Guest Column - March 2009
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New Heights in Play

By Michael A. Sutton


sk any two playground professionals about height on a playground, and you are most likely in for a heated exchange. The debate has raged on for years. One school of thought embraces the idea of soaring, yet safe and compliant playground structures that offer children a physical and psychological experience that can only be achieved in high places. The other school of thought downplays the play value of height in favor of a "safer" playground.

Ask a child, or better yet, watch a child play on a playground. You will quickly learn that given the opportunity, children will climb as high as possible within the play environment. I think we can all agree on which side of the debate most children lean.

There are significant benefits to providing height as a component of play. Apart from the obvious physical benefit, it provides opportunities for observation, exploration, reaching more challenging play components and taking part in fantasy play. In addition, it helps children develop from a psychological, sociological and biological standpoint. Height provides a unique opportunity to test one's judgment, as well as one's strength. Children will go higher as they become more confident in their motor skills, and the experience will help them to better understand the concept of risk versus reward. Adding height to playgrounds simply provides an element of play that cannot be experienced close to the ground.

Let us not, however, minimize the benefit of getting kids involved in physical activity.

Today, about one in three children is overweight. This phenomenon has been attributed to such causes as genetic factors, sedentary lifestyles, bad habits, cultural indifference, and safety or security concerns. Some potential costs of being overweight as a child are type 2 diabetes, high blood pressure, bone and joint problems, low self-esteem, depression and substance abuse. The proportion of overweight children ages 6 to 11 has more than doubled since 1980.

Playgrounds play a key role in getting kids outdoors and in motion. The "tower" style of playground represents a huge "invitation to play" for kids who may have otherwise outgrown the traditional, linear playground design. This is important in light of the increasing trend toward "age compression," which basically involves kids becoming psychologically older at younger ages. Today's kids tend to outgrow traditional toys and interests sooner than did kids the same age just a few years ago. The "tower" is attractive to kids of all ages. Even tweens will put down their cell phones and gameboys to explore.