Feature Article - November 2012
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Finding the Way to Play

Trends on the Playground

By Dawn Klingensmith

Find the Way to Imagination

While vigorous play has its place on the playground, some worry that the current emphasis on gross motor play is edging out imaginative play. In addition to physical activities like running, jumping, climbing and swinging, playgrounds should promote fantasy and dramatic play, as research suggests that the latter types of play improve children's cognitive development, peer relationships and emotional well-being.

Lacking on many playgrounds are the spaces and materials needed for make-believe, including loose parts, said Vicki L. Stoecklin, director of education and child development, White Hutchinson Leisure & Learning Group, Kansas City, Mo. "For years we have tended to separate the indoor environment from outdoor environment: When kids are inside they work on cognitive and emotional skills, but we have this paradigm that when they go outside all they do is gross motor," she said. "Inside, they have all these tools for rich imaginative play—plastic fruits, puzzle pieces, Barbie accessories—but not outside. We need to look at children more holistically."

A playground should engage children's sense of inquiry, stimulate their imaginations, invite exploration and support their developing competencies over time, Stoecklin said. Defined areas can support specific activities, such as construction, art or music, with adjacent storage for loose parts or props. A music area, for example, might feature pie and muffin tins attached to a fence so kids can bang them with sticks. A construction area could have lumber and tools like wheelbarrows, as well as smaller items like pinecones and seedpods.

Besides wide-open spaces that promote physical games, such as tag, playgrounds should have intimate spaces such as cubbies, foxholes and tunnels to promote imaginative play, enabling solitary or small groups of kids to transport themselves anywhere from a bank to a bunker.

"Children engaging in solitary play does not necessarily mean they feel left out or insecure," said Stoecklin, adding that classroom sizes are bigger and some kids need more alone time than others.

Interestingly, the national nonprofit KaBOOM!, dedicated to "saving play for America's children," maintains that kids can play just about anywhere and offers up loose parts as a way to transform even a forlorn expanse of asphalt into a play space. Responding to a Chicago Tribune article detailing the challenges faced by city schools following a mandatory return of recess, the KaBOOM! web site states that kids "don't necessarily need massive playgrounds or wide-open space." The organization recommends that schools paint games like hopscotch onto pavement to promote physical play and make available a wide array of moveable objects that allow each play session to become a new experience.

Indeed, kids dream up endless uses for a cardboard box or tube, and though they resist adults' entreaties to "get moving," kids will happily chase butterflies, skip stones, dig holes and otherwise engage their minds and muscles in pursuits of their own devising. According to KaBOOM!, play by definition is an activity that is "freely chosen, child-directed and self-motivated." Keeping this in mind is a good starting point and guiding principle when designing or upgrading your playground facility.