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What About Maintenance?

Frequently, after we make our presentation about natural playgrounds, we’re asked about maintenance. "What about maintenance? Isn’t there a lot of maintenance on a natural playground? We couldn’t possibly handle more of it; our maintenance department is already having trouble keeping up!”

And we also find that maintenance departments push back very hard against the idea of natural playgrounds. The reason? Lawn maintenance people love flat ground. They can bring in their gang mowers, zip through an area, be done in a short time, and be on to the next job in the blink of an eye. As soon as they see their flat ground being compromised, they fight back.

Also, when plants and other features are introduced, they see themselves spending more time than they have always allocated, and they see themselves doing more landscaping kinds of work than they typically do (or than they’re used to), so they fight back about that, as well.

So the first question is whether you want your maintenance department dictating the kinds of play and learning environments that are best for your children. Have they read the research on the benefits of children being in, touching, feeling, moving around in, and caring for the natural world?

Most likely, no, so please keep that in mind.

But getting back to the basic question: “What about maintenance?”

Behind the question are two implications: (1) that we haven’t thought about maintenance on natural playgrounds; and (2) that traditional, manufactured playgrounds are maintenance-free, so that therefore maintenance on the natural playground is going to be a new budget item.

What we find most interesting about people asking the question, is that after seeing our slide show, excitedly participating in the discussion about natural play, and ooing and ahhing over the photos of beautiful, challenging, exciting natural playgrounds, they choose to frame the maintenance question with negative overtones, and assume it’s going to be a real stumper.

So here’s our response.

Everything requires maintenance. We wash our bodies almost daily, we brush our teeth and cut our hair, we clean the bathtub, vacuum the house, and paint the porch. We mow lawns, pull weeds from gardens, edge our patios, repaint parking lot lines, and so on.

So no matter what kind of playground you have, there is always upkeep.

Will the maintenance cost more? The answer to that is below, so keep reading :))

One thing that is probably not been made clear to everyone, is that traditional playground equipment needs frequent inspections, and worn and out-of-code equipment needs to be replaced. Average life? 10-15 years, so if you spend $150,000 today on a new manufactured playground, you’ll be spending the same amount 15 years later, and then again 15 years after that, and so on, so you need to amortize the cost of that equipment over that 15 years, which means that you are spending $10,000 per year on maintenance/replacement. (these figures don’t account for inflation!)

Further, traditional manufactured equipment requires huge fall surfaces, whether it’s wood chips or rubber. Rubber has a very bad reputation (it gets extremely hot in the sun, enough to burn children, and it gives off toxic gases), and wood chips/engineered wood fiber breaks down and rots, so replacing or topping off these huge fall zones is very expensive every year.

Natural playgrounds don’t break down, and they don’t go out of code. Further, fall zones are very, very small, so replacing the wood chips in them every once in a while requires a very small expenditure.

So let’s break it down. First of all, everything needs maintenance. We’ve established that the “maintenance” budget for typical, traditional playgrounds is quite high.

Will the maintenance of a natural playground push your maintenance department to the limit?

Well, no, not really. They can actually be a maintenance dream! These are natural play environments, after all, so there are lots of great options, the first of which is the best:

• You can just let them grow and do what they do! After all, they’re supposed to be natural environments, just like what you might come across if you were out for a walk in the woods or in a field. So don’t do any maintenance at all, or do as little as you can get away with (with the exception of replacing fall zone material and using a preservative on the wooden elements).

• You can get the local garden club to work with the kids to maintain the butterfly garden, or contact the Master Gardeners Club in your state. Members have to donate a certain amount of hours every year, so they might as well donate those hours to you and your natural play and learning environment.

• You can set aside half a day in the fall and spring as a work day/maintenance day for the entire school, organized by students, with parent volunteers helping out. Can you imagine the organizational and work skills the kids will learn, and how proud they’ll be of their accomplishments?

• Natural playgrounds are outdoor classrooms, so each class can learn and do what it takes to care for a corner of their world. You have no idea how excited children get working with their hands, trimming, raking, replanting, watering, etc.

So the real, bottom line question is: Where would you rather have your children spending time? In a dead zone where nothing is alive (manufactured playgrounds full of plastic, rubber, and metal)?

Or in an area full of life: the Natural Playground?

• Which is going to make them better people in the long run?
• Which is going to give them the gift of understanding and appreciating nature?
• Which is going to calm them and make them less stressed?
• Which is going to prepare them to be stewards of our fragile planet?
• Which is going to help them integrate numerous sensory inputs?

With the decreasing time children are allowed to spend outdoors and in touch with the natural world, our natural playgrounds sometimes provide the ONLY opportunity children have to be with nature, so the experience ought to be the best it can be: full of life, of things waking and sleeping, of insects and moss, of birds and butterflies, of things that can be discovered, of quiet places, of challenges, of things that don’t break, but just keep adapting, of things that stimulate thought, of things that are beautiful.

If an adult/maintenance person does not want to understand the value of nature and its ability to heal us fragile humans, they will rally behind any number of arguments, the meanings of which are truly irrelevant and very uncreative.

The argument about maintenance fits in that category.

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