Feature Article - July 2009
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Nature and Nurture

Trends in Play Design

By Emily Tipping

The project highlights three trends that have taken a strong hold of play across the country: getting more children engaged in physical activity through play, improving accessibility for people of all abilities and geographies, and using play spaces to link children with the natural world.

In a recent article titled "Designing and Building Healthy Places for Children" in the International Journal of Environment and Health (Vol. 2, Nos. 3/4, 2008), authors Andrew Dannenberg, Howard Frumkin and Arthur Wendel write, "A health-promoting built environment for children can be distilled to a few themes." First, it provides protection from injury risk and limits exposure to pollutants and disease. Second, it "…gives children opportunities for physical activity, play and contact with nature." And third, it uses sustainable practices to reduce the impact on the environment.

Playground manufacturers have long been committed to safety, and there's recently been a big push toward more sustainable manufacturing, but if you take the second part of that statement, you have a handle on some trends that have converged in playground development recently: a trend toward playgrounds that get kids active, a trend toward ensuring more kids have access to play, and a trend toward incorporating natural elements into play spaces.

Nurturing Bodies and Minds

There's really no underestimating the power of play. With the rate of childhood and adolescent obesity reaching what some have called "epidemic" proportions over the past two decades, we all know how important it is to encourage kids to get more active. Obesity is a contributing factor in many of the preventable chronic illnesses that burden our health care system. And according to the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, play is "the single most effective strategy for increasing physical activity among children."

The problem is that many kids don't play. They either don't have access to places where they can play safely, or they are stuck in schools and daycare facilities that emphasize the classroom over time for free play. Take childcare centers as just one example. Nearly 75 percent of children between 3 and 6 years old are in child care centers, and many of them aren't getting the exercise they need, according to a focus group study by Cincinnati Children's Hospital Medical Center, sponsored by the National Institutes of Health and the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation.

The reasons for the lack of activity vary. Some childcare providers explained that parents pressure them to prioritize classroom time for learning over outdoor time for motor development. Other providers said the fear of injury or the cost of playground equipment and ongoing maintenance are barriers to providing more activity.