As someone who grew up in a place where, though I had access to a traditional playground complete with metal slides, monkey bars, and swings, I also had quick access to seemingly boundless woods—and preferred the woods—this really comes as no surprise.
A new study from the University of Tennessee at Knoxville's Department of Kinesiology, Recreation and Sport Studies looked at the way children play in "natural playgrounds"—those where dwarf trees and natural elements such as small streams and logs have been built in—versus traditional playgrounds composed of wood and plastic play elements.
The conclusion comes down squarely on the side of kids liking the natural playgrounds (via Science Daily):
For the study, Coe observed children at UT's Early Learning Center. She began in June 2011 by observing the children while the center still had traditional wood and plastic equipment. She logged how often they used the slides and other apparatus, studied the intensity of their activity, and how much time they spent in a porch area to get shade from the sun.
The Early Learning Center staff then began renovations of the playground and over several months added a gazebo and slides that were built into a hill. They planted dwarf trees, built a creek, and landscaped it with rocks and flowers. They also added logs and tree stumps. They turned it into what Coe called a "natural playscape."
Coe, working with Cary Springer, a statistician with the Office of Information Technology, returned for follow-up observations this year and found significant differences between usage of the traditional and natural playground.
The children more than doubled the time they spent playing, from jumping off the logs to watering the plants around the creek. They were engaging in more aerobic and bone- and muscle-strengthening activities. "This utilized motor skills, too," [assistant professor Dawn] Coe said. She also found that the children were less sedentary and used the porch area less after the renovation.