Guest Column - September 2005
Find a printable version here

The Importance of Play

International Play Equipment Manufacturers Association

By Tom Norquist

As parks and recreation professionals, let us not forget that play is incredibly important to the development of a child's social, emotional, cognitive and physical development as well as to their creativity and imagination. Moreover, play is essential to brain development and is related to the development of intelligence and certain academic and reasoning abilities. Conversely, a growing body of research shows that a lack of free, spontaneous play can be harmful to the developing child.

Play is accompanied by heightened feeling states. The fondest memories of childhood are frequently those from times when children were able to play freely in their neighborhoods, on the farm, at the military base and in other "safe" places. Such memories bring a smile to one's face, a warm and loving feeling within one's soul, and a longing for those wonderful "free" years of play. Those of us who as children enjoyed the freedom and spontaneity of such play and the wonder of such places now see their gradual disappearance.

We who create playgrounds have come to believe that many of the rapid technological gains that astound us are related directly to their inventors' creative and intellectual development through play. Though that is not the premise of this article, the scholars that continually coach all of us have convinced us of the intellectual, social, emotional and physical benefits of free play. I have come to believe that there is a positive correlation between this generation's inventions and their inventors' ability to play freely while they were growing up.

It seems unfortunate that so many adults in this quick-paced life seem to take children's play for granted. Why do politicians and educators appear to forget that free, unstructured play can have a profound impact on a child's education, social interaction skills and overall intelligence level? In this era of "leaving no child behind," why are elementary schools eliminating recess?

When I went to elementary school, my favorite time and that of my friends was recess and P.E. We enjoyed our teachers and the classroom activities, but we also wanted and needed unstructured time to simply play. Recess and free play were for experimenting, testing the rules, gaining valuable social skills, and releasing pent up energy from sitting and trying to concentrate on our studies. A lifetime of playing and helping create play opportunities has led me to believe that play is to childhood as blood is to the heart. One doesn't work without the other.

Some scholars believe it is unfortunate that over the past 20 years the play equipment industry almost exclusively focused on safety. Our society seems trapped in the belief that if someone is hurt, someone must pay. How things have changed. When I grew up in the '60s, my parents disciplined me for breaking my collarbone while playing with my younger brother. As playground designers and builders, we have participated in the development of "safety standards" that focus on reducing the possibility of an injury. This safety emphasis has eliminated developmental equipment that cannot be "safely configured." For example, at the time of this writing, most playground safety guidelines do not recommend the use of upper-body equipment for preschoolers. This and certain other recommendations seem to be based upon injuries to preschool children playing on equipment for school-age children, improperly designed equipment and inappropriate surfacing. Recent data indicate that these types of injuries have not decreased since the introduction of national safety standards. Recent research concludes that properly designed and installed overhead apparatus is beneficial for older preschool children.

A major key to safer yet more challenging equipment is promoting equipment design research that emphasizes both developmental and safety factors. Younger children should have access to equipment matching their needs and abilities. So the question becomes: Are we better off promoting properly designed upper-body equipment for preschoolers or should we remain with the status quo and deny preschoolers upper-body equipment and the resulting development? We hope that public dissemination of a book entitled The Developmental Benefits of Play, published by the Association for Childhood Education International (ACEI), will help promote research and experimentation through novel approaches to playground design. Common safety guidelines, standards and regulations also may be refined to encourage thoughtful consideration of alternate routes to playground equipment design and function.

Finally, almost every day there are news reports and professional articles on the growing epidemic of child and adult obesity in America. With obesity comes the onslaught of type 2 diabetes and other diseases that can financially strain our health-care system. What is happening to America's children? Research shows that free play is an excellent means of caloric burn and even may increase our children's metabolic rate, fitness and overall health.

"Why don't you go outside and play" is becoming an expression of the past. Parents no longer feel safe letting their children play outside. The healthy risk-taking in natural and created environments we took for granted during our youth now are increasingly considered to be hazardous to the child's health. Television and computer play and other sedentary activities are rapidly replacing spontaneous outdoor play. Fewer communities are created to encourage walking and playing in safe places. Trails and linking paths are absent as minivans and sport utility vehicles transport children and adults to stores, schools, and places for sports and entertainment. Major challenges presented in this book are to preserve and create natural, yet challenging places for children to play and to preserve recess and other daily times for children's free, spontaneous play.

Tom Norquist is president elect of the International Playground Equipment Manufacturers Association (IPEMA) and senior vice president of GameTime, a PlayCore Company. For more information, visit