When is a Hill Not Just a Hill?

A Chabad representative builds a natural playground for her Florida preschool


When is a Hill Not Just a Hill?

Playing in the natural playground

by Tzipora Reitman

May 7, 2019

Rivkah Denburg, Chabad emissary in Boca Raton and director of the Torah Tots preschool was leading parents on a tour of the grounds.  

“We’re making lemonade!” a preschooler called out gleefully. The three year-old and her little friends were hauling buckets filled with water and leaves which they took from the school’s etrog (citron) tree. Their senses stimulated by the strong citrus aroma, the children concocted a mixture that, according to their logic, would turn out to be lemonade.

“These are the kinds of imaginative play scenarios our natural playground lends itself to,” said Amy Weisman, Curriculum Director at Torah Tots. The “natural playground” that she’s referring to is a half-acre outdoor learning environment that the school created three years ago.

The natural playground is a living outdoor classroom where the children’s natural curiosity leads them to study caterpillars and collect millipedes. The playground uses materials like plants, boulders, logs, and earth mounds to provide a creative, interactive play experience. The environment facilitates the type of play that kept earlier generations occupied--a type of play that is becoming increasingly rare today.

“Children today spend a lot of time indoors, on screens, not connecting to nature,” said Denburg, who spearheaded the installation of the natural playground. She founded the Maurice A. Halperin Torah Tots Early Learning Center twenty years ago. “Even when they play outside, it is usually on plastic and metal, with rubberized surfaces, rather than on G-d’s natural earth.” Denburg observes that with the new playground the children, “can identify all types of insects and butterf

Instead of steel monkey bars and plastic swings, the natural playground at Torah Tots features a hill that children can tackle via a rock-climbing wall, steps, or just the old-fashioned way. It also has a “mud kitchen” stocked with pots, pans, and a water pump; easels and art supplies; a thriving vegetable garden; outdoor building blocks; a circle of tree stumps; and a music area—all designed to unleash children’s creativity.

When the playground at Torah Tots needed refurbishing, Denburg was determined to find an alternative to the traditional playground--one that would complement the school’s dedication to the Reggio Emilia philosophy of preschool education, which promotes experiential, student-centered learning and emphasizes the importance of bringing nature into the classroom. “Our old outdoor playground didn’t match our indoors,” Denburg said. “Plus, the children were bored. They were choosing to play with the mulch rather than go on the equipment.”

Denburg’s observations reflected current research, which indicates that rather than using typical playgrounds, children prefer traditional outdoor activities like jumping in leaves, climbing trees, searching for bugs, and constructing forts. A survey by the Children’s Play Council even found that eighty-six percent of children prefer outdoor activities to playing computer games.

Denburg researched leading preschools around the country and paid site visits to see natural playgrounds before selecting a New Hampshire company to design one for Torah Tots. The ten-week construction process was in itself a fascinating learning experience about bulldozers, backhoes, and dump trucks.

A hill made to climb

A Small Hill of Monumental Proportions

The playground’s “hill” takes on monumental importance, especially given South Florida’s flat terrain. “Offering multiple ways to climb the hill promotes risk-taking in ways the children would never discover on a plastic or metal surface,” Denburg explains. “Besides, remember rolling down hills as a child? Who does that anymore?”

“The Torah Tots playground is incredible!” says Sara Nachlas, parent of a four-year-old student. “It incorporates all five senses and allows the children to really engage and explore. I love it when my son bring home freshly picked peppers or herbs he helped plant in the garden!”

Weisman notes that the calming outdoor environment leads to fewer conflicts among children and lends itself to conflict resolution. “As students engage in authentic child-directed play on the natural playground, they practice the social and emotional skills they need to get through life.” It also allows them to forge multi-age connections beyond age-specific classrooms.

At a cost of $250,000 to demolish the existing playground and install the new one, the natural playground was a pricey proposition. A thirty-six-hour fundraising campaign generated more than $150,000. The Golden family were lead donors with a gift in memory of Cheryl Kari Golden.

All that investment has paid off. The natural playground has inspired the admiration of educators in the area. Marilyn Nachman, Director of School Educational Services for the Jewish Federation of Palm Beach County, calls Torah Tots and its natural playground “a shining star in our community.”

“It’s so unique, you must see it to appreciate its brilliance,” she says.”The way the children interact and all the learning that takes place there--it’s not just a playground. It’s an outdoor learning environment.”

Back on the playground, the children were busy in the mud kitchen, re-enacting what they had just learned about our forefather Abraham’s famed hospitality towards his guests. After meticulously mixing the sand and water to achieve just the right consistency, the children carefully served mud pie to a visitor.

“It’s delicious,” promised the three-year-old chef.

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