Towards greener playgrounds – ideas from a virtual tour of Lahti’s playgrounds
Contact with nature is important for the development of children’s immune system and holistic well-being. Nature-inspired playground design can significantly increase children’s interaction with the natural environment.
Modern science shows that much of the increase in immune system disorders, such as allergies and asthma, is attributable to lack of contact with nature’s diverse microbiota during childhood. The immune system, especially when it is still developing during childhood, needs microbial exposure to learn to distinguish between harmful and friendly organisms. A study [GMM1] conducted in Lahti found positive changes in the blood antibody levels and immune systems of children who played in sand enriched with natural materials. Natural elements contribute to human well-being in myriad ways by, for example, improving mood and lowering stress levels. Spending time outdoors can alleviate ADHD symptoms and promote motor development.
Many children are generally only exposed to the outdoors in the play areas outside their blocks of flats, in public playgrounds and at nursery or school. Many of these play areas are just tarmac, sand, gravel and plastic. These materials are undoubtedly durable and low-maintenance, but are those really the qualities that we should look for in a playground? Is there not a way to also incorporate interaction with the diverse microbiota of the natural environment and nature-based benefits for well-being?
Virtual tour of Lahti’s playgrounds
I took a virtual tour of 71 playgrounds maintained by the City of Lahti. The website of the Lahtipuistoilee[GMM2] project, launched by Kulttuurikuva ry in 2016, features panoramic images of a considerable number of Lahti’s playgrounds.
What I learned from the tour is that most of our playgrounds are built on gravel or sand. Many are flanked by mature trees (80%), hedges (66%) and/or grass (62%). These figures do not take into account hedges and greenery that lie beyond the playground fence, since these areas are not accessible to the children.
Less than half of our playgrounds have any rubber flooring – usually under swings or climbing frames. The only playgrounds that have rubber flooring throughout are the ones in Matkustajasatama and Kyynärä. The tiny playground at the marina is completely devoid of greenery barring the odd wild flower beyond the fence.
Towards greener playgrounds
Playgrounds are subject to strict safety regulations that dictate, for example, that climbing frames must have soft material underneath. The flooring in playgrounds is exposed to heavy wear. A recommendation was issued back in 2020, according to which playgrounds should be zoned[GMM3] to place the most vulnerable greenery around the edges where there is less foot traffic.
My virtual tour of Lahti’s playgrounds threw up a couple of surprises that can be useful when designing new playgrounds and upgrading existing ones. The slide in the playground on Eerikintie is on a grassy knoll, which children need to climb in order to get to the top of the slide. These kinds of routes that take advantage of the natural contours of the ground and feature plants or soil underfoot should also be introduced in new playgrounds.
My top pick is the Soltinpuronpuisto playground, which lies deep inside the forest. The setting makes it possible for children to expand their games into the natural environment and collect pine cones, sticks and other organic material to enrich playtime. I visited the playground in person and was delighted to discover that it still looks largely the same as in the pictures from 2018. The gravel underneath the swings and the climbing frame has been replaced by woodchips, which is a further improvement from the perspective of microbial exposure.
The only greenery in many of the playgrounds that I explored on my virtual tour consists of spontaneous wild vegetation – weeds, in other words – pushing through the sand and tarmac. The presence of weeds proves that the foot traffic in playgrounds is not too heavy for vegetation to survive. Holding back on mowing and allowing wild plants to thrive is the easiest way to make playgrounds greener and to increase diversity. This low-maintenance approach would also save money and reduce greenhouse gas emissions.
However, initiatives designed to improve existing playgrounds should also include planting new greenery. In terms of shrubbery, fast-growing species such as willow should be prioritised. Sufficiently abundant, well-chosen natural vegetation could even withstand the collection of pussy willow branches that are traditionally decorated for Easter celebrations in Finland as well as games that are otherwise tough on shrubs. Hedges can be planted in the shape of a maze to inspire children’s imagination. Playgrounds with plastic flooring, such as the one at the marina, can be enriched with pots and planters.
Every playground should have a lawn nearby for picnics and kicking a ball around. The introduction of wild meadows would give children access to insects. Paths could be built across lawns and meadows using widely spaced natural stone or slabs that would encourage children to explore while also reducing wear on the vegetation.
There are fortunately already trees in the vicinity of most of Lahti’s playgrounds, which provide shade and enrichment in the form of, for example, sticks, pine cones and leaves. It is important not to cut down any of the existing trees and shrubs when upgrading playgrounds.
Is there anything that can be done for children whose local playgrounds are built on sand or rubber flooring? As much as children love man-made playgrounds, sometimes a walk in the woods is a good alternative. For most residents in Lahti, natural environments where children can play are just as close as the local playground. Children should be encouraged to explore the great outdoors, pick up organic materials and bring them home. Geocaching is also a great way to find new adventures. The Lahtipuistoilee website contains information on geocaches located near Lahti’s playgrounds.