When you think of a playground, you may remember seeing a happy, rambunctious environment full of fun and laughter. Behind the giggles and smiles, there’s much more happening behind the scenes that make playgrounds a vital part of a community, school or youth center. There are important physical, social and cognitive benefits that come from unstructured play on a playground. They are an essential tool in childhood development. Let’s take a look at some of the benefits:
When we ask children why they run, jump or swing they tell us “because it’s fun.” But when we ask play researchers, “Why is climbing play, swinging play and other kinds of play important?” They give us a different and deeper answer. Research shows outdoor play is necessary to help children be physically fit and healthy. During play, they are learning reflexes and movement control, developing fine and gross motor skills and increasing flexibility and balancing skills. Physical activity like swinging, climbing or running helps to build stronger muscles and improves bone density. It enhances heart and lung function and fights obesity, diabetes and high cholesterol.
A playground is one the best opportunities for children to have fun and be healthy at the same time. Time spent outdoors on a playground is also time spent away from screens. There are many studies linking excessive screen time to poor physical and emotional health in children. Making outdoor play a part of a daily routine can be an important step toward putting your children on a path to good physical health.
Many people ask us, “What are the emotional benefits associated with playgrounds?” It’s a good question because the physical benefits are easily recognized, but sometimes the emotional benefits are more difficult to see. Research points to three areas where play helps children develop emotionally: building self-confidence and esteem; experimenting with various emotions; and releasing stressful or traumatic emotions.
Self-Confidence and Self-Esteem
Playgrounds often have climbers and activities of varying skill levels. The greater the skill required, the higher perceived risk in the mind of a child. Overcoming these “risks” as children tackle the taller ladder, or more challenging climber helps to develop a sense of accomplishment that leads to higher self-esteem. Free play also encourages children to develop skills that build self-confidence, such as conflict resolution and imaginative dramatic play. Social development with children—and the ability to play on their own—are also important factors in building self-confidence.
Experimenting with Emotions
Pretend play and make believe are wonderful ways to engage a child’s imagination, but they also allow children to express a wide range of emotions. Research shows that children use free play to express their emotions and learn to deal with their fears and scary experiences. It allows children to fully express themselves without anyone or anything holding them back. Equipment like tunnels or enclosed spaces encourages discovery and experimentation. As children use their imagination and pretend play to experience different feelings and outcomes, they are better equipped to manage these emotions in their daily life. Research shows preschoolers, for example, develop emotional strength and stability and older children develop spontaneity and a sense of humor.
Releasing Stressful or Traumatic Emotions
Encouraging children to express themselves emotionally during play is just as important as encouraging good physical health. Play is proven to be therapeutic for children who are emotionally distressed from traumatic situations like child abuse, family disruptions and/or the experience of natural disaster or war. Studies show that when playing, children can release emotions and “play out” their traumas so they can share feelings freely.
One of the main reasons children they look forward to play is because it gives them a chance to visit with friends outside of school, meet new peers and play fun and imaginary games that they might not be able to play at home. The playground is the perfect place for this
On a playground you’ll discover a complex social network where kids learn valuable everyday life lessons about interacting with others, social norms and gaining independence. Playgrounds are also a key place for children to develop relationship-building skills in a fun environment.
Creating spaces for children to play by themselves is an important aspect of playground design. While some people may see “alone time” as an anti-social behavior, solitary play helps kids socially, as it develops a strong sense of independence, promotes creativity and imagination and alleviates boredom when they devise their own entertainment. When a child plays alone on the playground, they can also learn social cues by observing other kids’ interactions without being part of them.
Group play is equally important as solitary play. Playing with others helps children learn social roles and cultural rules, develop the appropriate cooperation skills and familiarize themselves with a shared system of symbols, including verbal and body language. Group play isn’t just kids having fun with one another—it’s teaching them about real-life relationships. When children develop and test relationships, they learn self-control and negotiation skills. They also learn independence and acceptable group activities to build on as they grow up. Group play helps children prepare for a lifetime of interacting with others.
Social Playground Equipment
“How can I make a playground more social?” This is a question we hear more often as parents look for ways to create social interaction during play. Research shows both group interaction and social development can take place on the playground when the right playground equipment is in place: platforms and decks provide children with places to congregate; bridges and ramps provide kids with opportunities to play games; swings and slides encourage kids to learn to take turns; and tunnels and roof-covered areas encourage group games and pretend play.
Playing on a playground plays a vital role in a child’s social skill development. Through play and fun, children learn lessons that provide a foundation to grow into socially-adjusted adults.
Inclusion is a Value for Life
Inclusion is an important value that children learn from the playground. Research has shown that children assign value to those who they “think” they can play with and those they cannot. Their perception is that those who play are contributors, and those who don’t play are not. Therefore, children with disabilities who are prevented from playing on playgrounds—because of non-inclusive equipment or surfacing—are already facing the disadvantage of being recognized by their peers as having a lesser value than the children that are playing. Unfortunately, the “contributor status” often carries on through adulthood. Making sure playground equipment and surfacing is accessible for kids of all abilities is a key way to ensure children develop social skills and achieve critical peer status on equal ground.
A wide variety of experts agree play is essential for a child’s brain development. Studies show free play affects neurological development and determines how the neural circuits of the brain are wired. In other words, free play affects a child’s confidence, intelligence and ability to articulate.
Brain and Skill Development
Play helps children develop language and reasoning skills, encourages autonomous thinking and problem solving, as well as improvement in the ability to focus and control behavior. Play aids children to learn discovery and develop verbal and manipulative skills, judgment and reasoning and creativity. Play experiences teach children about cause and effect or consequences and risk. This is an important skill as children grow up and face tougher decisions in life.
Cognitive Play Equipment
While kids are swinging, running around or climbing on a play structure, cognitive development is taking place. According to research, swings help kids learn perceptual processes and body awareness; decorative barriers and activity panels, like a tic-tac-toe panel, improve children’s perception of form and shape, spatial orientation, depth and size and their visual and tactile perception; and overhead hanging equipment, like hanging rings and monkey bars, helps kids learn scientific concepts such as force of gravity and spatial awareness.
So Much More Than Fun and Games
Playgrounds are a fun, exciting place for children and families to gather together for recreation, but as you can see they are much more than a place to play. Within every climber, slide and swing; behind every laugh, shout and smile are countless benefits that improve quality of life for children now and for the rest of their lives.