KNOXVILLE (WATE) - For many of us growing up, the playground consisted of big, bright, metal and plastic equipment.
A new study at the University of Tennessee's Early Learning Center may change how we think about playgrounds.
Climbing tires and chasing butterflies. It's something six-year-old Milo Hartmann does on a new natural playground.
"I like it because most playgrounds don't have waterfalls and stuff," said Milo.
The Early Learning Center had a traditional playground last year when the director, Dr. Sean Durham, decided to give the play setting a new look.
After researching he learned there was a need to connect children to nature.
"Nature deficit disorder -- that our children are plugged in, looking at screens, staying indoors and not playing outdoors like they were even 40 years ago," said Dr. Durham.
Besides getting kids out off the couch, he says, when kids connect with the environment they are more likely to take care of it in the future. To build that connection the playground includes everything from fallen trees and stumps to a nature trail, waterfall and tree house.
Dr. Dawn Coe, with UT's Department of Kinesiology, says the natural-setting not only seems to help kids become more interested in nature, it may make them more active. She's conducting a study on the playground to find out.
"They were doing a lot of aerobic activity before, where they were running around. Now it seems they are doing some aerobic, and then bone and muscle strengthening activities because there's a lot of climbing and jumping," said Dr. Coe.
Level accelerometers are used to measure the children's activity. They are strapped onto the child's stomach and measure the length and intensity of the children's movement.
For the study, Dr. Coe measured the children's activity level on the traditional playground and the new natural playground. Not all of the data has been analyzed, but from her observation she believes children are more active.
"I've noticed the kids are engaging more with each other. It seems like too they are running around and playing a lot more," said Dr. Coe.
Dr. Coe has also observed the children interacting more. Some parents, like Hillary Fouts, have even seen an increase in their child's imagination.
"They have these very elaborate play scenarios," said Fouts. "One day they are tigers, or one day they are wolves or on some quest, so they are really using this space in interesting ways."
Most importantly, some kids like Milo Hartmann just find the natural playground to be more fun.
When asked which playground he preferred, Milo said he liked the new natural playground "because there's more space, but there are more things to do on this playground."
Dr. Coe will be finished analyzing all the data in a couple of weeks. The director of the early learning center hopes their natural play setting can become a model of the future playground.
He says the natural playground is also less costly and reduces the risk of injury compared to traditional playgrounds.