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Playgrounds: More Than Fun and Games

Long a favorite of many kids' day, time on the playground helps students develop important skills they need in school and in life.

by June Allan Corrigan


Who hasn’t heard at least one child say his favorite subject is recess? While that kind of statement tends to elicit wry smiles and small sighs from concerned adults, it’s not actually a reason to be discouraged. Kids think recess is all fun and games, and it is—but it’s also so much more. Time on the playground gives children a chance to gain social and physical skills as well as to develop emotionally and cognitively. It’s an essential part of their school day.

Just ask Catherine L. Ramstetter, a health educator who has studied recess in schools across the country. In December 2012, the American Academy of Pediatrics released a policy statement she coauthored that called recess crucial for kids. According to Ramstetter’s research, rather than withhold recess as a punishment or, worse, curtail it as some schools have done in the race for higher academic scores, schools should treat it as an absolute necessity. “If you really want to create a mind that’s ripe and a brain that’s ready to bring in new information, there needs to be a physical break from what you’re doing as you move into new or even more difficult cognitive tasks,” she says.

The message for parent groups, who are often the ones overseeing a new design or the revamping of a school playground (along with most, if not all, of the fundraising), is that it’s important to provide as positive a playground experience as possible. Quite naturally, schools and parents seek to spend their money wisely on the best of what’s out there to realize a playground’s full potential. The difficulty lies in knowing what options to choose.

All the tools you need for a well-planned playground project

Key Components

“Anything with movement is so vital and important on a playground,” says Teri Hendy, cochair of the National Playground Safety Institute’s curriculum committee. She’s been actively involved as a design and safety consultant to the school playground and park and recreation industries for the past 20 years. In her experience, teachers and parents tend to choose items that appeal to them while administrators gravitate toward equipment that’s easy to maintain. Swings, for example, often get caught in the crossfire. Parents want them, but administrators don’t like that they take up a lot of space and require maintenance.

“But swings are so incredibly important in the overall development of a child,” Hendy says. “Neurologically, things are happening when a child is swinging. They’re developing a sense of balance and coordination.” Socially, they’re also learning to be patient and how to share while waiting their turn on a swing because demand usually far outstrips supply.

Slides also help kids learn to take turns, and a good playground offers a variety—straight, twisty, and tubelike. When kids have to figure out how to navigate varying pieces of equipment, it challenges them intellectually. Climbing structures are especially useful for providing problem-solving opportunities because generally, there’s no single way to reach the top. Kids have to think about where to put their hands, where to put their feet, and often how to move sideways. “Cognitive development occurs when they have to think about their route of travel,” Hendy says.

When kids master new skills on the playground, emotional payoffs quickly follow. There’s no discounting the pride a 2nd grader feels when she first walks across a balance beam unassisted. Her self-confidence receives a big boost that spills over into other aspects of her life. And if she received help from a fellow classmate while practicing, this adds a social dimension, the value of cooperative play. This happens all the time on playgrounds, such as when children give others a push to get swings started or taller kids lift shorter ones up to reach horizontal bars. Some pieces of equipment by their very nature require several children in order to function; think of a merry-go-round or some of its more modern interpretations, like rotating net climbers.

Hendy is adamant that playgrounds should provide lots of opportunities for kids to develop their upper-body strength. “It’s really important, even at very young ages, for kids to have the opportunity to reach up, lift their feet off the ground, feel what it’s like to support their upper-body weight, and then put their feet back on the ground,” she says. Track rides and horizontal ladders are perfect examples of devices aimed at helping kids accomplish this physical skill that many may never develop in their lifetime if they don’t first do so at age 5 or 6.

Compelling Alternatives

Play structures featuring the latest bells and whistles are wonderful additions and typically grab a lot of attention on a playground, but what if there’s little room or money for one? There are plenty of other ways kids can play at recess that will help them gain social and physical skills as well as develop emotionally and cognitively.

Third-grade teacher Colin Rork sees it all the time at the Easley, S.C., school where he’s taught for the past 14 years. Even though Hunt Meadows Elementary has always had a centerpiece play structure, many kids routinely bypass it altogether. “A fair number of kids congregate there, but just as many go elsewhere,” he says. There’s a group that always heads for the swings. Another batch likes to sit by the playground supervisor and draw or play games, while a whole group of boys consistently plays seasonal sports—first football, then kickball followed by basketball. “The kids pretty much use all our playground, all grades. When I look out there, the whole place is covered. It’s not like everybody is in one spot. They’re all doing different things,” Rork says.

Safe, well-constructed equipment like swings and play structures are just part of the overall picture. Playground markings for group games such as hopscotch and foursquare and having well-maintained, pick-up-and-go play equipment like balls and jump ropes available also lead children to engage in a more physically active recess, according to Ramstetter. “Simply playing tag or coming up with games on their own doesn’t seem to happen as much...but it can with a little bit of encouragement and instruction at the beginning of the year.” Volunteers can step in or a curriculum can be purchased. “These are options a PTO can provide at little to no expense,” she says.

Never overlook the value of a child’s imagination, either. Hendy firmly believes in having some equipment that’s nondescript or without a theme so that kids can create their own world. Some examples include a simple beam where they can imagine they’re walking a pirate’s plank while perfecting balance technique or an enclosure or cubby where they can play house and practice the social skills inherent to that environment. It doesn’t have to be fancy. A couple of adjacent platforms with another on top constitutes a playhouse. “It’s really important to provide things that can become a springboard for a child’s imagination,” Hendy says.

Carving out quiet space is just as valuable. Some kids need an area that’s a bit removed from the general hustle and bustle of the playground where they can sit and talk or pursue quieter pastimes, like playing jacks. It might be a bench with some vegetation surrounding it or a corner of the playground away from basketball hoops and other rigorous games. “Maybe they’re not feeling well that day, maybe they just want to watch. Having an opportunity to sit down and have a conversation, a place to simply hang out, sometimes kids really need that,” Hendy says.

Staying in Sync

As technology threatens to overwhelm us, it’s never been more important for kids to stay physically active and engage with one another face-to-face. Electronics can still find a home on the playground, however. Hendy would love to see areas develop where kids could plug in their devices to play music and dance. “A good way to get 5th and 6th grade girls moving is to give them an opportunity to dance,” she says. “They’ll dance the entire recess. Some boys will, too.” Teacher Rork already taps that option when rainy days mandate indoor recess. He allows dance-off contests or similar activities to take place in his classroom.

Yet despite all the hand-eye coordination that students may learn on a laptop or smartphone, nothing replaces the actual physical skills they master on a playground. “Kids need to manipulate their environment and to experience their body going through spaces,” Hendy says. She offers the example of a climbing net, which can be quite strenuous on a child’s body as she endeavors to make it to the top. “There’s a real sense of accomplishment unlike any other when they do get there...and they will.”

Maybe Ramstetter sums it up best when she says it’s essential to give children a time to practice and to engage in free play in a safe environment. “They need every opportunity to explore their physical health, their social health, their emotional health, and their intellectual health,” she says.

School playgrounds give children those opportunities to develop, whether they choose to scale a rock-climbing wall or simply sit on a bench and talk with friends.

The Benefits of Play

Numerous research studies have found that children are doing a lot more than playing during recess, including “A Research-Based Case for Recess” published by the U.S. Play Coalition. Here’s a summary of some of the benefits of play.

Physical Benefits

  • Developing fine- and gross-motor skills
  • Improving flexibility
  • Increasing ability to balance

Emotional Benefits

  • Building self-confidence and self-esteem
  • Learning conflict resolution
  • Practicing risk-taking in a safe environment

Social Benefits

  • Learning to cooperate and compromise
  • Learning self-control
  • Developing relationships

Cognitive Benefits

  • Developing language and reasoning skills
  • Learning problem-solving and decisionmaking skills
  • Gaining increased ability to focus

Source: International Play Equipment Manufacturers Association

Originally posted in 2013 and updated regularly.

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