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Guest Column - February 2015

Playgrounds

It's Time to Save Outdoor Play

By Greg Harrison


Do you recall the carefree days of your youth when you and your friends would roam the neighborhood looking for fun and adventure? Chances are you had a similar childhood experience as me, where you spent many an afternoon playing outdoors until someone called you in for dinner. From soaring to new heights on seesaws and organizing a pickup game in the park to biking to unknown destinations, those childhood moments prepared us for the adult world. For decades, kids played outside freely, but now that coveted playtime is in peril. Screen time, along with other factors, has replaced playtime.

According to the Alliance for Childhood, compared to the 1970s, children now spend 50 percent less time in unstructured outdoor activities. Unfortunately, outdoor play is on the demise, and as things stand currently, generations of kids will miss out on this cornerstone of an amazing childhood.

It's More Than Just Fun and Games

Studies show play isn't a luxury, but rather a vital component for physical, cognitive and social development. The physical benefits are obvious. Regular physical activity is one of the best ways to fight obesity, an epidemic the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says affects 17 percent of our nation's youth aged 2 to 19 years.

But the benefits of outdoor play extend beyond the physical. Research demonstrates the positive effect interactive play and exercise can have on other aspects of a person's well-being. Did you know that play is linked to greater creativity and problem-solving, improved reading levels, and higher IQ scores? It's been proven—play can make us smarter.

Children who play with others also gain a priceless social advantage as they grow. We know that kids who develop stable relationships with others through early play experiences become more capable over time and have fewer difficulties than children who don't develop those relationships. Who would have guessed that horsing around as kids benefits us as adults?

And outdoor playtime seems to be particularly beneficial. The down-and-dirty nature of outdoor play has been found to be necessary for the development of social awareness, cooperation, fairness and altruism. In fact, a 2007 study found 5-year-olds who didn't play much outside had poorer social, behavioral and motor skills and fewer playmates than other kids.

By developing a sense of equality, connectedness and concern for others, play in the natural environment can even help reduce or eliminate bullying. That's because free outdoor play benefits all children equally. The pressures of team sports are absent and there is less singling out that would develop with more structured activities. All this means that playing more can make us all-around better people.

Indoor Competition

Today, outdoor play must compete with numerous indoor play options that transfix kids to screens—TV, tablets, phones and video games. And this is a year-round issue, not just when the temperature drops. While no one advocates eliminating technology from kids' lives, it's time we make a concerted effort to balance sedentary indoor time with outdoor unstructured play.

The issue is that in the eyes of children, many of today's traditional outdoor play options don't compare to their high-tech toys. That raises the question: How do we get kids unplugged and playing outside?

The key is to create unstructured and meaningful outdoor play experiences that connect every person—regardless of age and ability—to the natural world. We can start by taking a cue from the virtual world itself. People love the escape from reality video games offer. By bringing technology onto the playground, we can make play experiences relevant to today's tech-savvy kids.

We can also re-imagine yesterday's playground for today's kids. Now more than ever, playground equipment needs to be meaningful and relevant—meaningful to a child's developmental stage and relevant in 2015. We have designed a collection based on these principles, re-imagining classic play structures from the past and propelling them into the future with new features that appeal to today's kids.

Lastly, we need to strike a balance between safety and risk on the playground. People of all ages and abilities seek a thrilling experience. Of course, safety must be a consideration, but not to the point where all of the fun is removed. Adding elements of perceived risk will especially attract older kids jaded by the "boring kiddie stuff," much the same way we loved swinging as high as we could or jumping off the highest spot we could find when we were kids.

#SavePlay

Everyone has a role in saving play. For me, I didn't enter the playground business to make equipment. I joined Playworld Systems to create impactful experiences that will live in the memories of children and parents forever. As a father of two boys, I see firsthand the challenge of getting older children outdoors and active. I want my kids to reap the benefits of outdoor play environments. I want them to accrue the valuable life lessons I learned when given the freedom to roam and play. My team and I strive to make play a top priority every day. We continually work to better understand what happens when people play outdoors—whether they're embarking on an adventure to rescue a knight or rolling down a hill—and then design equipment that embraces and encourages creativity and community building.

In the past, outdoor areas for recreation and play were a vital part of the community. Let's make that happen once again. Now go outside and play!



ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Greg Harrison is creative director for Playworld Systems Inc., a commercial playground manufacturer based in Lewisburg, Pa. For more information, visit www.playworldsystems.com.