Videos by Zach Delaune. Text by Jennifer Palmer.
Gathering Place, Tulsa’s extraordinary new park, isn’t just a fun place to play. The project was meticulously designed to keep kids learning and stimulate brain development in several important ways.
The park is the brainchild of Tulsa oil and banking billionaire George Kaiser, and his foundation developed and provided more than half of the $465 million used for the project. It’s one of the largest philanthropic gifts to a municipality. The George Kaiser Family Foundation gave the park to the River Parks Authority, a city and county agency, and set up a $100 million endowment for maintenance.
The space was designed by Michael Van Valkenburgh, who also created Brooklyn Bridge Park and Maggie Daley Park in Chicago. Gathering Place contains 350 pieces of playground equipment, including the grand towers and bridges and a 26-foot-tall tunnel slide, made by Richter Spielgerate GmbH. It’s the German company’s first playground in Oklahoma and the largest it has ever created.
Gathering Place’s playground is mammoth, with 350 total pieces of play equipment including a 26-foot tunnel slide. There are also sport courts for basketball, volleyball, soccer or hockey, and a skate park.
Scientists are recognizing the importance of play just as many schools are squeezing play time out of the school day, with shorter or fewer opportunities for recess and more academic instruction and testing in even the youngest grades.
Research has found just how essential play is to a developing brain. When researchers deprived young rats of play, the rats were more aggressive and anti-social due to their underdeveloped brains. When rats were given play-rich environments, with toys and opportunities for physical activity, the rats had greater emotional control and more playful, social interactions with others.
Modern-day childhood is so devoid of play, a new study in the American Academy of Pediatrics suggests physicians should begin writing prescriptions for play!
Tall, castle-like towers, suspension bridges and interactive water areas are designed to spark the imagination. “Free play,” where children make up games without organized sports or rule books, actually connects the neurons at the front end of a child’s developing brain, helping regulate emotions and stimulates problem solving, according to Canadian researcher Sergio Pellis.
When playing, children develop social skills like taking turns, playing fairly and not hurting each other, and these skills have been shown to predict academic performance years later, one study released in 2000 found.
Make-believe games have also been found to improve children’s self-regulation, such as reducing aggression and improving the ability to delay gratification, be civil and empathize, researchers have found. Through unstructured play with others, children develop skills that help them plan, prioritize, negotiate and multitask – important life skills.
Nearly 5,790 trees were planted during construction, and an arborist was brought in to preserve as many as existing ones as possible. The “reading tree” is the oldest and largest cottonwood in the park. All that time spent in nature benefits children, research shows.
Children today have replaced much of their playtime with screens; on average children ages 8 to 18 spend more than seven and a half hours a day on electronic devices, according to a 2010 survey by the Henry J. Kaiser Family Foundation.
Sun exposure creates vitamin D and plays an important role in a healthy immune system, as well as improving sleep and mood, according to the National Institutes of Health. Kids who are healthy are less likely to miss school.
Children surrounded with green spaces, particularly at school, had better short-term memory, according to a 2015 study of students in Spain.
Water and Science
Pumping water with an old-fashioned farm pump and practicing cause-and-effect with the playground’s water play area infuses physical activity with science. None of the water in the park is activated by simply pushing a button, said Chelsea Hoffman, a representative of Richter. That reinforces the scientific concepts of input and output, as well as demonstrating that water is a precious commodity.
Young children don’t have enough opportunities to experience science concepts before school, research shows, and by elementary school science instruction comprises a much smaller portion of the school day compared to English and math (less than three hours a week, or 9 percent of instructional time, among third graders, according to a report by the National Center for Education Statistics.)
Yet one study published in the journal Developmental Psychology found kindergarteners’ understanding of the world around them was the strongest predictor of science and reading achievement and contributed to math scores later on.