Making American Playgrounds Relevant

By Helle Burlingame

e've all heard the startling news reports: The number of overweight children is on the rise and has reached epidemic proportions. Studies show 16 percent of children 6 to 19 years old (more than 9 million young people are considered overweight) and more than 10 percent among 2-to-5-year-olds are significantly overweight, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Children growing up in areas with no outdoor play space often turn to TVs and computers—both sedentary activities. Important life habits are formed at these young ages, and overweight children frequently battle obesity for the rest of their lives.

A variety of interventions to support healthy lifestyles for children are needed. We need to start looking at our environments—are there places to play? Providing children with quality play environments is more important than ever. The outdoor social and physical environment that a child has access to is very strongly associated with how active children and their families are. Children need outdoor play because it supports both their physical and mental health. By playing, children develop motor skills, achieve physical fitness, sharpen intellectual skills and learn how to socialize. Socialization teaches conflict resolution, empathy, and helps children form opinions about others and the world around them—all fundamental aspects of successful, well adjusted and contributing human beings.

Play also can provide relief from stress. Children's daily lives encompass a highly structured day run by adults. As a child once told me: "Play is what I do when everyone has stopped telling me what to do!" Children playing outdoors are engaged with their entire body, emotions and intellectual capacities. They play on their own terms, because they feel like it, because it is fun, and not because they are told to. When children internally are motivated to play, their concentration and engagement is 100 percent.

The state of the American playground

However, as described by Susan Solomon in her recent book, American Playgrounds: Revitalizing Community Space:

"The existing American playgrounds are a disaster. The landscape is filled with variations of a model that has few local or regional distinctions. Today's playground normally is defined by a sizable, colorful piece of commercial equipment that links steps, deck and slides…Playgrounds used to reflect theories about how children learn; today they are largely unconnected to seasoned beliefs on the subject. The problem is exacerbated by the American public's increasing difficulty with assessing risk on a daily basis. The playground has become so safe that it no longer allows children to take challenges that will further educational and emotional development."

She also argues that quality playgrounds have the potential to become a vital public space that will bring individuals outdoors, keep them occupied and away from their refrigerators: "With more challenging design, playgrounds could give children a genuine sense of accomplishment and become a tool for instilling unmitigated self-confidence. By bolstering self-image, playgrounds could be the backdoor tool that could lead to healthier and leaner kids."

A public debate on the quality of playgrounds

It is crucial to address the status quo of American playgrounds and provoke the adult stakeholders to engage in a much needed debate. Children are the primary end-users of playgrounds but rarely are involved in the planning of them. The stakeholders usually are parents, teachers, after-school program counselors, camp counselors, commercial playground equipment providers, park and school decision-makers, park and school maintenance staff, safety consultants, accessibility consultants, landscape architects, architects, natural environmental consultants, and child participant planning consultants, all with their solution to the problem.

Most of the stakeholders are paid to have a professional opinion about the issue, whether it is the after-school program counselor, natural landscaping consultant, safety consultant, child participant consultant or commercial playground equipment provider. The many stakeholders are rarely in agreement about what children want from their outdoor play environment and how to balance their need for challenge. There seems to be a difference of opinion between many of the stakeholders, and each group claims we know and the others do not. An example of such a claim comes from natural environmental consultants who argue that only natural landscaped environments are good for children's development. Another example is the playground manufacturers who claim that playground equipment is the panacea for all child development.

The different solutions presented on how to create an optimal outdoor play setting have many value systems guiding them when each expert suggests what is best for children. Here are some examples that come to my mind: Some consultants promote the romantic belief that children are innocent creatures that need nothing but the natural environment to satisfy their play needs. Some propose that cardboard boxes and all things inexpensive are good for children, and somehow children get associated with thriving best when their play objects are free. At one point, safety consultants overhauled and set standards for the safety of playgrounds, which was much needed at the time, but now seems to have developed into a safety obsession resulting in taking all the fun out of playgrounds. Playground equipment providers responded to the need for safer equipment, which generated new business but also created a mainstream playground structure model that less people seem to like. There is some truth to all the experts' claims about children, but I honestly do not think one approach excludes the other. A smarter approach would be to create a variety of play options in the playground.

Maybe a revitalization of the safety consultation industry could involve addressing the consequences of children not developing their motor skills and poor fitness levels. The foundation skills for future physical and sports activities stem from play. Studies indicate that lack of fundamental motor skills and fitness make children clumsy, accident-prone and less able to concentrate in school. The more self-confident in their movement skills children become, the more encouraged they'll be to stay physically active. Children who have practiced their basic motor skills on a daily basis lay a solid foundation for being motivated to participate in sports as they grow older. The link between movement, brain development and a diverse, quality environment has been documented by research.

In his 2004 book, Lifelong Motor Development, Carl P. Gabbard sums it up in the following way: "In essence, rich environments produce rich brains, and an essential agent in this process is movement activity!"

As teachers and parents, we can support children's active lifestyles by providing them with environments to run around: hills to climb, natural elements to explore and play equipment to master. Only through daily exposure and practice will children improve their motor skills and increase their fitness level.

The challenge for playground equipment designers is to take clues from children about what they like and need to do and put these activities into highly visually motivating equipment. A motivating playground contains a quality landscaped setting with natural features, artistic expressions and age-appropriate, challenging and fun playground equipment. Changing the outdoor environments in which children play is an essential strategy in fighting the obesity epidemic and in supporting gains across all developmental domains for children. By placing a higher priority on the quality of our playgrounds, we'll go much further in making American playgrounds relevant again.


Helle Burlingame has a master's degree in psychology and is director of the Kompan Play Institute. She can be reached at For more information, visit

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