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Venture: Why getting kids outside is no walk in the bark

Adam Bienenstock’s workship includes all the building blocks for a natural playground

BRENDAN GEORGE KO/The Globe and Mail

Things were different when Adam Bienenstock was a kid. As soon as the bell rang, he'd be up the creek near his house, climbing trees, building forts, collecting fossils and catching crayfish. "That was my playground," says Bienenstock, now 48. "I was absolutely typical of that generation–I'd come back when the streetlights came on at dinnertime."

Fast-forward 40 years, and that kind of unfettered outdoor play is no more, thanks to overprotective parents and liability-obsessed school boards, who see every stick as a potential weapon and every patch of forest as a haven for perverts. In Bienenstock's day, the average kid roamed, parentless, up to 10 kilometres from home. Today, that's down to less than 275 metres–which, as Bienenstock points out, means that even if they live on the edge of a forest, they're not going in. Instead, Canadian kids spend an average of seven hours and 48 minutes every day in front of screens. Almost one-third of them are overweight or obese. Bullying rates, ADHD and childhood anxiety disorders have soared. "We've never been more cautious of the welfare of our children, and we've created an environment that is killing them, literally," says Bienenstock. "For the first time in history, we'll have a longer lifespan than our kids will."

The way he sees it, the playground–the only place today's kids are still allowed to romp–is the front line in the battle to save them from "nature-deficit disorder," a term coined by U.S. children's health advocate Richard Louv in his 2005 book Last Child in the Woods. Enter Bienenstock Natural Playgrounds, based in his hometown of Dundas, on the fringes of Steel City, which has designed and built more than 800 nature-based play spaces around the world. Instead of steel climbers and spring-loaded teeter-totters, Bienenstock's parks feature slides built into grass-covered hillsides, pink granite boulders for climbing, and sturdy carved chairs, balance beams and obstacle courses fashioned from local logs that would otherwise end up in the chipper. Some have rope bridges and tree forts, water tables for preschoolers, giant wooden xylophones and drums, even mini-amphitheatres.

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In June, Bienenstock and his team–20 full-timers, including an early childhood educator (his wife, Jill), a landscape architect, a computer engineer, a kinesiologist, even a philosopher–shipped the final pieces of a 2.5-acre project to New Brunswick's Fundy National Park, including a zip line, climbing walls and a massive chunk of black walnut, Bienenstock's version of a jungle gym. The company's century-old workshop is packed with crates bound for Edmonton, Red Deer and Whitehorse. A whiteboard used to track current projects is covered in black marker, with price tags ranging from $5,000 to half a million. One of the newest additions is a multiyear deal with the Ontario Science Centre (in partnership with Sustainable Trails of Port Hope, Ontario) to develop 40 acres around the centre with trails and outdoor exhibits. Bienenstock will also be working with Hildebrandt Learning Centers to "naturalize" 52 playgrounds across Pennsylvania. More jobs are being added every week.

Bienenstock says sales have been growing by 40 per cent to 100 per cent a year since 2009, when he began to focus on natural playgrounds full-time. He'd been a landscaper for more than 30 years, having inherited a green thumb from his grandmother, and an avid belief in the link between mind and body from his parents. His mother, Dody, is a psychiatrist; his father, John, is a renowned immunologist (both still practise full-time, though they're 79 and 83, respectively). "There's no separation between mind and body," says Bienenstock, describing his folks' ethos. "Physical well-being is mental well-being."

After flunking out of Dalhousie, Bienenstock got a diploma in horticulture and set off for Vancouver in an old Honda Civic, where he designed private botanical gardens and curated "crazy" plant collections. At the height of the dot-com boom, he hooked up with an entrepreneur and began installing telecommunications hubs. Six months before the collapse, Bienenstock took a payout, did an executive MBA at Queen's University and moved back to Dundas, where he reconnected with Jill, his high-school sweetheart.

It's no coincidence Bienenstock started Natural Playgrounds five years ago, when the couple's two sons were toddlers. There are stacks of research supporting the notion that kids who spend more time in nature are less aggressive and more co-operative, score higher on tests, get along better with their peers, and are happier overall than children who spend the majority of their time indoors. A 2011 University of Illinois study even found that children with ADHD who don't respond to medication experience milder symptoms when they play regularly in green spaces. Plus, Bienenstock says natural spaces are more engaging: According to a study from the University of Tennessee at Knoxville, the typical flat, treeless playground keeps kids busy for an average of nine minutes; on natural playgrounds, it's 60 to 68 minutes. "They give every kid a place of mastery," says Bienenstock–physical challenges, a quiet place to read or play music, and so on. Natural spaces also help build community, he says, since parents are chatting on benches, rather than running around with their hands out, waiting for their kids to fall (with good reason–more than 28,000 sustain playground injuries each year).

Bienenstock admits his company, and a few other like-minded outfits, are capturing just a sliver of the $1.2-billion North American playground market. So he spends much of his time delivering TED-style talks worldwide. The goal isn't just to drum up clients; it's to inspire others to get into the game, too. Bienenstock's hope is to build the market so that one-third of playground budgets go toward natural spaces (with his own company taking the top 10 per cent of that). "There's no winning this on our own," he says. "We have to build an industry at the same time as we're building a business."

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