A quasi-experimental comparison of equipment-based and naturalized playgrounds: Examining the impact on young children’s learning and development

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University of Guelph

Outdoor play and outdoor nature play are critical for children’s learning and development. It is important to investigate the variety of outdoor environments that children engage in to better understand how different settings offer varied opportunities and impact children’s outcomes. Playgrounds are a common early childhood education and care (ECEC) outdoor environment for young children; however, there is limited comprehensive research and understanding about the variety of ways that types of playgrounds, such as equipment-based and naturalized, may impact children’s play, learning, and development.

Through a quasi-experimental convergent mixed-method design, this research project examined a transition from equipment-based to naturalized playgrounds within the toddler and preschool programs at a licensed child care centre. This dissertation includes three articles that each address a unique aspect of the larger comprehensive research project and aim to increase understanding about how the naturalization of an ECEC outdoor environment can impact children’s play, learning, and development. The first article concerns children’s social and cognitive play behaviours on the two different types of playgrounds and found significant increases in the toddler-aged children’s group play and constructive play. The second article compared children’s physical activity levels and movement patterns using accelerometers and spatial behaviour mapping. Significant decreases in physical activity were found; however, qualitative analysis through spatial behaviour mapping suggested that this could be due to children engaging in extended play interactions. Lastly, the third article focused on Early Childhood Educators’ perceptions of the impact of playground naturalization on children’s play, learning, and development. Several themes were generated through a thematic analysis process which showed that educators perceived the naturalization of the playground as positively impacting children overall, especially at the two-year follow up.

This research project contributes to the existing body of research comparing equipment-based and naturalized playgrounds by investigating new aspects of children’s development, incorporating a new and comprehensive selection of methods, and more specifically exploring Early Childhood Educators’ perspectives. Findings from this project are valuable for considering how playgrounds can be designed to best support children’s development and learning and for making future practice, policy, and funding decisions within the field of ECEC.

outdoor play, playground design, naturalized playground, child development, child care