Feature Article - July 2009
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Nature and Nurture

Trends in Play Design

By Emily Tipping

"Childcare providers told us that many parents were more focused on their children learning cognitive skills such as reading, writing and preparing for kindergarten than their participation in recess," said Kristin Copeland, M.D., a pediatrician at Cincinnati Children's Hospital Medical Center and the study's main author. "And yet childcare providers realized that some of the most valuable lessons in science, nature, cause and effect, and even important social skills such as problem-solving and peer negotiation all come from playing outdoors on the playground."

The elimination of play and recess—not just in childcare facilities, but also at schools across the country—comes at a heavy cost, as children not only lose out on the chance to develop critical social, mental and emotional skills, but also miss opportunities to get involved in much-needed daily exercise.

Playground manufacturers have responded to child obesity trends with equipment designed to keep kids moving and active. As Tim Ahern, president of the International Play Equipment Manufacturers Association (IPEMA), and CEO of a playground equipment manufacturer based in Fond du Lac, Wis., stated in a recent newsletter, "The earlier we learn to play at exercise rather than work at it, the more likely we are to form lifelong fitness habits."

"A prevalent trend in the playground industry is the concept of continuous, 'deckless' play," said Lindsay Richardson, director of marketing and sales administration for a Chattanooga, Tenn.-based playground manufacturer, "which is a great way to increase the physical activity on the playground."

Many companies have been building such playsystems, calling them "deckless," "spherical," "gyroscopic" and many other adjectives, but what they all add up to is heightened opportunities for children to innovate and get active.

And you should not underestimate the power of a play space to get kids active. Schools, daycare facilities, camps, parks and others can partner with their play equipment manufacturers to offer creative new program options they might never have considered before to encourage children to break a sweat, and maybe learn a thing or two in the process.

"We use the saying, 'Play is a full-bodied experience,' Richardson said. "It makes a lot of sense that kids learn better when they are outdoors moving while they are learning. We have had a lot of community centers and afterschool programs interested in our kit."

The kit she's referring to offers program ideas and ways to get kids active on the playground, and it's another trend seen among many play equipment manufacturers.

Anne-Marie Spencer, director of merchandising and marketing communications at a playground manufacturer based in Fort Payne, Ala., said her company is having great success with its curriculum, which allows facility owners to hold fitness classes on the playground. "The program meets NASPE (National Association for Sport & Physical Education) standards for physical education, so even schools can use it to teach P.E.," she said. "The other benefit is that more kids are engaged at the same time, so they don't spend as much time 'waiting for their turn' as with conventional classes. Best of all, kids of all shapes and fitness levels think the activities are fun, so they are greatly beneficial."

And getting back to the childcare scenario, while many of these fitness-oriented playgrounds are made for the 5- to 12-year-old age group, another playground company has recently introduced a model designed for the younger group of 2- to 5-year-olds. In addition to getting tots active, the playsystem offers another benefit: Because of the clear sight lines, supervision is much simpler.