Thinking about playgrounds often brings back fond memories of fun and laughter. Yet, there’s so much more to playgrounds than meets the eye. The unstructured, anything-goes play that happens on playgrounds provides physical, emotional, social, inclusive and cognitive benefits and directly affects childhood development.
Children may choose to run, jump or swing simply because it’s “fun.” If you ask play researchers why these activities are important, they will give you a deeper, more scientific answer. Play research shows us that outdoor play is necessary to help children be active and healthy. While playing, children learn reflexes and movement control and improve flexibility and balance. They build muscle and strengthen heart and lung function. Playgrounds encourage children to step away from time-consuming screens and have fun while being active.
The emotional benefits of playgrounds are not as easily recognized as the physical benefits. However, research indicates that there are three areas where play aids children’s emotional development: building self-confidence and esteem; experimenting with various emotions; and releasing stressful or traumatic emotions. Some playground equipment like tunnels or climbers may seem scary at first, but they encourage children to take risks and give them a sense of accomplishment after they have overcome the obstacle. Playgrounds also invite children to explore and use their imagination, which allows them to experience different emotions and experiment with outcomes. Play is therapeutic for children who are emotionally distressed, providing an outlet where they can release emotions.
Playgrounds are certainly social environments, giving children the opportunity to play with friends or meet new people outside of school. The social interactions that take place help children develop relationship-building skills and teach them valuable life lessons such as negotiation skills, body language and self-control. Some children may choose to play alone and observe other kids’ interactions from a distance. Solitary play helps instill a sense of independence and encourages children to be creative and devise their own entertainment.
Research studies have 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. That’s one of the reasons why inclusive playground equipment is so important: it eliminates barriers and ensures that children of all abilities can interact together and view each other as peers and equals.
Unstructured play has been proven to affect neurological development. It determines how the neural circuits of the brain are wired and helps children develop language and reasoning skills, encourages independent thinking and problem solving and boosts creativity. While swinging, running and climbing, children also learn body awareness, spatial orientation and visual and tactile perception.
Playgrounds are one of the most fun, exciting places for children, but they offer so much more than just a place to play. They assist in healthy childhood development and provide benefits that improve children’s lives for years to come.