The University of Nebraska–Lincoln Children's Center opened a new playground for children on Nov. 16 at their facility in the Whittier Building on Vine Street. This playground is unique in that it is built entirely from natural materials, such as tree stumps and logs.
A natural playground differs from one built with man-made materials because of the play options it makes available. Children are more free to crawl, explore and climb wherever they like, instead of sticking to limited play options.
"Instead of a swing that's just for swinging, there are tree branches and wooden stumps and loose parts, so there are things they can really be creative with rather than a structure that only has one function," Callie Wilhite, director of the Children's Center, said.
Many of the big features of the playground are made up of tree trunks. These trees had already been removed from East Campus, and were reused for the playground to avoid waste. Trees are placed strategically around the play site to allow kids multiple climbing options. One feature is a tripod-like structure made from the top section of a tree flipped upside down. Children are able to crawl underneath and in between the branches and get creative in how they play.
Teachers noticed a visible difference in children's playground excitement on opening day. Wilhite reported tons of positive feedback from teachers, and said students were having so much fun with the new structures that they didn't even need their other usual outdoor playthings like balls or bikes.
In the future, Wilhite would like to add more features that are similar to the indoor play space, such as a dramatic play space, an art area and a mud kitchen. These additions would create a type of outdoor classroom, to the benefit of students' exploration. Two plastic slides remain on the playground from the previous man-made structures.
The Children's Center's main philosophy is that kids learn through play. This new outdoor space and its natural setting allows children to think up their own ways to play and take charge of their own activities.
In the midst of COVID-19, enrollment numbers for the Children's Center have decreased. The center was closed from March 20 to June 14 at the start of the pandemic and has since reopened. Wilhite says that there are still great benefits from enrolling a child in the early education programs.
"Now more so than ever, parents are working remotely, and it's challenging to work from home and provide care or educational experiences for their children," Wilhite said. "Having a place where kids can come to be around other children and have social experiences while engaging in learning means kids will really benefit from that environment."
While the Children's Center has always been experienced in dealing with lots of germs, they have stepped up their already-detailed procedures. Mask wearing has been introduced to the center, as well as even more frequent cleaning routines and keeping children in the same groups each day.
Wilhite said that the children have been amazing at adapting to COVID-19 procedures. They are still happy and smiling, and recognize the importance to keep their friends and families safe.
While most enrollees are the children of university faculty members and students, early childhood education is open to the entire Lincoln community. Infants through pre-kindergarten are welcome at the Children's Center. To see the Children's Center and learn about their age-specific educational programs, set up an individual tour with Wilhite at 402-472-2009.