The designs for Humber’s newest research facility look, on the surface, like a children’s playground – there’s a slide, a sand area and plenty of things to climb on.

But what seems like just another place for kids to run around is much, much more than that.

In fact, it’s not really a playground at all.

Take a closer look, and you’ll notice a distinct lack of colourful plastic in favour of organic materials like wood, rope and rocks. You’ll see traditional climbers replaced by natural structures – trees and logs – that allow children to create an infinite number of imaginary environments. You’ll also see an outdoor music area, winding pathways, a mural and plenty of shady spaces to sit.

Humber’s new outdoor learning environment will be built this summer. Industry partner Bienenstock Natural Playgrounds has worked with Humber faculty in the Early Childhood Education (ECE) program and staff in the Humber Child Care Centre to create a facility that will serve as an interdisciplinary research lab for faculty and students from a variety of programs.

“This is so much more than a playground,” says Patricia Morgan, dean of Research at Humber. “We’re actually replacing an existing playground with a more comprehensive outdoor facility that will benefit children and also help members of the Humber community to conduct research on the impact of nature-based play and teaching strategies."

To assist with construction, the project was awarded a grant from TD Friends of the Environment, which focuses on funding projects that enhance environmental education and urban greening.

According to Julie Valerio, who teaches in Humber’s ECE program, it’s not a moment too soon.

“Nature deprivation is becoming a serious problem among children,” she explains. “They spend too many hours indoors, for a variety of reasons, including more 'screen time.' This decreases problem solving skills, retention and risk taking. There’s more and more evidence that exposure to natural environments – like our new natural play space – has a measurable cognitive benefit for children.”

Bridget Woodcock, director of Humber's Child Care Centres, says families are an important part of reconnecting children with nature, and an integral part of the project at Humber.

"Our families are partners in this process," she says. "Their willingness to have children participate in the research is critical to achieving our goals. We have a 98 per cent participation rate in the research that's currently underway -- and we're thrilled that our families are such active and engaged participants." 

It’s not just children who will engage with Humber’s outdoor learning environment. Students from programs like interior design, landscape technician and ECE will all contribute to its creation and ongoing operation.

Initial research at the new lab will focus on comparing how children use a traditional playground with how they play in a natural space. ECE students and faculty are currently working on collecting baseline data by observing children as they interact with Humber’s existing traditional playgrounds.

Anecdotally, the difference is noticeable, says ECE student Cynthia Cooper. She volunteered at the Bienenstock playground which was a feature of this year’s Canada Blooms show,

“A natural playground has this element of freedom and discovery at your fingertips,” she explains. “The children were all inspired to ask questions non-stop, learning more and more about animals, insects and how things grow. Even the shyest children came out of their shells. It was an uplifting and inspiring sight.”