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Why Playground Play Is So Important for Kids

Why Playground Play Is So Important for Kids

I lived at the playground when I was younger. Those were the days when the metal slides were long, the swings went super high, and the tire swing whirled uncontrollably with 4-5 kids hanging on for dear life. Playgrounds have changed in recent years. Slides and swings have gotten shorter and long gone are the merry-go-rounds, large jungle gyms, and teeter totters. I’ve always thought of that as a good thing for the safety of my children. In fact, when we stumble upon an older playground in rural towns, I immediately feel unsure if I should allow my kids to play at them. But recently I been reading articles about the loss of these classic playground structures and why playground play is so important for kids – even in their new state.

Kids playing at the playground

When Owen (age 3) was recently evaluated to have some sensory processing issues, I immediately began research on it. The first thing we did was create a quiet space for him to go when he needed to cool down and decompress. During my research, I stumbled upon Angela Hanscom, an occupational therapist who started a nature-based development program for children. Her solution for enhancing children’s sensory processing is giving them access to challenging outdoor play in unstructured nature settings and on playgrounds. She recently received a lot of press for her Washington Post article about the need for longer recess time in school.

She writes,

In order to create actual changes to the sensory system that results in improved attention over time, children NEED to experience what we call “rapid vestibular (balance) input” on a daily basis. In other words, they need to go upside down, spin in circles, and roll down hills. They need authentic play experiences that get them moving in all different directions in order to stimulate the little hair cells found in the vestibular complex (located in the inner ear). If children do this on a regular basis and for a significant amount of time, then (and only then) will they experience the necessary changes needed to effectively develop the balance system–leading to better attention and learning in the classroom.”

I always thought of playgrounds as a place to sap kids’ energy but now I know there’s a deeper process happening there. So that’s what we’ve been doing – going to our local playground and swinging on our outdoor playset as much as possible. And, you know what? It’s been amazing.

Owen and I like to go on the tandem swing together. When we first get on, he is all over the place and unfocused. After a few minutes, he starts talking about his day. Then silence follows with comments about birds he hears and the sounds of leaves blowing on the trees. After still more time, he gets in his zone and starts making up stories about the woods. When we get off, he’s calmer and more focused and can (mostly) make it through dinner without a temper tantrum or angry outburst. And, as an extra bonus, it’s therapeutic for me after a long day at work.

It’s been a similar experience at the traditional playground. We are lucky to live near one that was built fully handicap-accessible and has the playground equipment that spins, challenges, and encourages movement in all directions – a great combination for children’s play and health!

What’s your experience been – have you found playground play to be important for your kids?

Little boys at the playground

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