Feature Article - January 2008
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The Play's the Thing

Innovation and Safety Meet on the Playground

By Jessica Royer Ocken

Play Appropriately

The key to balancing safety with fun and challenge seems to lie within the realm of "developmentally appropriate" play.

"Play is what it's all about," Moore said. "It's the way children explore the world, explore social relationships. You can't separate [those skills] from interaction with the environment, so [a playground] should be a diverse environment to focus on different play needs depending on the child's age."

So, when playgrounds are tailored to provide the right amount of challenge for a particular age group and designed to encourage kids to explore the skills and activities they need to develop at a certain age, this enhances safety, as well as making the playground interesting to the child—and provides an opportunity to learn and grow as an extra bonus.

What does this sort of playground look like? "This manifests as areas set aside and designed predominantly to appeal to a younger child—a 2-to-5-year-old, or preschooler," Hendy said. "Then there's school-aged equipment, and some manufacturers have broken it down further than that. We're beginning to see playgrounds introduced with graduated levels of challenge, and we're also seeing manufacturers providing a greater range of types of equipment."

For example, much like an aquatic center might have a separate baby splash pool, a shallow pool for beginning swimmers and a deeper pool with slides and play equipment for older kids, playground pieces can now be found with varying degrees of difficulty: A low, short monkey bar with evenly spaced bars will work well for young children. "If you want to make that more challenging for a school-aged child, you can raise the height of the horizontal ladder, and instead of going straight [across], you go in a circle or zigzag," Hendy said. "Instead of a horizontal bar, you have trapeze rings hanging down," she continued. "It's graduated levels of challenges."

As children get older, they "need large-scale, exciting places to play with some challenge built in," Moore said. And this is where finding the right balance comes into play. "They need a challenging environment to take some risks—otherwise they won't learn—but it must be a safe setting." Which is why soft surfaces below climbing areas and swings are invaluable. "Data show clearly where most more serious injuries happen: falls from specific types of equipment onto a hard surface," Moore said.

But even as you attend to children's specific developmental needs, different age groups should not be so separated that opportunities to socialize are eliminated. Climbing nets are a good way to address this conundrum. "They provide a lot of creative and challenging play for a large number of children and a wide age range," Hendy said. "Kids can choose how high they want to go up, and [younger kids] get the same benefits from going around close to ground without having to go high. It also offers the opportunity for more than one kid to be on a structure safely at the same time," she said. "Socialization is also part of play."

As more research is done about the specific skills and movements kids need to master as they grow, more of these are being incorporated into playground equipment. "Children desperately need swinging and rocking and spinning movements," Hendy said. "In previous years, [a playground might] have a swing set or spring toy, and that's it. Spring toys are boring for older kids, but manufacturers have [now] designed really awesome new spinners and bouncers that appeal to older children." Rocking helps children develop balance and depth perception, and it stimulates their inner ear. "It ultimately relates to the ability to read," Hendy said. "If the brain hasn't formed synapses, it won't be able to form connections to read and follow from one word to another."

Perhaps you never considered your playground as a building block toward reading, but "a lot of activities kids do on playground help their minds develop synapses," Hendy said. "When kids are learning to use a horizontal ladder, they're hanging from one bar and moving to the next bar with alternating hands. That's a higher-level skill. ... A lot of people don't want swings because they take up a lot of room, need protective surfacing, and require a lot of maintenance because kids are on them constantly—a lot of places just take swings out so they don't have to deal with them—but those are the most important thing you can have on a playground," Hendy said. "It gets back to that need for rocking and vestibular stimulation."