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Playgrounds that mimic the natural environment have physical and mental benefits for preschool children, according to a study published last month in Children, Youth, and Environments and coauthored by professors at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville.

The research project set out to redesign the outdoor play space at a Knoxville Head Start facility—a preschool program for children from low-income households and their families—to include features inspired by natural green spaces and forests, and to learn how the changes impact children’s play patterns. The incorporation of natural elements in playgrounds was shown to positively influence children’s motor skill development and physical activity and to enrich the preschool curriculum.

“The addition of garden spaces can be used to cultivate reading, math, and science skills,” said lead author Mary Jane Moran, professor in the UT’s Department of Child and Family Studies. “Creating functional outdoor spaces for children can be very cost-effective through donations, community partners, and hard work by all involved.”

The playground used in the research was overhauled in 2014 over a two-day period by a team of 40 volunteers. Some of the playground’s metal equipment, including a seesaw, chin-up bars, and spring rocking toys, was replaced with logs, boulders, and a dry creek bed.

Garden boxes were also installed, along with trees and a pergola for shade.

Researchers then used direct observation and other tools to collect data on physical activity levels, which allowed them to quantify the benefits of the new playground. The analysis of this data will be part of a different study.

The project was a collaboration between UT’s Department of Child and Family Studies and Department of Kinesiology, Recreation and Sports Studies, as well as the UT Early Learning Center for Research and Practice and Knox County Head Start.


Andrea Schneibel (, 865-974-3993)

Hannah Browning (