Less plastic, more nature, preschool playgrounds evolve again

Temple Emanuel of Kensington preschool students play among the trees, rocks and climbing structures to learn about nature. Photo by Suzanne Pollak
Temple Emanuel of Kensington preschool students play among the trees, rocks and climbing structures to learn about nature.
Photo by Suzanne Pollak

The temperature may have been below freezing much of last week, but that didn’t stop children at several area synagogue preschools from playing outside, having fun stomping on ice patches, rolling in  snow and mud and pretending to garden in the hardened earth.

Natural is back in and those bright plastic slides and climbing structures found in so many playgrounds are quickly becoming a thing of the past as researchers, parents and teachers now agree that there are only so many ways you can have fun on them.

Nature-enhanced playscapes allow children to be creative and develop problem-solving and sensory skills, said Mara Bier, director of the Jewish Federation of Greater Washington’s early childhood department.

“The children are more engaged,” she said. How they play is “less predictable,” especially because the playground changes from season to season.


Children today don’t go out and play in the woods, but with these landscaped playgrounds, they are able to do just that. They sit on boulders, climb tree poles, plant gardens and learn about the bugs, lizards and plants around them, Bier said.

They also learn counting and sorting, using pine cones, rocks or sea shells.

Children often are told not to touch anything unless it has been “washed and scoured,” but in a nature-enhanced setting, they are encouraged to get dirty and touch everything, she said. And while they are having fun, the children learn Jewish values and are taught “what it means to be stewards of the land,” Bier said.

Youngsters at Shaare Tefilah Congregation in Olney last week used their combined strength to try to break up the ice patches that dotted their playground. The 2-year-olds, bundled in snow pants, boots, hats and gloves, kept slipping and giggling.

“One of the core values of our school is creating a connection to nature,” said school director Beth Adler. “We go outside pretty much every day, regardless of the weather.”

When the children leave their classroom and reach the playground, they usually run to where the mud is, said teacher Karin Metry. “They like mud. They like to play with nature and make up their own games.”
They also enjoy climbing through a gigantic pipe, running up and down the hills and playing around an upside down wooden boat.

At Temple Emanuel in Kensington, children play in a large sandbox, lunge from one tree post to the next, draw on a large easel or watch water flow around a rock garden.

In the warmer months, they work in the garden. Last summer they raised cucumbers which were donated to Meals on Wheels. They also have a Havdalah garden where they grow herbs.

Said Early Childhood Director Madeline Gold, “A slide can only be a slide. This play is so much richer.”

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