Finding the Way to Play

Trends on the Playground

By Dawn Klingensmith

You can lead kids to a playground, but you can't make them play.

Sure, some will make a mad dash for the monkey bars and work up a sweat in five minutes. Others will start a spontaneous game of tag, darting in and out of play structures to avoid the pursuer. But there will always be kids who avoid playground equipment altogether because it either bores or intimidates them.

To be sure, there are valuable playground activities that don't involve physical exertion, including socializing and watching cloud formations morph and move across the sky. But with concerns growing about childhood obesity, many parks and organizations look to playgrounds to get kids moving. Indeed, purchasers of playground equipment often expect it will "trick" kids into exercising and getting fit.

Find the Way to Get Fit

Manufacturers are adding fitness-oriented apparatus to their product lines, including parallel bars, balance beams, stepping stones, pole and rope climbs, rope bridges, climbing walls, horizontal bars and obstacle course elements.

Trina Helfrich, a contributor to PBS' "Sid the Science Kid" web site, last year observed that playgrounds have changed since she was a kid, presumably for the better:

There are lots of toys that I don't even recognize and the boys have to figure out how to play on them. We've played recently at some really cool playgrounds where the equipment is designed to get the kids moving and to challenge them. One playground has a cool skateboard simulator where the boys stand on a metal plate with a handle that slides up and down a curved bar. It's very exciting and I have to hold my breath hoping they don't fall. I can't help but notice that the equipment often relies on the force and energy the kids create in order to create and keep the momentum.

Helfrich noted that even climbing structures these days "provide challenging ways to get up and down." There are still stairs and slides, she added, but these aren't the only means of entry or egress. She said that certain play elements require "balance, strength and bravery" and that her boys are "working hard and having fun at the same time."

But even traditional playgrounds with slides, swings and bars give kids ample opportunities "to test their physical limits in various ways," said Jane Watkinson, dean of kinesiology and recreation management at the University of Manitoba in Canada.

Over the past 15 years, she has documented a broad range of skills kids can acquire on playgrounds—more than 300, in fact.

Though we don't refer to playground structures as exercise equipment, that's essentially what they are, Watkinson said, but they allow for imaginative use, unlike fitness equipment designed for adults. "Playground equipment accommodates many forms of movement and is able to withstand the activities that children dream up as they grow older and try new things," Watkinson writes in her book, Let's Play! Promoting Active Playgrounds (Human Kinetics, 2010).

Some of the things children tend to "dream up," with Watkinson's enthusiastic endorsement, would not be tolerated by most playground supervisors, including climbing up the edges of a spiral slide or straddling the outside of a tube slide.

Listing feats she's witnessed on playgrounds—including standing on the seat of a swing, grasping the chains and flipping over backward—Watkinson makes it clear she believes a degree of risk should be part of the playground experience. "Why would pulling yourself up the slide be a misuse of the equipment? It's a highly complex movement requiring upper body strength," she said, "and the apparatus allows for it, even invites it. Equipment should allow kids to use a wide variety of skills, from simple to complex, so all kids can use and enjoy it."

Studies conducted by Watkinson and her research team show that two factors seem to predict what children do on a playground. The first is whether they feel they are good at the activities provided for them. The second is whether they value the skill or activity. In other words, in choosing whether to actively participate on the playground, children ask themselves, "Can I do the activity?" and "Do I want to?"

The first question has to do with children's perception of their own competence. When they feel inadequate or unskilled, the risk of being teased or excluded may prevent them from using the equipment. By the same token, if children don't value the activities because they are boring, they won't make use of the playground equipment, Watkinson's research found. That's why it's important that playgrounds accommodate a range of skill levels; otherwise, children who might benefit most—active kids who require an outlet for their pent-up energy and inactive or overweight kids—won't take part.

Find the Way to Have Fun

"Boring" playground equipment is just as likely to be abused as ignored. Over the years, playground architect Ron King has interviewed some 6,000 children, and more than 95 percent of them say the type of playground equipment they typically encounter is boring.

"Schools can spend a million dollars, and on the first day, kids are very excited—there's all this new stuff. But, before long, it gets boring," said King, president of a Concord, N.H., playground company. "So they begin using the equipment in ways it was not designed to be used. They climb way up and jump off, trying to be a helicopter. They run up the slide backward. They do that because they're bored."


Manufacturers are trying to address this, and by and large seem to recognize that no matter how colorful or thematic their equipment, kids have begun to perceive an unrelenting and off-putting sameness from one playground to another. The centerpiece or entirety of many playgrounds is a modular post-and-platform structure, which encourages repetitive, "flow-through" movement by design: Kids climb up, negotiate a series of decks, and slide down the other side.

Individual elements like spring riders, freestanding climbers, spinners, monorails and reinvented slides (including one with aluminum rollers) are making a comeback, giving children a wider range of activities to choose from.

One manufacturer boasts an entire line of freestanding basics, including carousels and merry-go-rounds, overhead events, seesaws and teeter totters, swing sets and tire swings.

Electronic play systems designed for playground use were introduced to the market a few years ago, promising to bring the excitement of videogames outdoors while adding an aerobic workout comparable to jogging or playing soccer. With one of the newer systems, kids playing alone or in teams race the clock or each other in an effort to keep up with a series of lights and sounds.

Find the Way Back to Nature

By and large, though, the major manufacturers seem less interested today in bringing indoor pastimes to playgrounds than they do in creating "life-like products" for a "natural play experience," as one equipment maker explains on its web site. "From the rough texture of bark to the smooth feel of a boulder, (we) can re-create natural elements to look like the real thing."

The major manufacturers' catalogs "all have sections having to do with nature or nature-inspired play features made out of plastic or concrete," King said.

Myriad problems attributed to "nature deficit disorder" have sparked a back-to-nature movement in childhood development, King added, and "the industry has started to respond by manufacturing these nature-inspired things, so now instead of looking like Humpty Dumpty, you'll have what looks like a tree."

One manufacturer went so far as to create the program "NatureGrounds: Putting Nature Into Play" (www.naturegrounds.org) to provide best practice guidelines for designing and retrofitting play environments for parks and school grounds that integrate manufactured play equipment and the living landscape. The program seeks to "create a dramatic shift in the standard playground development process by deliberately designing nature back into children's lives, not only to benefit children's play but also to engage communities in working together to create richer play experience for all users," according to the web site.

Already, "The industrial playground model based solely on manufactured equipment is being reconsidered," the site claims. "A greater diversity of play opportunities is desired to extend curricular activity in schools and to meet the needs of a broader range of children and their families in parks. The integration of natural components helps fulfill these needs as well as creating richer play experiences for all users."

The program points out that "mixed" play environments are more attractive and comfortable for adults and caregivers, and that "naturalization" adds visual interest, shade, a wider range of play opportunities for users of all abilities, and nature-based outdoor education opportunities.

On board with the "back-to-nature" movement is Dan Christensen, design manager for a Redding, Calif.-based manufacturer. He takes pictures of kids engaging in "nature play" and uses it as product design inspiration. For example, the company's Rocks & Ropes line is based on observations of children playing among "giant sequoia root systems," Christensen explained.

"We're not trying to replace nature play," he clarified, "but rather to give kids the same type of play experience—elevation changes, hopping from rock to rock, swinging from tree branches, climbing. We purposely make logs with little knots on them. In some ways, it's like training for the real thing."

Most manufacturers don't go far enough to emulate nature play, Christensen said. They may offer a "cut-off tree truck," for example, but even in the woods an isolated log might not attract much attention unless it fell across a boulder or creek bed, creating a tantalizing test of balance.

Other freestanding nature-inspired elements offered by competing manufacturers include honeycombs, hatched eggs and anthills.

By contrast, Christensen's company has produced a "library of parts" that work together to simulate the sort of obstacles, challenges and play opportunities found in nature.

So-called "naturalized playgrounds" differ from "natural playgrounds" in that the former encourages a mix of manufactured and natural elements. Natural playground designers don't necessarily eschew manufactured playground equipment altogether, but play components typically consist of sculpted earth, vegetation, boulders, sand, hay bales, water features and the like.

The sand play areas King designs are not the same as sandboxes. They may be 3 or 4 feet deep "so kids can dig to China," he said. He may install a hand-operated water pump nearby, which he says is "great upper body exercise for kids" and allows them to moisten the sand to build sandcastles, make mud pies or construct channels and dams.

He has also built brick labyrinths, dinosaurs made of braches, fossil digs, forts, caves, butterfly gardens and low-cost "spray grounds" consisting of grass and sprinklers.

Certain plants and shrubs, such as lilac bushes, form natural canopies for kids to play beneath while providing shade and a sense of privacy. "Kids love to be in small, confined spaces. They like the sense of security, the sense of enclosure," King said.

Whenever adults question the wisdom or value of natural playgrounds, King has them do a simple exercise: Think back to a Saturday morning in your childhood and write down your favorite outdoor play activities. List makers usually come up with things like rolling down hills, snowball fights, building forts in the woods, playing games like "statue," or just leaning against a tree, daydreaming.

"Very, very few adults in all our meetings and workshops have said 'my favorite outdoor play activity was sliding on the playground slide,' or 'playing on the monkey rings,' or 'going up and down on the see-saw.'" King reports on his web site. "The funny thing is that when we work in schools, we ask children the same question, and even though they have all this safe, expensive, manufactured equipment on their playground, their favorite play activities still have nothing to do with it. They like flying kites, or damming water, or bouncing the tennis ball against the wall, or playing tag or king of the hill using the big boulder in the middle of the playground, or throwing snowballs at a tree, or watching butterflies and ants, or rolling down the hill, or sitting on the stone wall with a friend, or making fairy houses."

Nevertheless, due in part to safety and liability concerns, naturalized playgrounds typically are an easier sell than natural playgrounds. "In certain climates in the U.S., you can't have a fallen log because in a few months you'll have chiggers and ticks in it," Christensen said. "And insurability issues come into play. If kids are playing on this log and the bark sloughs off and they fall and break their arm, the parents will be looking to sue someone."

Manufactured rocks and logs can meet engineering criteria for strength, longevity and safety, while complying with CPSC standards.

Christensen said one manufacturer combines the best of both worlds, using real boulders as bases for climbing structures with added polyurethane handles to make up for insufficient natural handholds and footholds.

Despite concerns, natural playgrounds continue to pick up despite the economy, and last year King's business grew by 400 percent, he said, adding that natural playgrounds are laid out to encourage running and movement.

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.



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