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Feature Article - November 2012

Finding the Way to Play

Trends on the Playground

By Dawn Klingensmith


You can lead kids to a playground, but you can't make them play.

Sure, some will make a mad dash for the monkey bars and work up a sweat in five minutes. Others will start a spontaneous game of tag, darting in and out of play structures to avoid the pursuer. But there will always be kids who avoid playground equipment altogether because it either bores or intimidates them.

To be sure, there are valuable playground activities that don't involve physical exertion, including socializing and watching cloud formations morph and move across the sky. But with concerns growing about childhood obesity, many parks and organizations look to playgrounds to get kids moving. Indeed, purchasers of playground equipment often expect it will "trick" kids into exercising and getting fit.

Find the Way to Get Fit

Manufacturers are adding fitness-oriented apparatus to their product lines, including parallel bars, balance beams, stepping stones, pole and rope climbs, rope bridges, climbing walls, horizontal bars and obstacle course elements.

Trina Helfrich, a contributor to PBS' "Sid the Science Kid" web site, last year observed that playgrounds have changed since she was a kid, presumably for the better:

There are lots of toys that I don't even recognize and the boys have to figure out how to play on them. We've played recently at some really cool playgrounds where the equipment is designed to get the kids moving and to challenge them. One playground has a cool skateboard simulator where the boys stand on a metal plate with a handle that slides up and down a curved bar. It's very exciting and I have to hold my breath hoping they don't fall. I can't help but notice that the equipment often relies on the force and energy the kids create in order to create and keep the momentum.

Helfrich noted that even climbing structures these days "provide challenging ways to get up and down." There are still stairs and slides, she added, but these aren't the only means of entry or egress. She said that certain play elements require "balance, strength and bravery" and that her boys are "working hard and having fun at the same time."

But even traditional playgrounds with slides, swings and bars give kids ample opportunities "to test their physical limits in various ways," said Jane Watkinson, dean of kinesiology and recreation management at the University of Manitoba in Canada.

Over the past 15 years, she has documented a broad range of skills kids can acquire on playgrounds—more than 300, in fact.

Though we don't refer to playground structures as exercise equipment, that's essentially what they are, Watkinson said, but they allow for imaginative use, unlike fitness equipment designed for adults. "Playground equipment accommodates many forms of movement and is able to withstand the activities that children dream up as they grow older and try new things," Watkinson writes in her book, Let's Play! Promoting Active Playgrounds (Human Kinetics, 2010).

Some of the things children tend to "dream up," with Watkinson's enthusiastic endorsement, would not be tolerated by most playground supervisors, including climbing up the edges of a spiral slide or straddling the outside of a tube slide.

Listing feats she's witnessed on playgrounds—including standing on the seat of a swing, grasping the chains and flipping over backward—Watkinson makes it clear she believes a degree of risk should be part of the playground experience. "Why would pulling yourself up the slide be a misuse of the equipment? It's a highly complex movement requiring upper body strength," she said, "and the apparatus allows for it, even invites it. Equipment should allow kids to use a wide variety of skills, from simple to complex, so all kids can use and enjoy it."

Studies conducted by Watkinson and her research team show that two factors seem to predict what children do on a playground. The first is whether they feel they are good at the activities provided for them. The second is whether they value the skill or activity. In other words, in choosing whether to actively participate on the playground, children ask themselves, "Can I do the activity?" and "Do I want to?"

The first question has to do with children's perception of their own competence. When they feel inadequate or unskilled, the risk of being teased or excluded may prevent them from using the equipment. By the same token, if children don't value the activities because they are boring, they won't make use of the playground equipment, Watkinson's research found. That's why it's important that playgrounds accommodate a range of skill levels; otherwise, children who might benefit most—active kids who require an outlet for their pent-up energy and inactive or overweight kids—won't take part.