Playgrounds – The epicentre for child development and learning

Growing a child is much like building a house – it’s all about the foundation. Critical factors for developing foundations are movement, touch, human connection, and nature – which are best achieved in outdoor playground settings. When critical factors for development are achieved, the result is a happy, well adjusted child who has attained the necessary foundation skills for school entry and success.

Movement helps build core stability, which is integral for eventual motor coordination necessary for printing, reading and sports. The best type of movement for skill development is found in rough and tumble-type play activities which challenge the child’s balance and muscle systems. Movement also provides children with an “energy release”, and has been shown in numerous studies to improve attention, learning and behaviour. Children who are sedentary can have delayed development, as well as may have difficulty paying attention or show problematic behaviours. While some movement can occur in indoor settings, optimal movement is best achieved on the playground where there is a large variety of equipment that promotes a strong core and motor coordination.

Touch lowers anxiety by decreasing cortisol and adrenalin, and helps a child learn how to self regulate or control their energy states in order to eventually be able to pay attention and learn. Touch also helps a child attain body awareness necessary for planned movement patterns needed for any refined movements. Children who are touch deprived are often highly anxious and have difficulty with transitions and self regulation. Children who don’t receive adequate touch don’t appear to have boundaries, and may be observed to have clumsy-type movement patterns. Touch is best achieved in rough and tumble play settings found on the playground.

Human connection and socialization are integral for attachment formation and eventual development of social relationships. Children with malformed attachments have difficulty interacting with peers and adults, and may require additional support from adults in daycare, preschool and school-based settings. While one to one and small group socialization occurs in indoor settings, the opportunity to interact with large groups in play activities is usually best achieved on the playground.

“Green space” found in nature and playground settings has been shown to be calming and restorative to a child’s attention and learning systems, and therefore integral for development. Countries with the highest literacy rates in the world (Iceland and Finland) have outdoor daycares which enhance child development through provision of movement, touch, human connection, and nature. Ontario has followed this concept in many daycare and preschool settings, and Surrey this past year opened BC’s first outdoor school. Children who are deprived of nature and outdoor play can be observed to have difficulty calming down to be able to pay attention and learn. With more and more parents interested in the progressive outdoor school concept, daycare, preschool and school-based settings are challenged to include more interesting and stimulating playground equipment to entice all children to come outside and play.

Ensuring every child receives adequate movement, touch, human connection, and nature is difficult in today’s technology focused world, and requires adults to manage balance between technology and health activity.

There are many ways that parents, teachers, therapists, government, researchers and technology production corporations can manage this balance between technology and healthy activity, a concept termed Balanced Technology Management. Playgrounds that offer developmentally appropriate equipment and nature environments serve to entice children to play outside. Children need space to run, climbing, swinging and springy devices, grassy hills and valleys for rolling, and cement paths for trikes and bikes. Care needs to be taken to provide equipment for older children as well, such as zip lines, climbing walls, tree houses, and exercise equipment for older siblings. Providing outdoor, covered exercise equipment and benches is attractive to the adult population, making the park or playground a desired destination by families. Making a perimeter using garden boxes, and adding a few picnic tables, would prove attractive to almost any family.

Playgrounds can be created at daycare, preschool or school-based locations, or any vacant field or city lot. Safety considerations would be to locate playgrounds away from major car traffic, or fence whole area with entry/exits in areas of lighter traffic flow. Trees should be limbed 6 feet off the ground for easy visual surveillance, with rope or wood ladders to access tree house. Fall zones should be designated with appropriate shock absorption material where needed. Child traffic flow patterns should be identified and playground equipment arranged accordingly, for example place swings and slides in the corners. Ensure all surfaces are level, as dividers or uneven heights of play surfaces may cause trips and falls. I’ve included below a daycare playground design for Sasum House, a daycare located in Bella Bella that includes many of these parameters.

In conclusion, children love to play, and intrinsically know to gravitate toward space that provides movement, touch, human connection and nature. Creating interesting and challenging playgrounds will entice children away from technology toward healthy activities. Zone’in Programs Inc www.zonein.ca offers products, workshops, training, and consultation services to parents, teachers, therapists, government, researchers, and technology production corporations. Working together to balance technology with healthy activity, will ensure sustainable environments for all children.

Cris Rowan is a pediatric occupational therapist and author of Virtual Child – The terrifying truth about what technology is doing to children.