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How playgrounds make kids smarter (and why parents should get really mad about boring playgrounds)

Do you remember that time on the playground when you were little when Billy fell off the monkey bars and broke his arm? Or how much you hated when Jennifer would jump off the seesaw while you were up on top—but still you would let her ride with you again the next day. Or the feeling of the swing when you got going so high the ropes went temporarily slack and for a fraction of a second you were flying?

My children are not likely to know any of these experiences; not with today’s trends in playgrounds. Playgrounds today are boring. Some researchers are saying that these boring playgrounds—without swings, teeter totters, tall climbing equipment, or free spinning merry-go-rounds— may actually be more dangerous. At least in the long-term as they make it hard for kids to overcome reasonable fears. And, in my experience, kids who don’t play on playgrounds with some level of challenge and danger, are actually at greater risk when they do go to old-fashioned playgrounds. Indeed, I find that kids at the local boring playgrounds around here create risks. (No tall climbing structure? No problem… we will scale the electric box, up to that pole, and voila there the 10 year old is on the roof of the school. Only baby swings? Watch me throw this swing over the top until it is stuck, jump up, and hang from the top bar.)

These physical risks aren’t the only problem with boring playgrounds, says childhood development expert, pediatric occupational therapist, and founder of Zone-In, Cris Rowan, who says that a “playground is the most essential component for learning.”

2 girls playground pink modern teetertotter playground

This is a pretty stunning statement at a time with schools are spending more and more on classroom media (all without any evidence to show its benefits and lots to show harm) and less and less on playgrounds, outdoor equipment, and outdoor learning opportunities. Not only are playgrounds essential for learning, not having outdoor time to play and participate in challenging movements can prevent child from developing normally. A child needs daily “move, touch, human connection, and exposure to nature.” Indeed, “children need 3 to 4 hours a day of unstructured rough and tumble play,” to ensure they are getting the foundation of what they need to grow and succeed.

Cris Rowan often works with entire communities or schools to figure out what can be done to help encourage play on a community level. She says it isn’t unusual to find that there are no playgrounds in an area that meet the needs of children over 6.  Her research and experience shows that swings, merry-go-rounds, and tall slides are fast disappearing from playgrounds because of licensing requirements and safety fears. Yet, when she asks older kids why they don’t play on the existing playgrounds, the answer is some version of because they are boring.

What do older kids want on playgrounds? Exactly what they need: swings, climbing equipment, tall slides, merry-go-rounds, and other equipment that challenges them. The vestibular, proprioceptive and tactile sensory systems for the “foundation for all fine and gross motor activities, including printing, reading and sports.” See below to see how a good playground develops these in children.

By the way, really successful playgrounds also have ways of engaging adults. What mom wants to sit in the rain watching while her kid plays? Is it any wonder that even on sunny days, North America moms sit down and take out their cellphones. We all know it isn’t good modelling, and some cities and communities are getting smart. They are putting in exercise equipment for parents. And/or, covered benches, fire pits, and fitness loops.

Cris Rowan has also helped communities think through the far more difficult question of how you create outdoor spaces for teenagers and young adults. Places where kids can be safe while they are also practising their independence. She has helped communities create spaces that meet the reality and the need of all ages and it does work—it is possible to get kids of all ages—outside and playing.

kids on playground somos

Here’s how good playgrounds make kids smarter

Rowan states that playground structures are an integral component for attaining literacy, as they ensure children meet critical developmental milestones necessary for eventual printing and reading. Playground structures should contain elements that contribute to the development of the vestibular, proprioceptive and tactile sensory systems.

Vestibular System – Posture and Attention
“Equipment that causes a child to move off their centre of gravity serves to activate the core stabilizer muscles, bringing the child back into their center and facilitating midline postural tone. This strong core is required for integration of both sides of the body, and coordination of both eyes. Vestibular stimulation also optimizes a child’s arousal state, enabling attention,” says Cris Rowan.

Examples include a variety of swing types (traditional, hammock, inner tube or tire, rope, etc.), trapeze bars, zip lines, slides, merry-go-rounds, trampolines, gliders, therapy balls, spinning boards and discs, and scooter boards.

Proprioceptive System – Strength and Coordination
“Equipment that makes a child’s muscle and joint systems work hard promotes strength and coordination of the muscles, and also serves to calm down a child who is agitated and aggressive,” says Cris Rowan.

Examples include climbing devices e.g. ropes, cargo net, frames, climbing mounts on walls, jungle gyms, parallel bars, Tug-Of-War rope, crawling through plastic tubes, chin-up bars, and exercise bikes. (Cris Rowan gives this tip that children who are having trouble with fighting can be required to do a Tug-off to help.)

Tactile System – Praxis and Calming
“Equipment that administers deep pressure to the mechanoreceptors found in a child’s tactile or touch system, serves to help that child know where their body is in space, a precursor for planning specific movement patterns essential for fine and gross motor tasks known as praxis,” says Cris Rowan.

Examples include lycra pod swings, crawling inside large inflated truck tire inner tubes, rolling children tight in blankets, rolling down grassy slopes, crawling through lycra tubes, getting squished in between two bean bag chairs or gym mats.

I looked at a number of studies for the Green Mama book and Cris Rowan points to a number of others. They all show that playground time—and most importantly—imaginative free play is one of the most important aspects in determining future success in school and beyond. Cris Rowan says that is because playground time enhances learning, improves cognition and memory, decreases ADHD and improves focus and attention in all children and inhibits impulsivity. Thinkers like author Richard Louv says the most important part of that is being in nature—preferably without parents or coaches dictating or formalizing that time—and what I found most compelling was the idea that free play is the key.

So, get outside and play. And fight—oh, fight—for interesting and amazing playgrounds and more free play for all children!

By Manda Aufochs Gillespie, The Green Mama. Learn more: Buy the best-selling book and sign-up to join the green mama newsletter community. The amazing photo of the kids playing on the “adventure playground” is from Project Somos. The others are by me.

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2 responses to “How playgrounds make kids smarter (and why parents should get really mad about boring playgrounds)”

  1. Greg says:

    We are fortunate to have been able to build an “adventure” play ground at Project Somos in Guatemala. Zip line, slides, rings, tire swings, climbing wall, etc. We see the local kids challenging themselves all the time totally engaged. We have no safety code here in the countryside other than common sense and it seems to work. Thanks for the article and info.