The playground…a lot of people have very specific memories of their school years and what it meant to go to the playground for “recess”. For most, it was a short time following lunch, and it was the one chance to blow off steam, run, holler, and just be a kid. Though times have changed, the classic experience of recess hasn’t.
In fact, the timelessness of recess and playgrounds has drawn attention in recent years because these spaces are being eliminated in some areas, and the results are shocking. This is why more and more childhood developmental experts strongly advocate for a recess or lunchtime break, and for access to a safe and well-planned playground, too.
Not All Are Alike
Of course, in any situation where opinions and facts meet, there are bound to be controversies, and while many people have only the most positive memories of their childhood years at the playground, others paint a less favorable picture. Some people might have been bullied, as an example, and this is a topic of great concern in the modern era. Some people may have felt excluded by peers during recess, and here too there might be a bit of “pooh-poohing” about the need for playgrounds and/or recess.
However, the facts are the facts, and almost all childhood experts would agree that playgrounds, playtime, recess, and unstructured activities are essential to both physical and mental wellbeing in a child. What is so astonishing is that these facts apply to children at all ages – from 0-5 and from kindergarten to high school – the developing child needs to play!
The Need for Playgrounds of All Kinds
What is interesting about playgrounds is that they can be found in many styles and many settings. There are the rural elementary school playgrounds that contain enormous stretches of grass and trees with standard playground equipment, like swings and climbing bars. Then, there are the rural playgrounds that might be limited to a large and fenced in space with some equipment and little else. And then, there are playgrounds built as part of a community and not affiliated with a school at all. These may be part of a subdivision, a community center, or even a childcare facility.
The playground could be full of fixed gear and other equipment, sandy areas, water features, and more. Or, the playground might be a few outdated swing sets surrounded by a large fence and offering nothing but pavement. What makes this set of facts so fascinating is that even the most bare bones playground still provides benefits – far more benefits than staying indoors!
So, are all of these playgrounds helpful to kids? Do they really “need” a playground? We have already indicated that if you ask an expert about the need for a playground, most will come up with a substantial list of reasons identifying precisely why all kids must have playgrounds. Unfortunately, as we also stated, the playground is also at risk. For instance, “In Milwaukee, an ordinance requiring all new elementary schools to have outdoor play spaces was recently put on hold…” (Hammond, 2012) due to complications with a nearby charter school. However, this is not an isolated incident and many schools are wondering if there is a purpose or need for playgrounds and recess.
To demonstrate how essential, vital and necessary these places are, we are going to consider seventy-seven different reasons that seek to explain just why it is that playgrounds should remain a steadfast fixture in any school or community. We’ll look at them under specific headings, starting with what the research and “experts” have discovered, and then looking at such things as their health benefits, their societal benefits, and more.
When you reach the end of this list, you will no longer wonder whether or not playgrounds are necessary and will probably want to be sure your community has plenty of them for each child in the area!
The Experts Agree That Playgrounds Are Essential
- Research as far back as 1885 proves that learners fare better when breaks are incorporated into their efforts.
- Albert Einstein said that, “Play is the highest form of research.”
- The “Novelty-Arousal Theory” indicates that people function better when they experience a change of pace. (Ross, 2012) This means that kids with conditions such as ADHD respond better to classroom learning after a change of pace – such as time on a playground.
- One study on playgrounds and their impact on the development of children ages 0-5, determined, “Playing promotes brain development and helps lay the neural grid for a successful mind through repetitive play actions that reinforce that grid.” (Duerr, 2014)
- Author Tom Norquist wrote about the correlation between our current generation’s inventors and inventions and their ability to play freely on playgrounds, and the seeming disconnect in the minds of modern educators. In other words, why, the author wonders, is it seemingly forgotten that it is unstructured play that has such an impact on intelligence, education, and social skills?
- One study demonstrated that, “Children became more on task and less fidgety on days when they had recess,” and this held true for kids with attention disorders as well as children without such disorders. (Ross, 2012)
- Studies have demonstrated that physically active students have improved academic performance and easily obtained higher test scores as well as developing a far better outlook toward school.
Playgrounds Have Health Benefits
- Immune function is improved by exposure to sunlight, and even half an hour on a playground triggers the body’s reaction.
- Swings provide a lot of physical development that includes grasping, balance, landing, jumping, pushing, turning, rhythm, pectoral muscle use, and more.
- Playgrounds are a prime location for allowing kids to maintain and build cardiovascular endurance and health.
- Research continually demonstrates that kids who are physically active in school are also likely to be physically active at home.
- Playgrounds provide a place for “full body” workouts that include exercises to strengthen the arms, legs, torso, shoulders, and so on. The cardiovascular system, circulatory system, and neurological system of the child are nurtured, too.
- “Overhead equipment” such as “horizontal monkey bars” and “jungle gym” equipment enhances upper body strength while targeting skills such as grip strength, coordination, hand-eye coordination, visual perception, and more.
- The pineal gland is stimulated by daylight, and this regulates a child’s biological clock. (Ross, 2012)
- Daily exercise in a playground can do wonders for reducing the risks of obesity or helping a child to lose weight.
- Physical activity also stimulates brain activity, and improves circulation to the blood vessels in the brain. This brings water, oxygen, and glucose to the brain at a higher rate than it does to the brain of the sedentary child.
Development Is Supported by Playgrounds
- Cognitive development from the use of swings includes problem solving, dramatic imagination, and mental representation. The swings are also responsible for helping with sensory stimulation. (Frost, 2004)
- Sunlight (gained from time on playgrounds) stimulates the body to make Vitamin D, which is important to development, as well as learning.
- “Studies show that children ages 3-5 require certain kinds of large motor equipment for optimal development…” and this is often found in a playground setting. (Frost, 2004)
- The equipment in playgrounds helps children of any age level to develop motor skills.
- The man who created the very first kindergarten, in 1837 said that playtime was deeply significant to the development of any child. (Bornstein, 2011)
- Young kids have a less developed nervous system and cannot process information as relentlessly as adults. Sitting in classrooms for several hours without any break can lead to wasted time in the classroom.
- The playground is becoming the last refuge of healthy overall development (social, cognitive, and emotional).
- Any playgrounds with options for sand or water play ensure that sensory experiences and development occur. The need to touch, the opportunity to master materials, and the pure tactile experiences are engaged.
- The decline of playgrounds has a known link to behavioral problems, ADHD, and to “stunted” cognitive, social, and creative development. (Hammond, 2012)
- Climbing equipment stimulates cognitive skills like memory, problem solving, and visualization. It puts to use the perceptual motor skills and increases fitness ability. It enhances body and spatial awareness, and develops most of the motor skills.
Playgrounds Have a Profound Emotional Impact
- “Unstructured physical play reduces stress”, and stress has a measurably negative effect on learning and health. (Ross, 2012)
- Research has shown that, “One of the best predictors of whether kids feel happy in school is whether they feel comfortable and competent during recess.” (Bornstein, 2011)
- Happiness is a byproduct of outdoor play on a playground, and thus “joy begets joy” when kids can continually head outdoors to explore, learn, and grow.
- Mastering the different apparatuses on a playground will provide a child with physical challenges, but will also ensure that self-confidence and self-esteem are boosted, too.
- The unstructured nature of playground time allows children to retain a sense of control that is not available in many other parts of their lives. (Ross, 2012)
- “Kids bully and misbehave more when they aren’t busy with better things” (Bornstein, 2011), and modern playgrounds are becoming locations where children are too stimulated to become bullies.
Playgrounds Open the Door to Imagination
- Playgrounds provide kids with playtime unencumbered by pre-conceived stories, characters, and plot lines. Instead, kids make up the rules, the story, and engage fully in the creative process of play.
- Playgrounds provide a sense of security and yet allow any child complete freedom – of imagination as well as physical freedom.
- Imaginary play is guaranteed whenever a child is on a playground, and this in turn fosters the growth of individual imagination, problem solving, and personal development.
Playgrounds Show Kids the Value of Community
- Playground advocates note that social interaction benefits society as a whole because they are locations where kids of any race, age, and economic status can socialize and play. This prevents poor parental attitudes from impairing a child’s sense of self and the world.
- New organizations, such as a firm called Playworks, have formed to train playtime coaches. One of the things they learn is what to do when children of different ethnicities are not playing together. (Bornstein, 2011)
- The shift in family models (many children with ages ranging from infant to early teen) has altered substantially, and the siblings that could once serve as teachers are no longer the “norm”. To learn about leadership, cooperation, and play means doing so among peers rather than within the sibling group. Playgrounds are the ideal spot for this sort of personal growth.
- Playgrounds are one of the few places open to children that are not limited by income – rich and poor kids can all meet, play, and learn from one another without adult interference in the playground setting.
- “Neighborhoods” may no longer be social settings for kids, and the playground may be the only chance for “non-school” or after school social interaction with peers.
Recess Is Another Learning Opportunity
- Schools are trying to maximize every second of instruction in order to improve student test scores, and this is why some are implementing “coaches” that teach kids how to enjoy productive playtime. They use this same approach to curb recess bullying.
- Playgrounds are known to be so important that some city schools arrange for street closures at specific times of day to allow kids to be able to run around freely in front of their schools during recess.
- Training of playtime coaches reminds most that the experiences they had as children on playgrounds remain fresh in their minds well into their adult lives. This proves to many the significance of happy and healthy recess experiences.
Playgrounds Teach Kids About Nature
- Sand and water features are known for their therapeutic benefits such as calming, anxiety reduction, and positive emotional expression.
- Nature is something that children may experience less and less as electronics take over playtime. Playgrounds can promote a sense of curiosity and even wonder at the natural world. At the very least, they can help kids to develop appreciation of nature.
- Research has demonstrated that “contact with nature may be as important for children as good nutrition and sleep.” (Gillian, 2013)
- Materials such as sand, water, and gardens are viewed as indispensable to child development. These are all things frequently found at the playground.
- Nature is the perfect classroom, and playgrounds can be used to teach kids about everything from science and math to vocabulary and poetry.
Playgrounds Are Not Strictly for the School’s Students
- Teachers who provide at-home learning, who teach in charter schools, or who do not have access to traditional playgrounds consider them “essential” to the learning process and often rely on local resources to provide kids with access. (McSorley, 2013)
- Playgrounds provide a safe space designed to nurture play between a child and their peers, but also play with caregivers or even alone.
- In order to optimize learning during and after school hours (particularly for the youngest learners) parents and communities must see “playgrounds as a public educational good, just as we do schools, libraries, and museums.” (McSorley, 2013)
- Playgrounds provide a free and instant “go to” solution when a group or family needs something to do outdoors on a nice day.
- Playgrounds are such an important urban resource that many cities now have “apps” that allow parents to find all of the playgrounds, read reviews, and even get details about play groups and more.
- Playgrounds are not meant strictly for school age kids but for kids as young as a year in age. When designed properly they will support the growth of the intellect, body, and the brain.
Children Are Encouraged by a Playground
- Learning and play cannot be divided one from the other, as, “Any early childhood educator will tell you, play is how children make sense of the world.” (Hammond, 2012)
- All of the senses are engaged by outdoor play on a playground.
- Observational skills are enhanced by lessons and playtime outdoors on playgrounds.
- Playtime is not a luxury, according to author Kay Redfield Jamison, it is a necessity. (Garcia, 2013)
- Recess and playgrounds give all children (particularly those with hyperactivity) a chance to “blow off steam” productively and safely.
- Playgrounds allow children a chance to learn how to work as their own arbiters, and across age, race, and gender barriers.
Modern Kids May Need to Learn How Much Fun It is to Go Outdoors!
- Playing outdoors has been shown to reduce anxiety, and children without any anxiety are known to have more focus and an increased attention span.
- Playgrounds provide a break from the pace of modern, daily lives, even when we don’t realize we needed that break.
Kids Make Their Own Playgrounds Even If Parents/Schools Do Not
- One teacher at a “playground-less school” expressed doubts about the school’s decision, and explained that the kids created their own playgrounds in unsafe ways – hanging from the underside of stairs, running around wildly until one or more get hurt, etc. (Hammond, 2012)
Kids Learn Life Skills at the Playground
- The swings provide opportunities for social development such as sharing and cooperation.
- Group play on playgrounds is not always about “winning” and can be, quite often, about teamwork. Kids will create obstacle courses, imagine different challenges, and work together to engage everyone in “the game”…whatever that might be.
- Children must master self-control to enjoy success at a playground, and this is a significant life lesson.
- Sand and water features help kids with sharing, negotiating, and engaging in group play.
- Good and bad experiences happen at the playground, and each of them helps a child to develop coping mechanisms and become a “well rounded” person. (Garcia, 2013)
- Schooling is supposed to reflect the type of people society hopes for children to become. If playgrounds and playtime are not part of that equation, it may send the wrong message about the kinds of qualities adults desire in their children. In other words, if we make playgrounds and playtime a part of the school experience, it lets children know we hope for them to be playful adults. (Bornstein, 2011)
- The modern world of electronics, “social” media, and computer tech has made it challenging for children to develop natural social skills.
- The word “play” does not mean simply running around. It is an activity that demands the “acquisition of a complex set of skills… making agreements with others as equals, stepping into an imagined structure, and accepting that structure even when things don’t go your way.” These are key life skills. (Bornstein, 2011)
- Diplomacy is something that almost any child can learn when negotiating the terms of play with a single or group of peers on a playground.
- Kids absorb knowledge through risk taking, exploring, and the consequences of their choices. Playgrounds provide a nearly fail-proof location for this important part of development.
- Conflict resolution is a common skill learned on a playground in early childhood. So, too, are resiliency and self-advocacy…”all of which can help children learn how to develop healthy relationships and to become leaders.” (Magher, 2014)
Playgrounds May Provide Solutions to Some Common Problems
- Too many modern children are being raised within a “scripted” model (too many activities and commitments from a very young age, and so on), and are unused to free time without adult controls. Playgrounds provide a safe and effective place for this sort of mental and physical freedom.
- In many areas, “Green space is giving way to development at an alarming rate,” and cutting back on any opportunities kids have for outdoor play. This has led to an epidemic of childhood obesity, as well as behavior-regulating medicines – and so playgrounds are seen as a natural solution to a list of growing problems. (Gillian, 2013)
- Optimal health demands physical activity on a daily basis, and modern playgrounds make it easier than ever for kids to just move, run, climb, jump, and more. Urban children or children without yards can always go to the playground for safe and healthy activities.
Playgrounds, as you now see, are more than just areas where kids can be kept busy or “go run around outside” for a while. They are a major part of development, and should be seen as vital to the community. If your school or hometown is contemplating whether or not to improve or build a playground, you now have a massive list of reasons to advocate for the very best playground possible.
Your children deserve these spaces, but so, too, does your entire community since playgrounds only help to make brighter futures for all who enjoy them.