yes, but it is also vitally important to a child’s development and it is sadly being eliminated from modern day playtime.  How can anyone begin to know their own limits if they haven’t been allowed to independently test them?

Angela Hanscom, pediatric occupational therapist, forest school owner and author of the book Balanced and Barefoot, explains that a child’s neurological system was designed to “seek out the sensory input it needs on its own in order to reach the next developmental level.”  Whether it’s rules on the playground, the disappearance of recess or overly anxious helicopter parenting, you can see how modern times are getting in the way of natural human development.  Risky play is an important part of building confidence and self-esteem.  It allows a child to experience frustration and learn coping skills.

Below is a picture of my son, perched atop a rather large log, really wanting to jump, but not sure if he should.  He is practicing self-reflection and regulation all in this peaceful pause.  He may or may not have started to scream in frustration because he really wanted to jump but he was scared.  He’s learning his own physical limits and how to accept them.  He didn’t jump, for the record.  Maybe one day in the future, he will.

Wild + Free 5

There is also much more room for creativity in a natural playground than in a traditional playground.  The logs can quickly become sharks or ships, or anything children can pretend.  At a traditional playground, the structures are more fixed, making this type of imaginative and dramatic play more difficult.

Making Bear Tracks at Zucker
My son used a stick to create bear tracks in the dirt.

There is also far more physical activity and exertion happening at a natural playground.  At a natural playground kids can climb trees and logs, carry buckets full of sand and water, move heavy logs and rocks, roll down hills and run in green space.  At a traditional playground, these opportunities are simply not present.  A natural playground provides greater opportunities to expand gross motor skills.

 

At a natural playground, children are immersed in natural sensory experiences.  They can take off their shoes to feel the grass, sand and mud between their toes, hear the leaves rustling, cover themselves in mud, “cook” with dirt, splash in water and smell flowers.  While they are surrounded by sensory input, none of it is overwhelming as it is all naturally created.  There are no overstimulating colors, bright lights, loud music or voices reverberating against the walls that you might find at an indoor playspace.

 

Another aspect unique to a natural playground are loose parts.  Loose parts have been popularized as part of the Reggio Emilia philosophy of education.  This term was coined by the architect, Simon Nicholson, who observed that when children have access to loose parts (simply materials that can be moved around), there are more opportunities for interaction, engagement and tinkering.  When children have access to loose parts, their creativity can really take flight!  They also create natural learning opportunities for counting, pattern making, geometry, problem solving and fine motor skills.  Loose parts abound at Zucker in the form of rocks, sticks, leaves and flowers.

Loose Parts at Zucker

While at Zucker (or I imagine, another natural playground), children have the opportunity to engineer and build.  My children have moved huge sticks around both independently and cooperatively with friends to build a wigwam and to create an imaginary bonfire.  Again, these incredible opportunities are unique to natural playgrounds.

Building with Sticks at Zucker
Working together to build with large sticks and branches

As an added bonus, in the summer, the Prospect Park Alliance brings in goats to eat the invasive plant species that grow near Zucker.  The goats are kept in a fenced in area but are clearly visible to the kids.  My kids love to watch the goats!

Do you still need more reasons to believe why natural playgrounds like Zucker are better than traditional ones?  In How to Raise a Wild Child, author Scott D. Sampson cites studies which prove that bullying and aggressive behavior are greatly decreased at a natural playground vs. a traditional.  He details that real estate prices in one neighborhood spiked by 20% one year after the city of Toronto’s first natural playground was installed there.  The incidence of broken bones at a natural playground are a fraction of what they are at traditional playgrounds.  I could go on and on!

Do you have a natural playground in your area?  Have you been to Zucker?  I’d love to hear from you in the comments!

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