Sunday, January 25, 2015

The Natural Playground: Plants, Stumps, and Dirt

When I was brainstorming ideas for my civic engagement project, one of my main goals was to find a way to combine civil engineering (my major) with child & family development (my minor). Trust me, I realize this is not a common degree combination. Amazingly enough, thanks to some networking and some luck, I was able to find the perfect site with which to collaborate for my project.

I have partnered with Easter Seals UCP, a non-profit that provides services, classes, and childcare to children with disabilities in North America.  This particular Easter Seals center in Charlotte is blessed with enthusiastic and helpful staff as well as plentiful outdoor space. My project involves improving this outdoor space by replacing overused items, adding natural elements, and creating learning modules so teachers and students can benefit from the additions.

Before I get into the details of my project, here are some before and after pictures of changes we have already made! (Because everyone likes before/after pics)

This area had exposed tarp and mud and was not a very safe place for children to play. Below, the first picture shows the newly mulched area, and the bottommost picture shows some partially buried logs and stumps for balancing and jumping!

We are emphasizing the natural playground philosophy, which favors mud, gardens, water, and logs rather than metal swings, slides, and bouncy rubber surfacing. Using natural elements in the new portion of the playground will benefit the children and the childcare center in several ways. Using natural items with rich textures and complex visual forms stimulates cognitive development, particularly for children with disabilities. Furthermore, exposing children to gardening and natural physical activity will have lifelong benefits for healthy lifestyles. Lastly, natural playground elements are far cheaper than large playground structures. Safety codes tend to require much more for a large swing set than for a maze of bamboo or a balance course of buried logs and stumps.

Future additions which are in the planning phase include a series of raised gardens that will be accessible by wheelchair, a previously mentioned bamboo maze, and a raised deck over a water/pond area. 

Stay tuned for our latest improvements at the playground, and contact me if you'd be interested in providing some manual labor! 
My car has definitely put in its fair share of effort.

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