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Head Start Recess Space Prepares Children to Explore Outdoor Treasures Abound in Urban Neighborhood
Greenville, S.C., April 22, 2019 – Natural playgrounds have been popular in Europe for decades and in recent years, they have been emerging in cities all over the U.S. Originally designed so that inner city children could have access to unstructured play, these ecological parks combine landscape elements, movement corridors, plants, and other site amenities constructed of natural materials and features that entice children to build, dig, climb and explore in an age-appropriate manner.
The idea to bring a natural playground to Nicholtown came about during a Nicholtown Child and Family Collaborative (NCFC) board meeting two years ago when members discussed installing a playground at the Rubye H. Jones Head Start Center located at Phillis Wheatley. South Carolina Representative Chandra Dillard established the organization years earlier, in part, to bring Head Start back to her beloved neighborhood. It is one of 22 centers in SHARE’s Upstate four-county service area.
Inspired by the “forest schools” and natural playgrounds lauded by researchers studying European early childhood settings, NCFC Board member Jamie Moon and President of the Institute for Child Success proposed that the collaborative explore a natural playground for children attending the new Head Start center. Other NCFC Board members had recently attended U.S. Play Coalition’s annual conference at Clemson University and also understood the value of unstructured play that produces problem-solvers and develops a child’s cognitive concepts. Moon shares, “I recall that once we looked at the many benefits of a natural playground versus a traditional playground with swing sets and a sliding board, it became apparent to all that the natural approach would lead to more learning and better outcomes for the children.”
The NCFC Head Start facility provides services to 25 children and over the course of three years, has served 75 families. The students are two and three years old, and each age group accesses the closed play area in separate 30- to 45-minute sessions, weather permitting.
The Rubye H. Jones Head Start playground was installed in the summer of 2017 and its natural elements include a sand box, water pump, a slope slide, quiet space with an bench swing, wooden steps, boards for drawing, a repurposed oil-barrel drum, aluminum pipe xylophone, and three planter boxes. Existing hills were left intact as kids are instinctively drawn to roll on them. It is the only local, natural playground housed in an urban setting and serving families via a federally funded program.
When compared to traditional playgrounds, Representative Dillard lists numerous advantages natural playgrounds offer – awakening a child’s senses of sight, sound and touch with opportunities to play, feel and explore; offering a multi-phase approach to play; encouraging risk-taking and creativity; and presenting social and learning opportunities as children share and work together to carry out tasks. Additionally, children develop gross motor skills as they navigate the topography, they are more physically active, they receive vitamin D, and their cognitive functioning improves. It has even been said that children who play on natural playgrounds are less sick. Representative Dillard agrees, noting that exposure to a natural environment “challenges us and our immunity” and that the native outdoors “makes kids resilient.”
Equally important, Repsentative Dillard points out is that “a natural playground gets children comfortable with nature.” This is crucial for children living in an urban neighborhood who have the rare distinction of being surrounded by natural treasures – the Swamp Rabbit and Sliding Rock Creek Trails, as well as a tributary. Their childhoods could be filled with adventurous experiences exploring the great outdoors.
Another selling point of natural playgrounds is that they are more affordable. While it is common to pay $50,000-60,000 for one metal swing, an entire natural playground can be installed at that cost. Additionally, traditional playground materials rust and the rigid surfaces lend themselves to more user injuries.
Sustainability was a factor the stakeholders considered. A natural playground won’t require resurfacing as a traditional playground would. Still, this is a new concept and NCFC, SHARE and Head Start will monitor the playground’s life cycle for maintenance and potential upgrades.
The key to NCFC’s success was having buy-in from all stakeholders – NCFC board members, funders (Greenville Rotary Club, Junior League of Greenville and Prisma Health’s Bradshaw Institute for Community Child Health & Advocacy), teachers, parents and end users (the children) – with everyone engaged in the process. That includes having a say in the design concept and play options that will appeal to the children, determining activities teachers will facilitate, establishing tolerable filth allowed by parents in charge of laundry, and ensuring the selected elements make the best use of the space.
About Nicholtown Child and Family Collaborative
The Nicholtown Child and Family Collaborative (formerly known as the Nicholtown Early Learning Taskforce) aims to create a place-based, two-generation community center with wrap-around services in a high-needs area of Greenville, South Carolina, known as Nicholtown. NCFC was established to provide services for the children and families of Nicholtown to improve child outcomes; provide parent training, education, and employment; and build lasting community infrastructure.
About SHARE and Head Start
Sunbelt Human Advancement Resources, Inc. (SHARE) is a non-profit Community Action Agency (part of a national service delivery network of over 1000 agencies) that provides a wide range of services to low and moderate-income residents in upstate South Carolina (Greenville, Anderson, Oconee and Pickens Counties).
SHARE Birth to Five is a school readiness program that provides comprehensive child development services to eligible families. The overall purpose is to provide a program that will give preschool children and their families a variety of experiences which will broaden their horizons and their understanding of the world in which they live, expand their thinking, improve their health, build self-confidence and self-concepts that will better assist them living with themselves and others.
Families must meet income guidelines established by the Department of Health and Human Services. Children must be three to five years old for Head Start and birth to three years old for Early Head Start.
About Institute for Child Success
The Institute for Child Success (ICS) is an independent, nonpartisan, nonprofit research and policy organization dedicated to the success of all young children. Headquartered in Greenville and working state- and nationwide, ICS pursues its mission in four primary ways: proposing smart public policies, grounded in research; advising governments, nonprofits, foundations, and other stakeholders on strategies to improve outcomes; sharing knowledge, convening stakeholders, embracing solutions, and accelerating impact; and encouraging and cultivating catalytic, innovative leadership in early childhood.