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Kerith Stevens with her two children Linnea, 3, and Kaisa, 11 months, play at the ‘natural’ playground at Grandview Elementary school in East Vancouver, in 2011.Rafal Gerszak/The Globe and Mail

A new study shows that young children may be less likely to develop depressive symptoms when given the opportunity to be active in playgrounds with natural elements.

Children aged 2 to 5 were observed before and after sand, grass, bamboo shoots and water features were strategically placed in previously sparse daycare centre playgrounds. Visible displays of depressive symptoms – such as frowning and appearing sad – were rated by researchers using two standardized questionnaires, said Mariana Brussoni, study co-researcher and professor in the University of British Columbia's faculty of medicine.

"When we compared the children's scores across the entire daycare before the intervention versus after, there was a significant decrease in the children's depressive symptoms," she said.

Forty-six children from two daycares in East Vancouver took part. Researchers gathered data using devices that showed the children's speed and spacial movement, video observation and a focus group of early childhood educators. An increase in pro-social behaviour, self-confidence and self-regulation and a decrease in reliance on teachers were also observed.

"The time teachers spent with the kids was more quality. They weren't spending their time disrupting disagreements or figuring out how to get kids to play. They were able to engage better," Dr. Brussoni said.

Hardy bamboo plants that grow and change the play space, and sand and bricks give children the chance to manipulate natural elements and to play in many different ways, she said.

"You get playgrounds that are positioned next to lots of lovely nature, but it's fenced off, or positioned in a way that the kids can't use it," Dr. Brussoni said. "The challenges with fixed equipment is there are limited things you can do with them. Nature is really flexible." She hypothesized that similar results would be observed in older children.

Lead author Susan Herrington, a UBC landscape architecture professor, said Vancouver needs more flexible outdoor play spaces.

But a concern over safety has been a driving force behind playground design, she said.

Many play spaces in Canada are designed using The Canadian Standards Association's voluntary guidelines for public playgrounds. Dr. Brussoni said the guidelines minimize the potential for injuries – including putting structures close to the ground – but do not account for "play value."

"People are taking shortcuts, they're looking through catalogues and sticking in this equipment that isn't really maximized for children's play, and that research shows us doesn't offer as much opportunities for children to really explore and gain developmental benefit," she said.

Prof. Herrington said children are more likely to interact with each other and early childhood educators when engaged with living things.

Parents should take a look at what their children play with every day and think: "Is this the kind of space I used to like to play in?" she said. "Safety is the main driver of the design of playgrounds. But kids aren't on play structures because they're boring."

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