Playgrounds Provide a Myriad of Developmental Benefits for Children
- What is Play?
- Non-Screen Time
- Physical Benefits
- Mental Benefits
- Emotional Benefits
- Social Benefits
- Other Benefits
- Age Groups
Although a school playground may seem like just fun, an array of benefits come from children spending time with other kids using playground equipment. Why are playgrounds important? In addition to physical well-being, playgrounds can provide essential experiences and development for children in areas as diverse as social skills, creativity, problem-solving, reasoning, and more. The benefits that a simple trip to the playground can provide are often more profound and far-reaching than those that even the most sophisticated modern teaching-based technologies can provide.
Understanding What Play Is
To decipher the importance of playgrounds for children, it’s helpful first to understand exactly what play is and how it helps children develop.
Play allows kids to learn a range of skills, including coordination and motor skills, cognitive skills, social acumen, language, and more. Doctors, scientists, and educators have all conducted research that proves this critical fact: Without being able to play, children may develop the skills mentioned above at a severely stunted rate. Just like eating and sleeping each day, play is vital for a child to develop the necessary skills at a healthy pace. Humans aren’t the only ones who need consistent play to be happy and well adjusted, either — other mammals like apes, dolphins, and cats need it, too!
Importance of Non-Screen Time
Did you know today’s kids only spend an average of 30 minutes a day outside? Did you also know those same kids average seven hours in front of electronics, such as television, tablets, the computer, and phones daily? There’s no denying what the statistics show. Today’s kids are swapping active, outdoor play for a more sedentary lifestyle that’s having serious consequences for their health and overall well-being.
The decline in active kids is an increased focus of influential people and media outlets, most recently by former First Lady Michelle Obama in her “Let’s Move!” campaign. But, while most parents recognize their kids aren’t active enough during the day, some aren’t really sure why it’s so important.
Most parents would agree they want their kids to be physically healthy, in addition to being well-rounded, independent, and compassionate individuals. What if we told you the best way to instill these qualities in your kids was to encourage them to spend more time outside?
By encouraging younger kids to spend more time outside and away from digital devices, you’re not only aiding your child’s physical well-being, but you’re helping them improve their emotional and intellectual well-being, too. Whether it’s a trip to the park or taking a hike through the woods, there’s no denying the benefits of stepping away from the screen and into fresh air.
As we’ve noted above, the number of time kids spend playing outside has decreased drastically in the past few decades. Children aged eight to 10 years old now spend nearly eight hours a day engaging with media — normally smartphones, computers, or televisions. Another study found children under age 13 frequently spend less than 30 minutes a week outside playing.
It would be a fool’s errand to try to deny your children all forms of media in the current cultural environment. But when children are getting so little time outside, they’re not getting the opportunity to develop the many skills play — particularly outside play — provides.
The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) has issued the following recommendations:
- Kids should get plenty of free time: The AAP suggests allowing kids to spend at least one hour a day in unstructured free play. This requirement doesn’t mean you enroll them in organized sports like soccer or baseball, as that’s not unstructured play. You may certainly make time during the week for them to engage in these activities, but they still need time for unstructured play.
- Restrict kids’ media time: Limit screen use to one to two hours a day. No child under age two should have any.
- Don’t allow any form of media in a child’s room: Instead, the AAP recommends putting televisions and computers in a shared family area.
- Create a plan for how your kids use their media: It can be helpful to determine where and when children are using media.
The Physical Benefits of Play
There are many reasons why kids need to be able to play. One of these is that it promotes basic cognitive skills. Some of these — all of which are important for a growing child — include problem-solving, discovery, creativity, reasoning, and dexterity.
Take a typical playground, and imagine your child climbing the monkey bars. They’ll need to use motor skills to swing from one bar to the next. They’ll also need hand-eye coordination to know when to swing and when to grab. These skills take reasoning as well. When your child approaches the monkey bars, they have to consider — albeit maybe only momentarily — how they’re going to get from the beginning to the end of the monkey bars. Although this may seem trivial, these skills are all used in everyday life, in differing capacities. By spending time on playgrounds, your child learns these diverse skills, tests them with different equipment, and strengthens them daily.
According to data compiled by the National Association for Sport and Physical Education, there are certain amounts of physical activity toddlers and young kids should achieve every day. These will help them to develop necessary motor skills. Some of these standards include:
- Participating in 30 minutes of structured physical exercise every day for toddlers. This number grows to 60 minutes a day for kids who are between ages three and five.
- Kids should be able to use play areas that will help them strengthen their muscles and learn hand-eye coordination. This might include overhead equipment to build upper body strength, climbing equipment to develop balance, or swings to improve coordination.
Playgrounds are a fantastic way for kids to meet these physical recommendations each day — and have fun doing so! Kids who spend a lot of active time outdoors in their early years generally continue to be more active as they age. Encouraging outdoor play in young children helps develop a healthy attitude about maintaining an active adult lifestyle.
1. Play Leads to Improved Motor Skills
Outdoor play has been shown to leave kids with more advanced motor skills than their “indoor” peers, including coordination, balance, and agility. Kids who play outside are more likely to enjoy activities like walking and biking. When children are outside, they have the space to walk, jump, swing, and throw. By allowing kids to test and stretch their physical abilities, they strengthen their bodies and become more confident in their movements. For kids who are athletes, extended time outdoors can also offer the opportunity and space to practice skills like batting, kicking, and catching.
2. It Can Improve Overall Health
Beyond developing advanced motor skills, playgrounds have also been found to lead to improved health overall for kids. Children who live within a half-mile of a park or playground are five times likelier to be a healthy weight, compared to children without this playground proximity.
In 1980, just seven percent of kids were considered obese. Thirty years later, studies found upwards of one in three kids could be considered obese. The culprit of this dramatic rise in childhood obesity is twofold — Americans are eating more and spending less time being active. Kids who spend more time playing outside are less likely to be obese because they’re more active. They’re away from the television or computer screen. They’re playing, climbing, and generally burning more calories than their sedentary counterparts. One study of preschool-age children showed a direct correlation between a child’s body mass index and the amount of time they’re permitted to be active outside. The longer the child was allowed to play outside, the lower their body mass index.
Limiting a child’s risk of becoming obese has many long-term health implications, including decreased risk for problems like cardiovascular disease, asthma, diabetes, and sleep apnea. Not only that, but exposure to sunlight improves moods and strengthens immune systems. Outdoor play has also been shown to benefit children with ADHD by giving them an outlet for the activity and energy that often creates issues indoors.
Studies have also shown kids who have close friends who also enjoy playing outdoors are more likely to spend more time outside. Therefore, encouraging kids to choose active friends can also benefit them.
3. Play Builds Muscle Strength
Did you know when you’re pushing your child in a swing, all of their muscles become engaged as they figure out how to hold on, sit up, and follow the movement of the swing? That’s right. What most parents think of as a repetitive — often monotonous — playground activity can help young children develop muscle strength. Outdoor toys like scooters, bikes, and even skateboards require your child to engage and strengthen a variety of muscle systems as well.
4. It Leads to Better Quality Sleep
It’s an oldie but a goodie — kids who spend a significant amount of time outdoors playing tend to sleep much better, go to bed much earlier, and wake up more refreshed than children who spend a lot of time indoors.
Any parent who has watched a child on a rainy Saturday afternoon knows how much bottled-up energy a child can store in that little body, and how it can create anxiety and frustration. Once the sun comes out, open the door or take them down to the playground and let them burn it off. They’ll feel better and tire their muscles while they have fun, leading to a restful night’s sleep.
The Mental Benefits of Play
If you’re still wondering why playgrounds are essential, consider the mental benefits they offer. Children playing on the playground use equipment that can help them develop a cognitive understanding of how things work — from pushing and pulling to speed and exertion. A child who is encouraged to play regularly can develop optimally, growing into a healthy, well-adjusted adult.
1. It Can Lead to Improved Academics
Growing up, your parents probably told you to finish your homework before you went outside. It turns out, your parents may have been wrong. Studies show that even letting a child play outside for as little as 20 minutes makes it easier for them to deal with homework and school assignments when they come back inside. When your kids get home, let them put their schoolbooks down and go outside to play. It helps them release pent-up anxiety and frustration and encourages them to relax when they tackle homework.
Additionally, a break for activity can help kids to focus and sit still during class or reading times, as they’ve exerted some of their energy. Some studies have found that students who were able to play during recess were better able to focus on a task. This is true both for kids with attention disorders and those without. One study found, for example, that after just 15 minutes of recess time a day, kids have better learning and improved behavior in class.
When it comes to playing in a school or daycare environment, education as a whole will become more fun. While kids are likely only using the playground in limited places, such as recess or lunch break, it can create a more overall positive dynamic in their relationship with school. As they associate school time with fun aspects, they may be more likely to engage with learning and with other students.
Putting educational toys and materials outdoors gives kids a chance to learn new information and skills by playing. When kids expand their learning space, it shows them they can learn anywhere, not just in classrooms and indoor learning spaces. For example, as they keep score during games, they’re strengthening their ability to count and learning about relationships between numbers as the score increases.
2. Play Aids in Brain Development
When children feel empowered to be whatever their imaginations conjure up, it encourages them to develop situations where creativity pushes them to improve critical thinking skills and problem-solving. They learn what works and what doesn’t, as well as when to keep trying and when it makes sense to stop.
When kids are running around outside, they’re inventing games, exploring the world around them, and experiencing feelings of independence. Besides developing these feelings of autonomy, they also cultivate their organizational abilities and decision-making skills as they work both individually and with their peers to create games, solve problems, and implement their ideas and solutions. As kids play, they also learn more about the importance of creating and following rules.
3. It Can Increase Attention Span
When children spend hours texting or looking at six-second videos for entertainment, it does little to help them learn how to deal with tasks that require focused attention for longer periods. But free play that can sometimes last for hours helps build their attention spans. Kids who have difficulty sitting still, or who struggle with pen-and-paper assignments, can deal with these longer-term tasks much more successfully after they’ve had a chance to play outside.
4. Play Limits Labels and Preconceived Ideas
When conventional rules are out the window, as often happens on a playground, kids create new worlds and rules in ways that are sometimes difficult to do at home and almost impossible to do in a classroom environment. Think about how excited you were when you were a child and would go to the playground and turn a piece of equipment into a spaceship that would take you to faraway planets. Playground equipment can help kids use their creativity and have tons of fun in the process.
In addition to simply using playground equipment, a range of other games can take place on the playground, including make-believe and sports. Make-believe games teach children social roles and coping mechanisms. Want to be a pirate? An airplane pilot? Perhaps an explorer or astronaut? The great thing about play is that it allows children to use their imaginations to create worlds where they can be anything they want to be. Pretending is one way that children can deal with traumatic situations and learn to talk through problems or conflict. Playing pretend is also an effective way for kids to try out different ideas, identities, and construct a strong sense of self through likes, dislikes, and beliefs. This continues throughout a child’s life, but it begins with these necessary and innocent exercises during play.
5. Playtime Helps Build Leadership Skills
On most playgrounds, natural leaders will arise from the group. One child might be good at explaining the rules of the game, while another excels at organizing teams or setting up an obstacle course. Play allows different kids to develop their leadership skills at the same time others are developing theirs, so it’s a win-win for everyone.
6. Your Child Will See Improved Communication Skills
When they’re on the playground or at a park, kids have many opportunities to meet other children and cultivate friendships with them. They meet people who are different than they are and develop the skills they need to play successfully with different children. While parents do facilitate this to a degree — especially if they arrange playdates with friends to meet up in an outdoor space — often playgrounds and other common outdoor spaces allow children the space they need to practice meeting and developing friendships without assistance from their parents.
The Emotional Benefits of Play
Children on playgrounds may experience decreased stress and increased levels of satisfaction and joy. Playtime is fun. Playgrounds are thrilling. The boost of endorphins — in addition to the extra dose of vitamin D from time spent in the sunlight — is likely to heighten their mood. Unstructured free play promotes children’s emotional development in these key ways.
1. It Stimulates All Five Senses
Preschoolers who watch a lot of TV are only using two of their senses — sight and hearing. That can limit their ability to process and respond to sensory stimuli they encounter as they grow. On the other hand, children who play outside are using all their senses by exploring the outdoors — perhaps even taste, as they catch snowflakes or raindrops on their tongues. For younger children, this familiarizes them with a variety of sensory experiences, so they’re better able to process them as they continue to grow and develop.
2. It Builds Self-Esteem
On an emotional level, playtime can increase self-confidence. As kids learn how to overcome obstacles, try something new, perhaps take a risk and succeed, they can feel stronger and more confident in their abilities. Playing with others and growing more comfortable socially can also lead to a boost in their self-esteem and positive self-image.
When kids on a playground climb a ladder or swing from monkey bars, it provides a challenge for them. They’re not necessarily easy tasks. But when a child overcomes them, as they swing the entire length of the bars, it gives them a sense of confidence. Whether they’re playing alone or in a group, play provides kids with the confidence to interact with others or play on their own.
3. They Experience a Range of Emotions
Playing allows kids to experience a range of emotions usually not available to them in other situations. Imagination will enable kids to overcome reality in ways that encourage them to deal with scary feelings. With older kids, free play can help them develop essential life skills like humor, tolerance, and spontaneity. Perhaps most important of all, playtime can help kids develop patience. On the playground, you must wait your turn, and that means learning how to deal with frustration and occasional boredom.
4. It Can Help Them Overcome Trauma
When kids are young, play provides a way for children to release their emotions and share their feelings. Research shows the brain continues to grow after birth and is about 80% of the adult size by the time a child is two. Play helps with this development by stimulating your child’s brain and helping them learn to communicate and deal with emotions, both complicated and straightforward.
5. Kids Will Develop a Sense of Independence
Being outside has been shown to help children develop their sense of independence. Even though a parent is usually close by, children feel a sense of freedom when they’re at the park that they don’t experience elsewhere. They get the chance to explore and take limited risks without feeling like an adult is monitoring them too closely. They can invent games with their friends, explore their boundaries, and figure out what they’re capable of doing. The confidence that results from this will help them as they continue to learn and grow. They can try tasks and activities they wouldn’t be able to do inside and apply problem-solving strategies to questions like, “Can I climb across those monkey bars?” or “Can I reach that net if I jump high enough?”
When a kid plays alone, it also allows them to observe other kids at play and learn what the norms are within the group. Then, when they want to move toward group play, they’re more aware of the rules expected of the participants.
The Social Benefits of Play
The social benefits of play for children cannot be overstated. Playgrounds provide a natural backdrop for interaction and social learning. Here’s a closer look at some of the social benefits of play.
1. It Encourages Interaction With Others
Even the shyest child can be encouraged to interact with other kids, join in group activities, and make new friends. Interacting with others is often easier when there’s a shared activity or fun element involved, which is precisely what a playground provides.
Studies have found that while on the playground, kids spend approximately 80 percent of their time interacting socially with others. This is particularly true of playgrounds with a variety of equipment types, giving kids the chance to jump in and play wherever their age and skill level allows. More mix-and-match play options, like rope climbers, encourage kids to be creative and play however they’d like as well.
Kids’ playgrounds are also a natural learning place for social themes such as sharing, taking turns, being patient, and learning how to be a good-natured winner or loser. These social lessons help kids mature with balance and positivity.
Not only are kids who play outside more self-aware, but their awareness of others and their feelings increase as well. Studies have even shown that kids who play outdoors are less likely to bully other children. Outdoor play often requires imagination and teamwork, which helps children have positive interactions with each other. That doesn’t mean there won’t be arguments over whose turn it is to go down the slide or shoot a basket, but, in general, kids who consistently play outdoors are more likely to get along with their peers and find common ground. Of course, it doesn’t hurt that soaking up all that sunshine and fresh air improves their moods as well. It’s harder to be angry at someone when you’re in a good mood!
2. It Still Allows for Solo Play
In addition to social interaction, playgrounds also offer the opportunity for kids to become more comfortable playing by themselves. They have an outdoor world where they can explore and unlock their imagination, creating their own games or ideas. Their intrapersonal relationships will grow along with their interpersonal relationships.
Kids who play outdoors are more likely to develop stronger reasoning and observation skills. As we mentioned earlier, a playground activity like swinging has many physical benefits for kids, but it also allows them to explore the world from a different perspective. It shows them how to be aware of the space they’re in and understand the concept of “cause and effect” as they see what happens when a grownup pushes them.
3. The Playground Provides a Place for Inclusive Play
Playgrounds designed with accessibility in mind can provide an invaluable opportunity for kids to learn about inclusivity from a young age. By playing in the same space as kids who might have special needs or disabilities, kids will be able to see similarities rather than differences, creating a more inclusive mindset.
This is true for kids with varying levels of abilities, too. By providing equipment that caters to different ages and abilities, kids who are more confident or athletically-inclined can play on the same playground as those still learning basic motor skills.
Many Miracle Recreation® playgrounds, for example, are specifically designed to be inclusive playgrounds for all. These target multi-sensory play and allow greater accessibility through wider, wheelchair-accessible spaces and shock-absorbent surfaces. Playgrounds can also offer quieter, cozier spaces for those who aren’t comfortable playing with many other kids or loud noises.
Through playground experiences like these, kids can gain invaluable social experiences by interacting with kids of all ability levels.
4. Play Increases Openness With Parents and Caregivers
When kids are indoors, they’re often in smaller spaces and competing with other children, such as schoolmates or siblings, for attention. It can get loud and overwhelming, which often causes kids — especially younger ones — to be intimidated and increasingly quiet. That can prevent them from opening up and sharing with their caregivers. When kids spend time outside, they generally feel less overwhelmed because they’re not in a confined space and competing with others for attention. This feeling of having the physical space to move and breathe often results in a child being more willing to open up and talk about things with their parent or caregiver.
Kids don’t only play with their friends. Sometimes, they want to play with their parents. Asking for assistance when they tackle those difficult monkey bars for the first time, helping build a city in a playground’s sandbox — when parents and children share these activities, it helps produce a strong emotional bond and a sense of trust.
5. It Increases Your Child’s Ability to Listen and Collaborate
When kids invent a game and rules about how to play that game, they must listen carefully to what other kids are saying. They learn how to ask for clarification. They determine how to negotiate and compromise. Listening is one of the most valuable skills for any adult, and on the playground, this skill can blossom.
Many children’s games don’t involve a winner or a loser, but instead some shared activity that includes a common goal. To achieve that goal, kids learn to work together and help each other. They become part of a team of friends who work together. Role-playing helps kids understand real-life relationships. They begin to learn about roles and the cultural rules that determine them. They develop relationships and then test them, perhaps as often as each new trip to the playground. They learn self-control, and as mentioned above, they find out about collaboration and negotiation. It’s where they take the first steps that prepare them for relationships with others throughout their life.
One reason children look forward to playtime is that it gives them a chance to see and engage with their friends outside of organized activity, like school. Play allows them to make new friends and even learn how to deal with stressful situations with old friends. When playing with others, kids learn how to navigate a complex social network. When you look at a playground, you usually see a group of kids happily at play — but much more is happening than meets the eye. As kids play with each other, they’re learning critical everyday skills and lessons about engaging with others.
These are all qualities that will help a child with their social interactions in school, within a wider community, among friends, and eventually in the workplace and adult relationships.
Other Benefits of Playgrounds
In addition to sensory and emotional benefits playgrounds can bring, they also offer a host of other positives.
1. Develop a Stronger Sense of Community
In addition to schools, another common location for a playground is in a community park. Playgrounds can serve as a focal point to the area, enabling kids from different races, abilities, ages, and socioeconomic backgrounds to interact. Kids can develop an expanded understanding of the world and their place in it. A playground can also provide an enhanced sense of community spirit and pride as kids learn to see their public playgrounds as shared spaces with their neighbors.
2. Create a Dynamic Relationship With Nature
Playgrounds and parks can provide an opportunity for kids to interact with nature. From sand pits to water pools — not to mention surrounding trees, shrubs, and flowers — playgrounds allow kids to play in a dynamic outdoor setting. This may lead to kids becoming more curious about the world around them and interested in learning how these natural elements work.
On a mental or emotional level, interacting with natural environments can also decrease stress and lead to increased calm and peace.
3. Bring a Little Excitement to a Child’s Day
Playgrounds encourage kids to embrace adventure. Kids can play, swing, slide, and climb, stretching their limbs and learning valuable social skills at the same time. There’s also an unquantifiable sense of action and free-spirited thrill that comes with a playground. It gives kids an opportunity to enjoy the outdoors, breathe fresh air, and have fun without the need for a screen or any technology.
It’s undisputed that play is essential to a child’s well-being. In fact, it’s so crucial to development that it’s recognized as a right of every child by the United Nations High Commission for Human Rights. And what better way to ensure each child can play than by providing them with a quality playground?
How Play Benefits Different Age Groups
It’s no secret that kids play differently at different stages of their lives. You can’t expect a toddler to play the same way as a 12-year-old. Even though they show different interests depending on their developmental stage, children of all ages can benefit from outdoor play. That’s true not only during their younger years but also as they continue to grow into adults.
While outdoor play will look different as children grow and change, parents need to remember all outdoor activity is beneficial to children. While a one-year-old may not be able to swing on monkey bars or slide down a slide alone, they’re learning a slide feels smooth, sunshine is bright, and birds live in the trees around the park where you go to explore.
Depending on your child’s age, they will fall into one of six stages of play, according to researcher Mildred Parten.
Within the first few months of its life, a baby is in the unoccupied play stage. What might look like random movements are actually your child learning more about how the world functions, which helps them build a strong foundation to build the other stages of play upon.
Between the ages of birth and two years old, children are limited in what they can do outside. This is the solitary play stage. They may not even notice other children who are sitting or playing right beside them because they’re exploring their world. At this point, they have limited physical, cognitive, and social skills, but the time they’re spending alone is part of the developmental benefits of play. Most kids will explore or play on their own, developing their senses and acclimating to the world around them.
Around two years old, you may notice your child observing older kids at play, although they’ll most likely still prefer to play on their own. This is called the “onlooker” phase. They watch other kids play because doing so helps them learn how to relate to others. They’ll frequently ask questions of the children they’re observing but typically make no effort to join in the play.
Another type of play at this stage is parallel play, which is when your child will play alongside other kids but with no interaction. This process will provide a toddler with opportunities to role-play and begin to understand the idea behind the concept of “mine.” This time is also when parents will come to dread the word “again.” While it may be frustrating, repeating actions is essential for your kids because it’s helping them learn to master a skill or task.
3. Younger Kids
Once your child is around the age of three or four, they become more interested in other kids than in their toys. Young kids continue to engage in parallel play, and they also enter the stage known as associative play. During this stage, kids take what they learned from the earlier stages of play and use it to engage with other children and practice playing. They start to learn how to share and develop rudimentary problem-solving skills. There’s no formal organization to this kind of play, although kids often have similar goals. They want to play with the same toys — maybe even trade them back and forth.
4. Older Kids (Up to Age 12)
Free play is critical during the early school years. Play is how kids learn to socialize. It improves their thinking skills and problem-solving abilities and helps them develop many of the skills they’ll need in adult life. This process is especially important for older kids. One of the ways they frequently explore new roles, complex emotions, and even new vocabulary is through fantasy play.
As kids grow up, their play becomes more complex and layered. They start to assume adult roles and think in abstract ways about play. This is when they’ll also begin to learn about gameplay and rules. Games like Simon Says help kids learn there are sometimes rules everyone must follow, but it also helps them learn when it’s OK to break away from rules that may not be fair to everyone.
Encourage Your Children to Play
As kids grow older, you may need to encourage them to find time for outdoor play. Exploring parks and playgrounds can be just the way to help your kids enjoy being outside, whether they’re playing alone or with their friends.
By encouraging your kids to play in unstructured free play, you’re helping them learn the skills they’ll one day need as adults. You’re helping them learn to think more critically and teaching them how to develop relationships with other people, solve problems, understand societal norms, and develop leadership skills and independence. In other words, you’re helping them grow up to be the person you’d always hoped they would be.
We mentioned just a few of the benefits of encouraging your children to play outside above, but there are so many more. Perhaps one benefit we didn’t mention earlier may be among the most important: Playing outdoors is fun. When you encourage your children to play outside, you remind them of that. All the other answers to the question, “Why is free play important for child development?” link back to the same concept. In the end, having fun is the key that opens the door to all the benefits mentioned above.
Create a New Playground Today With Miracle Recreation
For more than 90 years, Miracle Recreation has been in the business of providing families, schools, and communities with playground equipment that encourages all the best benefits of outdoor play. Generations of families have grown up using our playground equipment.
Once you fully grasp the many life-changing benefits that play can have upon a developing child, a quality playground goes from being a luxury to a necessity. Miracle Recreation offers the ultimate in playgrounds that are both functional and fun. We use only durable, long-lasting material that will become the centerpiece of your school, park, daycare, or community. We also provide a range of accessible playground equipment designed to promote inclusivity for all. To learn more or begin the process of installing your new playground, contact us today.