inPERSPECTIVE / PLAYGROUNDS: What Our Industry Needs Right Now Is Play

Each day of the past year and a half, our industry has fought for recreation to remain an integral part of the daily lives of the people we serve—families, children and our communities. If you're anything like me, you've likely felt empowered by the work you've done during the pandemic—but with that can come feelings of fatigue, restlessness or burnout. Our creative juices may be running dry, and the adrenaline that's kept us moving, working and inspiring isn't as strong as it once was. And as our world shifts yet again, I want to share some important news with you.

What we really need right now is play.


It goes without saying that the past year has, at best, brought unprecedented challenges. At worst, it's brought tragedy, loss, fear and uncertainty. I once heard the past year described as a "prolonged traumatic experience" that has left everyone in its wake—children and adults alike—suffering from the long-term impacts of loneliness, depression and distress.

But there is renewed hope. A light at the end of the tunnel blinks bright with the availability of vaccines. Many schools will likely reopen their doors to smiling students in the fall, and businesses have agilely adapted to ever-changing regulations to keep visitors safe. It's our greatest pleasure to see that parks and playgrounds are no longer roped off with caution tape; in fact, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has stressed the benefits that public playgrounds and parks can offer.

In my day job, I represent play equipment manufacturers—but more importantly I represent play itself. Last year, our Voice of Play initiative, which aims to promote growth in the quality and quantity of children's free play and the use of playgrounds, conducted a survey of 1,000 diverse U.S. parents to better understand their perceptions of play during the pandemic. The results left me feeling both hopeful and worried; while parents seem to understand that play is more important than ever before, only two in five say that their children are playing more now than before the pandemic.

That's a problem—and not just for our children. It's a problem for adults, too.

In addition to the obvious physical benefits, play has a healing power that's unlike any medicine or drug. When children use pretend play and imagination, for example, they can express their feelings and learn to deal with fear and displace anger into nondestructive modes. Like learning a new language, progressive play skills ensure adaptive repertoires that serve the child and society. Preschoolers develop emotional strength and stability, while older children develop spontaneity and humor.

Perhaps the most important aspect of play for many during the pandemic is its intrinsic ability to provide therapeutic benefits for children who are emotionally distressed. Studies have shown that when playing, children can release these emotions and "play out" the trauma, allowing them to share feelings freely. Play allows them to express their emotions and feelings in ways that they may not be able to with words. The simple act of playing provides reassurance that they're safe and secure in what can all too often feel like a world of worry and uncertainty.

Adults, too, can reap these very same physical, emotional and mental benefits from taking time to play. Just like exercise, play releases endorphins that can help relieve stress, promote "feel good" feelings and ward off anxiety and depression. It inspires creativity and imagination, and fosters a playful nature that can help us adapt to better navigate even the most stressful situations. It can help us keep going.

It's also a very real possibility that many of our relationships have been tested and strained over the past year—whether as a result of too much (or not enough) togetherness or added tension due to new everyday stressors, like working or schooling from home. Play can help with that, too. Taking time to bond over shared laughter and fun through play can foster a renewed sense of trust, compassion, intimacy and empathy. Even as adults, play can help teach cooperation and problem-solving skills that can be incorporated into other areas of our lives.

In the wake of the tragedy of the past year, it's more important than ever before to use play to cope with loss, rebuild our relationships and repair our emotional and mental health. And while we've likely all found it easy to get swept up in the other challenges and obligations of the last year, there's just too much at stake. What I urge you to do today—right now, in fact—is to drop everything and go outside and play. RM



Tom Norquist is a founding board member and past president of the International Play Equipment Manufacturers Association (IPEMA). Under his leadership, IPEMA formed their value of play outreach effort through the Voice of Play initiative. With over 30 years of industry experience, Tom is a passionate speaker, award-winning park designer and international advocate for play. He is a long-term active ASTM representative and a National Institute for Play board member.