Supplement Feature - April 2018
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Get Moving, Get Playing!

Active Playgrounds for Kids on the Go

By Dave Ramont

While it seems like kids are getting tethered to their electronic devices earlier than ever, often causing them to be more sedentary, they do still possess an inherent desire to get outside and burn off some energy.

"Play is natural to kids, and allowing them to get the needed physical exercise in a way that works with them brings the least amount of resistance and the most benefits. With all of the other distractions—video games, devices and other technology—kids are in need of engaging activities to help them stay active," according to Sarah Lisiecki and Brian Johnson, the marketing communications specialist and chief marketing officer, respectively, for a Wisconsin-based company that manufactures playground equipment.

Playground designers and manufacturers, understanding that playgrounds are still a great way to engage kids, strive to create new designs and products that will not only be fun and alluring, but will encourage exercise as well. "Playing on a properly designed playground makes exercise fun, and kids don't realize they're getting so many health benefits just by playing," said Lisiecki and Johnson, adding that playing on playground equipment provides kids with a full-body workout. "From cardiovascular to agility and balance to strength, kids will improve their overall fitness and combat obesity while participating in a fun and natural activity."

Lisiecki and Johnson explained that their goal is to give kids a play experience that helps them develop in a variety of ways—physically, socially, emotionally and cognitively. "Having the ability to combine traditional and active, fitness-based play helps us offer all types of play that is accessible to all children."

Many fitness-inspired play systems fuse fitness challenges with traditional play events. Climbing boulders, playground zip lines with swinging ropes and cables, steppers, rings and ladders, sliding poles and pull-up bars all promote physical play. Playground climbing walls and panels with hand and foot holds and other climbing amenities can be freestanding or connected to other structures. There are new takes on traditional monkey bars, featuring various shapes, sizes and configurations. A variety of rope structures, bridges, platforms and ramps are available, which can connect to play structures, creating infinite design options.

Kent Callison, director of marketing for a Tennessee-based commercial playground equipment manufacturer that also offer fitness-inspired playground designs for children and outdoor fitness equipment for adolescents and adults of all ages and abilities, cited a study conducted years ago by Dr. Joe Frost that found that children lacked the upper-body strength of children a generation ago. "He published his findings, and playground manufacturers began to look at ways to include brachiating (overhead climbing) activities on play systems like overhead ladders, rings and other overhead activities."

SHAPE America (Society of Health and Physical Educators), the nation's largest membership organization of health and physical education professionals, has a vision of "A nation where all children are prepared to lead healthy, physically active lives." Callison explained that SHAPE America has published a curriculum called Play On!, which documents the six essential elements of physical play: climbing, brachiating, spinning, sliding, swinging and balancing. "Playgrounds that incorporate each of these elements, and in varying degrees of difficulty, align with national standards for physical education and encourage children to engage in more physical activity in a fun way," he said.

The Play On! initiative was created to "promote physical fitness and fun through the use of well-designed outdoor play environments and creative playground learning activities." The authors believe that the selection of playground equipment and the overall design of the outdoor play environment can benefit children in a variety of ways, providing activities that engage, motivate and challenge them, as well as developing important fitness skills. They feel that the recommended playground activities, when aligned with the aforementioned six key elements of play, can help schools, parks and activity centers maximize the potential of their playgrounds. Their curriculum guidebook includes the 125 standards-based playground activities for grades pre-K through 5; assessment worksheets and equipment lists; safety, implementation, inclusion and teaching strategies; design strategies; and funding resources.

Michelle Carter, senior program manager at SHAPE America, believes that effective health and physical education programs in schools are a great start as far as educating kids about fitness. "Play On! is a great tool for playground managers or teachers to use to get their kids more active. It allows for student engagement and fosters creativity by allowing students to explore the playground equipment in different ways."

She pointed out that both kids and adults are more sedentary than ever. "By teaching kids how to be physically active and the benefits of physical activity, the more likely they will continue to be physically active into adulthood."

So do schools, parks and cities seem to be embracing efforts to design their play spaces to involve more physical activity? Yes, according to Lisiecki and Johnson. "For example, the Chicago Park District introduced the Chicago Plays! initiative, to help bring parks within walking distance of all Chicago residents."