Laughter. Running. Jumping. Climbing. Swinging. Sliding. When you think of a playground, you think of a happy, carefree environment. But there’s much more going on than just fun. IPEMA likes to think of playgrounds as nature’s many colorful, open, hands-on classrooms that provide tremendous learning opportunities to kids of all ages. The Voice of Play’s goal is to educate those about the benefits of play and to influence change in the way most people think about play. Play shouldn’t always be seen as a silly, extracurricular, optional activity, but rather an essential tool in a child’s development. Research shows that outdoor free play gives kids many valuable benefits, including the development of physical, emotional, social and cognitive skills.
“It is a happy talent to know how to play.”
– Ralph Waldo Emerson
If you asked kids why they run, jump, swing or climb, they’ll tell you, “…because it’s fun.” But research shows outdoor play is much more than just fun, it’s necessary to help kids be physically fit and healthy. When kids are playing, they are learning reflexes and movement control, developing fine and gross motor skills and increasing flexibility and balancing skills. On top of that, when kids are involved in physical activity, they’re building stronger muscles and improving bone density, improving heart and lung function and preventing obesity, diabetes and high cholesterol.
Taking kids to the playground is one of the most fun, and healthy, things you can do for – and with – them. There are so many different types of playground equipment today, so regardless of their age group and ability, all children can physically benefit from outdoor play on a playground.
Kids have access to so much technology today, and it can truly decrease the amount of time they spend engaged in physical play. Parents, as one of the best advocates for physical activity and play, limit your children’s screen time and set an example of a healthy, active lifestyle that includes plenty of play. It’s the first step toward putting your children on a path to good physical health.
“In our play we reveal what kind of people we are.”
– Ovid Roman Poet 427-347 BC
While you can actually see the physical benefits of play, there are also internal benefits that free play provides, like a child’s emotional development. Free play has an important role to a child’s emotional growth, and research has pointed to three areas where play helps children develop emotionally: building self-confidence and esteem; experimenting with various emotions; and releasing emotions from trauma.
Self-Confidence and Self-Esteem
Playground equipment like climbers and overhead hanging apparatuses present kids with physical challenges, and free play encourages them to take risks. When kids take that risk and overcome the challenge, they develop a sense of accomplishment that leads to higher self-esteem. Free play also encourages children to develop skills that build self-confidence, such as conflict resolution and imaginative dramatic play. Social development with children—and the ability to play on their own—are also important factors in building self-confidence.
Experimenting with Emotions
Remember when you used to play? Using pretend play, you utilized your imagination to break out of your limitations and reality—and not much has changed today. Research shows that children use free play to express their emotions and learn to deal with their fears and scary experiences. Free play allows children to fully express themselves without anyone or anything holding them back. Remember when your playground equipment magically turned into a car, a house or a school? Equipment like tunnels or enclosed spaces fosters experimentation, and kids use their imagination and pretend play to experience different feelings and outcomes. These experiences and emotions change as kids grow older. For example, preschoolers develop emotional strength and stability, while older children develop spontaneity and humor.
Releasing Emotions from Trauma
Encouraging children to express themselves emotionally during play is just as important as encouraging good physical health. Free play has proven to be therapeutic for children who are emotionally distressed from traumatic situations like child abuse, family disruptions and/or the experience of natural disaster or war. Studies show that when playing, children can release emotions and “play out” their traumas so they can share feelings freely.
Some may think that playing alone encourages children to shy away from others. On the contrary, solitary play helps kids socially, as it develops a strong sense of independence, promotes creativity and imagination and alleviates boredom when they devise their own entertainment. When a child plays alone on the playground, they can also learn social cues by observing other kids’ interactions without being part of them.
As important as solitary play is, group play is where kids learn with social roles and cultural rules, develop the appropriate cooperation skills and familiarize themselves with a shared system of symbols, including verbal and body language. Group play isn’t just kids having fun with one another—it’s teaching them about real-life relationships. When children develop and test relationships, they learn self-control and negotiation skills. They also learn survival skills, independence and acceptable group activities to build on as they grow up. Group play helps children prepare for a lifetime of interacting with others.
Inclusion is a Value for Life
Inclusion is an important value that children learn from the playground. Research has shown that children assign value to those who they “think” they can play with and those they cannot. Their perception is that those who play are contributors, and those who don’t play are not. Therefore, children with disabilities who are prevented from playing on playgrounds—because of non-inclusive equipment or surfacing—are already facing the disadvantage of being recognized by their peers as having a lesser value than the children that are playing. Unfortunately, the “contributor status” often carries on through adulthood. Making sure playground equipment and surfacing is accessible for all kids—disability or no disability—is one way to ensure children develop social skills and achieve critical peer status on equal ground.
A wide variety of experts agree that play is essential for a child’s brain development. Studies have shown that free play affects neurological development and determines how the neural circuits of the brain are wired. In other words, free play affects a child’s confidence, intelligence and ability to articulate. Jean Piaget, a leading child development theorist, believed that the role of play in constructing knowledge is the most clearly articulated avenue of children’s development. Our favorite neighbor, Fred Rogers, once said, “Play gives children a chance to practice what they are learning,” and it couldn’t be more true.
Brain and Skill Development
We are the adults we are today partially due to free play. Play helps children develop language and reasoning skills, encourages autonomous thinking and problem solving as well as helps improve their ability to focus and control their behavior. Play also aids children to learn discovery and develop verbal and manipulative skills, judgment and reasoning and creativity. Play experiences also teach children about consequences and risk, which helps them in decision making as they grow up. Children learn and practice many of the skills they will need as adults because of free play.
Cognitive Play Equipment
While kids are swinging, running through or climbing on it, certain types of playground equipment enable children’s cognitive learning. According to research, swings help kids learn perceptual processes and body awareness through space; decorative barriers and activity panels, like the tic-tac-toe panel, improve children’s perception of form and shape, spatial orientation, depth and size and their visual and tactile perception; and overhead hanging equipment, like hanging rings and monkey bars, helps kids learn scientific concepts such as force of gravity and spatial awareness.
Even when they’re not overly academic, playing games both alone and in groups can be an important learning tool for kids. Games teach kids to plan and make decisions; and make and understand strategy, rules and objectives. In addition games encourage the ability to focus and lengthen their attention span.