Playgrounds Provide a Myriad of Developmental Benefits for Children
Although a school playground may seem like just fun, many benefits come from children spending time with other kids and 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. Learning through play is an integral part of growing up. 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.
Read the full article or skip to a specific section:
- What is Play?
- Non-Screen Time
- Physical Benefits
- Mental Benefits
- Emotional Benefits
- Social Benefits
- Other Benefits
- Age Groups
Understanding What Play Is
To decipher the importance of play and playgrounds for children, you must first 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. Like eating and sleeping, 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
Today’s kids only spend an average of 30 minutes a day outside. Those same kids average seven hours in front of electronics, such as television, tablets, computers and phones daily. Electronics hold critical importance in families’ lives today. The ubiquity of home-based and hybrid learning alongside the increased use of technology in the physical classroom means kids are receiving more screen time than ever.
Building digital literacy skills are certainly important as kids grow up in an increasingly tech-forward world. Electronics have also played an essential role in combatting learning loss amid school closures. Kids’ increased reliance on electronics makes setting aside some screen-free time and some playtime outside all the more critical.
While most parents recognize their kids aren’t active enough during the day, some aren’t sure why it’s so important or how to alleviate these concerns when e-learning is so vital in today’s world.
Most parents would agree they want their kids to be physically healthy, 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 some time outside and away from digital devices whenever feasible, you’re not only aiding your child’s physical well-being — 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.
It’s not feasible to deny your children all forms of media in the current educational and cultural environment. Still, 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.
Over the last few decades, kids have experienced a 25% decline in playtime and a 50% decrease in outdoor activities. Their amount of free time has dropped by 12 hours a week.
In recent times, structured activities such as afterschool programs and sports have often taken a back seat. The good news is giving your kids more free time and fewer afterschool activities can have positive effects. It gives kids time to get bored and make their own fun, which is excellent for developing their creativity and independence. It has also been shown to reduce the stress and anxiety that comes from being overscheduled. Experts recommend limiting kids to one sport per season or activity per session.
Restrict Kids’ Media Time
With kids having to spend a full day of school online and often additional time doing homework, it can be difficult to limit kids’ media time. Experts recommend limiting screen use to one to two hours a day and that no child under age 2 should have any screen time. However, that’s not always possible in the age of e-learning.
If you can, consider implementing some limit on your kids’ free time spent on devices.
When media and screens are all over your house, imposing a strict time limit and monitoring time spent online outside of school activities can be challenging. You might use parental controls on your kids’ devices, web browsers, the family television and your Wi-Fi router to help keep kids in check. Explain why you’re limiting screen time, and impose some of your rules on yourself. When the whole family enjoys some screen-free time together, it can be easier for everyone to avoid the temptation.
Another strategy is to provide plenty of alternatives. On rainy days, encourage your kids to play board games or read a book. When the weather is fair, plan trips to the local playground to help them have fun and burn off some extra energy.
Don‘t Allow Any Form of Media in a Child’s Room, if Possible
Screens in the bedroom can encourage kids to isolate themselves with their devices instead of spending time with the family. When kids watch television or surf the web from the comfort of their room, they also have less supervision. It’s easier for kids to access age-inappropriate content or hide their online activities from their parents. Using screens right before bedtime or in bed at any time of day can also disrupt sleep hygiene. Instead, the AAP recommends putting televisions and computers in a shared family area.
If your whole family is working and learning from home, your kids might have no option except to attend classes via their devices in their room. If possible, dedicate a quiet learning space somewhere else in your home where your kids can use their devices for school without having to bring them to their bedrooms. If attending virtual classes from the bedroom is the only feasible option for your kids, consider requiring them to use their devices outside of their room during their free time.
Create a Plan for How Your Kids Use Their Media
It can be helpful to determine where and when children are using media. The AAP has developed a framework to help parents develop a plan for their household media usage that lets you customize rules and goals for your family’s values and lifestyle. Your plan can help you:
- Set screen-free zones, like at the dinner table, and designate a charging spot outside the bedroom.
- Maintain a device curfew and set screen-free hours.
- Monitor your kids’ sleep and exercise.
- Prevent kids from accessing age-inappropriate websites and content.
- Discover educational media and programs that impart good values and model interpersonal skills.
- Teach your kids how to be responsible and safe online.
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 include problem-solving, discovery, creativity, reasoning and dexterity — all of which are important for a growing kid.
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 twist 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 many 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 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 3 and 5.
- Kids should be able to use play areas to 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.
Playgrounds can aid physical development in four critical areas.
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 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 improve kids’ health overall. 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 7% of kids were considered obese. Thirty years later, studies found upwards of 1 in 3 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 — 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 kid 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. What’s more, 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 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 kid 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 to 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 day care 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, they may be more likely to engage with learning and 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. 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, alongside when to keep trying and when it makes sense to stop.
When kids are playing 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. 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 Spans
When children spend hours texting or looking at 60-second videos for entertainment, it does little to help them learn how to deal with tasks that require focused attention for longer periods. 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 kid at the playground. Maybe you would 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.
Besides 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.
Using their imagination lets kids exercise their mental and creative muscles. While play may seem frivolous, children learn a lot through playing. Pretending is one way 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 and identities. It helps them construct a strong sense of self through likes, dislikes and beliefs. This continues throughout a child’s life, starting 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 kid might be good at explaining a game’s rules, while another excels at organizing teams or setting up an obstacle course. Play allows different kids to develop their leadership skills while 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. They meet people who are different from them and develop the skills they need to play successfully with different children. 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 — alongside 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 Seven 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 seven senses by exploring the outdoors. 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.
Here’s how playtime can help kids develop each of their seven senses.
- Sight: The great outdoors and colorful playground equipment provide lots of visual stimulation. Think of all there is to see — birds and insects flitting by, plant life blooming around the park, a bright blue sky, puffy clouds overhead and color-coordinated play structures. These visuals can all help kids sharpen their observation skills and provide exciting sights they can’t see while indoors. Babies, toddlers and kids can also gain exposure to the facial expressions and body language of others on the playground. This visual cue helps them develop social and emotional awareness.
- Hearing: Many aspects of play help children develop their ability to perceive sounds from vibrations. Wildlife chittering and chirping away, gusts of wind rustling the trees and other kids laughing and interacting on the playground provide unique auditory stimulation. Playground equipment, such as musical instruments, exposes kids to a range of sounds. Another vital skill learned through play is blocking out certain noises in the background while focusing on a task. A busy playground can be the perfect environment to develop this sensory skill.
- Smell: Kids’ sense of smell involves the chemical receptors in their upper airways. Outdoors at the park, kids can catch a whiff of some freshly mowed grass, nearby flowers, mulch, a picnic lunch and even unfamiliar people. All these new smells during play help kids learn to recognize and regulate these sensory perceptions.
- Taste: Kids’ sense of taste is closely linked to smell. Besides all the new smells that may stimulate taste, kids can eat their lunches outdoors while visiting the park or playground and enjoy treats like juice boxes or cookies.
- Touch: Playgrounds can provide lots of unique textures. Classic playground equipment like slides, sandboxes, swings and climbers all have unique shapes and materials to stimulate the sense of touch. Sensory play panels can also build on that by providing even more unfamiliar textures for kids to explore.
- Vestibular: The vestibular sense is the ability to maintain balance and body posture. Developing the vestibular sense helps kids walk and move, using the right amount of strength and movement for the activity. Spinners and climbers are great tools for kids developing their vestibular systems.
- Proprioceptive: The proprioceptive senses inform kids’ ability to position their bodies correctly to perform certain activities. Playtime activities like pushing, jumping, pulling, hanging and stretching help kids improve their proprioceptive senses. Swings, teeter-totters, climbers and ladders all stimulate this sense.
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 boost their self-esteem and positive self-image.
When kids on a playground climb a ladder or swing from monkey bars, it challenges 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, kids gain the confidence to interact with others or play on their own.
3. Kids 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 practice patience. On the playground, you must wait your turn, which means learning how to deal with frustration and occasional boredom.
4. It Can Help Their Brains Develop
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 2. 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. Playground equipment encourages social development by providing a natural backdrop for interaction. 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 kids spend approximately 80% of their time interacting socially with others while on the playground. 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.
Kids who play outside are more self-aware, and their awareness of others and their feelings also improves. 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.
While that doesn’t mean there won’t be arguments over whose turn it is to go down the slide or shoot a basket, 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 kids the opportunity 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 Equipment for Social Development 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 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 skills, 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. Kids may ask for parental assistance when they tackle those difficult monkey bars for the first time. Or, maybe they want your architectural expertise when building 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 for how to play, 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, it can blossom.
Many children’s games don’t involve a winner or a loser. Instead, they encourage some shared activity that aims for 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. Play also helps children learn self-control and how to work together through both collaboration and negotiation. It’s where they take the first steps that prepare them for relationships with others throughout their life.
Children look forward to playtime because 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. 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 qualities will help a kid 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 the sensory and emotional benefits playgrounds can bring, they also offer many 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 how these natural elements work.
On a mental or emotional level, interacting with natural environments can also decrease stress and increase a sense of 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 allows kids to enjoy the outdoors, breathe fresh air and have fun without the need for a screen or any technology.
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 kid can play than by providing them with a quality playground?
How Playground Equipment Benefits Child Development for Different Ages
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 1-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.
According to researcher Mildred Parten, depending on your child’s stage of development, they will fall into one of six stages of play. Parten’s stages of play outline many stages of social development. While these stages can often follow a general timeline in terms of age, kids can progress through each stage at their own pace, depending on their development. They are not strictly tied to age.
Within the first few months of its life, a baby is in the unoccupied play stage. What might look like random movements is your child learning more about how the world functions, which helps them build a strong foundation for the other stages of play.
Between the ages of birth and 2 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 independently, developing their senses and acclimating to the world around them.
Around 2 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 and 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. They’ll also begin to understand 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 helps them learn to master a skill or task.
3. Younger Kids
Once your child is around 3 or 4, 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, or 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 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 way 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 realize there are sometimes rules everyone must follow, and it also helps them know when it’s OK to break away from rules that may not be fair to everyone.
At this stage of development, kids often incorporate cooperative play. This involves kids working and playing together while sharing a goal or purpose. Playing sports, whether on an organized team or in a pickup game in the park, is a common example of cooperative play. At this stage, kids piece together their social and communication skills to play with other children. They learn to take turns, share, respect others, cooperate and resolve conflicts.
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 build 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’ve mentioned just a few of the benefits of encouraging your children to play outside. So many more exist. Perhaps one positive 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 skills children can learn through playing.
It’s critical to leave plenty of time for your kids to learn and develop through play and explore their world through unstructured time. With all the distractions and screens available to them, it seems challenging to get your kids to use their free time for unstructured physical play.
One of the best things you can do to encourage play is to get your kids outdoors. It’s the best way to open up their imagination and get them moving. Inside your own house, kids may quell their boredom through the path of least resistance, whether that’s the television or their smartphone.
A park or playground provides just enough stimulation to keep them entertained and give them ideas for what to do. A playground decked out with lots of equipment gives kids an immediate choice to make — “Do I want to go on the swings, the rock wall or the slide?” They get to choose their own activities, which is at the heart of unstructured free play. Older kids may use the equipment for imaginative play or to develop their own games.
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, day care or community. We also provide a range of accessible playground equipment to promote inclusivity for all. To learn more or begin the process of installing your new playground, contact us today.