13-10-2020 / hannes.schwaiger

Purpose: to create the perfect playground. A Playful Lab Study in Alnarp, Sweden

Guest article by Emma Leijnse. Photographer Lars Brundin. Sydsvenskan Friday 29th May 2020. Permission is granted by Lars Brundin and Emma Leijnse. Translation: Marianne Zandersen, AU.

Researchers at Alnarp are working in their forest lab to develop natural environments that entice children to play. Their aim is to produce similar areas for children’s play in cities. We think that you need to create a wilder environment. Typical parks are generally a bit too well-trimmed and tidy for children’s play, says Fredrika Mårtensson, researcher at SLU, the Swedish University of Agricultural Sciences in Alnarp.

When children from the Opera preschool in Lindängen, Malmö get to the oak grove, they immediately start climbing trees. This is a big difference from the first time they were here. – Then they held our hands and didn’t dare walk around by themselves. Now they are used to this place and love coming here. It is wonderful to give them the opportunity to be out in nature, says preschool teacher Izabella Magnuson. – Hey! I’m up here! one child shouts to her. Children swing on branches and on a rope hanging from one of the trees. One child finds a shell. Another begins to cry. A girl wants to move a stone. A boy hangs in a rope slung between two trees. Some children find a pile of sticks and they start stacking them on the lid of a concrete well.

Pre-school children have grown used to visiting the Alnarp forest. Here, they play a bit more wildly than in the city.

Researchers Fredrika Mårtensson and Anna Litsmark stand by – observing everything the children do, sometimes noting what they see in their notepads. What children do with the sticks is of particular interest to them, as researchers were here yesterday, moving sticks out of the bushes, precisely because they wanted to see if the children would use them.

Research on children´s play environments is not new. But this time the children are very much involved. Children and educators have together selected the parts of the forest that the researchers are now looking into.  In addition to the climbing trees, the children have chosen  a lawn, a river, a place with huts and a dense grove of aspens. And now the children are involved in gradually designing the play areas, as researchers change some landscape details to see how children respond to these in their play. – We call the different options environmental “affordances”. Exploring play possibilities afforded by the environment together with a group of children is a new approach, says Fredrika Mårtensson, Associate Professor of Environmental Psychology at SLU in Alnarp.

Children’s perspectives on nature differ from the perspective of adults. Rather than visually evaluating the natural environment, children are looking for what they can do. Tree branches should grow so low that it is possible to climb. There should be sticks, brushwood and loose debris. A good natural environment for children is robust and a bit messy.

Researchers are just at the beginning of their work, which is part of REGREEN, an EU project about children’s play and learning in nature. Their aim is to create a number of concepts for natural play areas that can be applied in cities. Play biotopes, Fredrika Mårtensson calls them. – The idea is that when you plan a playground or a schoolyard, you should be able to order a ’play biotope’, just as you can order a climbing frame, she says. Her previous research shows that preschool children who have access to spacious, green and varied outdoor environments have a better attention span and increased well-being; they sleep better and have fewer infections. The effects are greatest in socio-economically vulnerable housing areas. The Opera preschool visited the Alnarp forest during the spring, as part of another project in collaboration with the municipal administration’s preschool pedagogical team. The project explores the interplay of play, nature and digital technology. – Our aim is to see what imprint it leaves on the children to visit this place regularly; what games are played here and what is brought back to the preschool, says Tove Axelsson, development pedagogue at the municipal preschool administration.Pictures and other things from the forest visits are hung on the wall of the preschool, so the children can tell their friends about their experiences.- The staff feels that recounting visits here has had an incredible effect on the children’s language development, says Tove Axelsson. The adults also see that children play more daringly in nature as natural environments invite that. Part of the project is to see if the children’s nature experiences leave traces in the games they play back in town. – Both playgrounds and preschools are prearranged and organized by others, says Tove Axelsson.