How playground design delivers play “nutrition”

When children visit a playground, are they getting all the “food groups” in their play experience? This is the intriguing question put forward by Israeli researcher, consultant, and playground designer Ya’ara Bashan-Haham.

Since completing her master’s degree in playground design in 2006, Bashan-Haham has dedicated herself to teaching and promoting the importance of active free play in playground settings. Her memes describing how playgrounds provide different elements of developmental “nutrition” for children were featured in a previous article at Active for Life.

Bashan-Haham points out that we don’t question the fact that kids need a variety of nutrition from their food. However, we aren’t necessarily conscious of their need to play in diverse ways in order to develop a variety of motor, social, emotional, and cognitive skills.

There are several questions that Bashan-Haham suggests parents ask when they watch their children play at the playground:

  • What motor activities does the playground promote?
  • What muscles are being strengthened during play?
  • Does the playground allow the child to experience social-cooperative play?
  • Does any of the equipment encourage imaginative play?
  • Does the equipment promote the development of spatial perception?
  • Are there different materials in and around the playground that children can learn about?

Some examples of motor activities include swinging, climbing, hanging, sliding, rolling, jumping, and landing from different heights. In addition to developing specific movement skills, playgrounds that promote these activities also help children to develop general physical capacities such as agility, coordination, balance, movement organization, power regulation, and spatial perception.

When it comes to muscle development and strength, children need to be working their entire body. Accordingly, the playground design should support activities that stimulate and develop the muscles of the hands, legs, shoulders, and abdomen. Monkey bars are great in this regard. Meanwhile, equipment that promotes social and interactive play might include things such as a playhouse, a seesaw, a double-width slide, or a swing set.

Playground equipment should also support play that stimulates and develops the vestibular system, which is essentially composed of the structures within our inner ears. When properly stimulated and developed, the vestibular system provides most of our sense of balance and spatial orientation. It helps us to sense rotational movement and linear acceleration of our body, for example, and this in turn helps us to coordinate our movement with balance. Swings, ziplines, and carousels are good examples of equipment that support development of the vestibular system.

The next time you visit a playground with your child, reflect on some of these questions to get a measure of the quality of the playground. As Bashan-Haham points out, simply being active for the recommended minimum 60 minutes per day may not be enough for your child’s all-round development. It is important to be active and play in a variety of ways to develop a wide spectrum of motor, social, emotional, and cognitive skills.

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