parenting babble

The Science of Playgrounds: Are We Sacrificing Fun for Safety?

But seeing my son on his school playground breaks my heart a bit. There are two simple, prefab play sets, each with a slide, a set of stairs, and a ladder. The kids aren’t allowed to run, after too many instances of falling and colliding with each other. They can play ball, but they can’t kick the balls up in the air because sometimes they go over the fence. It’s hot and there’s no shade. That’s why designers, landscape architects, and child development experts are transforming community and school play spaces and breaking the mold on the “McDonald’s style” play structures. After watching these fresh ideas in action, it’s hard to see the old-school playground the same way. Playground supply companies shuttle equipment around the country, so a playground in our Southern California neighborhood might look almost identical to the ones my son sees in my New York hometown or his grandparents’ Houston suburb. It’s a magical place, with mostly natural elements instead of playground equipment. There’s a garden, a biking area, and a dirt hill under trees where kids can run water and dig to make rivers. Every afternoon last year, I’d find my son engrossed in a dirt- or sand-based project, shoveling and transporting materials while the kids all planned and shouted directions. “When I was young we could still climb trees,” says the preschool yard’s director. “We ran through fields and skinned our knees. We played outside on rainy days … unfortunately we’re now overlooking this for ‘safety’ and what is bright and plastic.” The preschool’s yard takes inspiration from Reggio Emilia schools in Italy, where there is no manmade play equipment to climb on, just the trees, rocks, and grass already there. Last year, when my son was in his final year of preschool, they took out the slide structure and put in a series of boulders (that look and feel real, but are artificial) for climbing. All this made a big impression on my son, who’s just waiting to get his hands on that yard again when his little sister starts preschool next year. “There was so much to do on that yard,” he tells me. “There’s nothing to do on the playground at my school now.”
My son’s assessment is echoed by studies of playground design. Kids have been shown to be highly sedentary on traditional playgrounds, just like I saw at his elementary school. Researchers at the University of Tennessee monitored kids’ play and activity levels on the traditional metal and plastic playground, measuring things such as how often they used the slides, the intensity of their activity, and how much time they spent in the shade. Over the course of months, the playground was transformed; a gazebo and the slides were built into a hill with trees, a small creek, rocks, flowers, logs, and tree stumps. Activity levels went up, and kids did more imaginary play. Moreover, the time kids spent playing doubled, and they engaged in more strengthening and aerobic exercise. In our area, some public elementary schools have started with smaller steps by leveling school spaces previously occupied by bungalows and putting in gardens. Given the choice, I take my kids to the grassy hill in our neighborhood and watch them roll, pick flowers, run, or try to climb a tree. These motor skills are challenging for my two-year-old, but not for my six-year-old and his friends, who have taken to climbing on parts of the structures not meant for climbing (like the tops of the tunnels) in order to make things interesting. But playing outside, just like playing inside, doesn’t have to be fancy at all to be satisfying.

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