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The Role Of Modern Playgrounds In Child Development

As a mother, I love hearing my children laughing, I love it when they eat their dinner without ‘faffing’ and I always feel better if they’ve let me sleep through the night. There are days when these things all seem impossible, but playing outside and having fun with friends may just be the silver bullet that us parents are seeking – the holy grail of parenting, and where better to play out than your local playground? I’ve been involved with helping play ground manufacturers understand child development and various councils in redeveloping play areas and they are so much more fun than when I was a child!


Playgrounds exist to provide children with a safe, fun, challenging environment in which they can play. They are a relatively recent phenomenon – at the turn of the 20th century children went to parks, but did not have a designated ‘playground’ area. As traffic increased throughout the 20th century, playgrounds became a safe alternative to the streets. The perceived risks of playing in derelict properties were highlighted after WWII, and more recently woods and fields have become no-go areas. Children are left with fewer options for places in which their parents are happy to let them play. The role of playgrounds in child development and modern society is to provide children with all the developmental opportunities that they gained from climbing over rubble, hiding in derelict buildings and climbing trees etc whilst minimising the risk of serious injury.

A playground provides a non-prescriptive environment where children can play and develop skills at their own pace.’

With increasing media attention on cases of injury , abduction or crime in society, parents are increasingly reluctant to let their children play outside and, as Tim Gill highlights, children are rarely left to play unsupervised until they are at least 10. Penny Nicholls of the Children’s Society cites a report that states that 43% of adults believed that children should not be allowed out without adult supervision until they were 14. This is despite accidents requiring A and E attention occurring in playgrounds accounting for less than 1 in 200. If you are the 1 in 200, you may feel that this is too high, but it is important to put these figures in context and compare them to accidents in the home, or playing organised sport, both of which have higher incidences of accidents requiring hospital attention.

This fear, passed on from parents to children, prevents playgrounds from being used to their full advantage and deprives millions of young children the opportunities for physical, social and cognitive development that playgrounds offer, exacerbating developmental problems caused by lack of exercise and freedom.

Why is role of playgrounds in child development important?

With obesity levels among children hitting record highs , there is little disagreement that physical activity needs to be prioritised. According to Murrin and Matin (2004) parents tend to underestimate the negative impact of a lack of exercise (only 17% of parents reported to be worried) when compared to risks of injury (20 %) and crime (32%). But the benefits of exercise go well beyond reduction of obesity. Work by Felicia Huppert at the Well-being Institute at Cambridge University has found that as well as burning calories, exercise is the single biggest preventative factor against depression.

When discussing what is best for children, a holistic approach to child development is likely to be the most beneficial as it is difficult to separate cognitive, social, and physical development. A playground provides a non-prescriptive environment where children can play and develop skills at their own pace. A well designed playground should include opportunities for cognitive development as well as physical and social development, but the chances are that if children are playing freely, they will be doing things which naturally develop a wide range of skills in all areas.

More than just physical health

Social development is now believed to be a precursor for cognitive development and playgrounds provide children with opportunities for cooperative play, modelling behaviour, conflict resolution, communication and turn-taking to name a few. Links between physical activity and cognitive development are also coming to light with increasingly sophisticated neuro-imaging techniques. Activities such as spinning and bouncing aid balance and movement of the fluid within the inner ear which is believed to encourage healthy neural development. The inner ear has been linked with conditions such as dyslexia, and whilst it is too simplistic to suggest that lots of bouncing and spinning in young childhood could prevent dyslexia, the increase in prevalence of the condition is strongly correlated with a reduction in the levels of physical activity of young children.

Increased understanding of neuropsychology can help playground designers understand the inter-relation of physical, social and cognitive development and design equipment which facilitates whole person development. Traditionally, playgrounds were designed primarily for physical activity, with some consideration of social development. With increasing understanding of development, well-designed playgrounds can provide activities which stimulate development in a holistic way. For example, climbing activities which require children to cross their hands over increase the connectivity between the right and left hemispheres of the brain. Platforms of different heights strengthen muscles used in climbing and jumping, but also develop skills such as depth perception, risk assessment and an understanding of one’s own abilities and limitations.

Traditional playgrounds had an abundance of single use equipment (e.g. swings, slides, seesaws and roundabouts). Many creative children would find ways to play imaginatively with these pieces of equipment, but ‘misuse’ of the equipment could cause serious injury.

Modern playground equipment which is non-prescriptive and versatile encourages children to use their creativity to make their own activities and is therefore less likely to be ‘misused’.
Non-prescriptive playground equipment encourages children to communicate, and cooperate, thus developing important social skills. These are two examples of skills that are not required in order to play screen-based entertainment and therefore, modern playgrounds are an excellent antidote to any negative consequences of the rapid increase in screen-based activities that has occurred over the last 10 years.

Not just for the children

Differentiation and a wide range of play opportunities is essential. Young children feel more confident in small groups, so a modular design rather than a huge structure is likely to be more appealing. Equipment which provides for a variety of play styles (contemplative-imaginative, high adrenaline-physical, social-cooperative) and does so in a way that the children playing an imaginative game will not get jumped on by the adrenalin seekers is also likely to be popular.

On a practical note, most new playgrounds are appealing initially but the equipment needs to be easily maintained and robust enough that it doesn’t get damaged, in order for it to become a long-term success. Facilities for older children need to be considered alongside the development of a younger children’s playground to reduce the likelihood of graffiti and vandalism.

In order for playgrounds to be used well, both parents and children need to approve of them and they need to appeal to of children of a wide range of ages. People are creatures of habit and if children are used to going to the playground from a young age, it is likely that they will continue to do so as they grow up. It is parents who determine the activities of pre-school children and so in order for the parents to want to take their children to the playground it needs to appeal to parents as well as children. Not only do parents need to feel confident in the equipment, they also need to be willing to be there themselves. If parents are provided with a place to sit and socialise with their friends, they are more likely to let their children have more freedom. Observational research has found that parents who take their children to the playground alone are likely to stay closer to their child than a parent who is there with other, familiar adults. The increased freedom given to children if their parents are not close by encourages the development of skills that they will not learn if an adult is constantly present. Skills such as conflict resolution, problem solving, risk assessment and imagination are important for social development and children who have developed these skills are likely to settle into school and make friends well.

What makes a good playground?

Parents also need space from their children and a chat with their friends in the playground whilst their children are playing may give parents access to valuable support networks that can help prevent feelings of isolation and in some cases post-natal depression. The Parent-Centred model of parenting (Gummer, A. in press), developed from the work of Vygotsky, Bruner, Sameroff and Gardiner demonstrates how children benefit from having happy healthy, role models. Parents who feel supported are likely to be happier and more relaxed which has a positive impact on their children.

The parents’ area should be closest to the baby/toddler equipment to allow parents to socialise whilst supervising the children who most need attention. Older children should be given equipment which enables them to play without constantly being in sight of the parent’s area. Hide and seek is a popular game for young children and being able to make dens or find hidey-holes gives them a sense of ownership over the area which builds confidence and encourages exploration. The famous attachment experiment conducted by Mary Ainsworth shows how a secure child is more likely to venture further from their carer, as they are happy that the carer will be there if needed. As long as a child knows where the parent is, and feels confident that they can get attention if necessary, there is no need for constant supervision.

So what should we be looking for in our playgrounds? Well-designed, non-prescriptive equipment which encourages a variety of activities at different levels will encourage children of different ages to play with it. Benefits for the children include improved physical health, development of social and cognitive skills, opportunities for freedom, creative play, and fun. Benefits for parents include happier, healthier, more relaxed children who are likely to sleep better at night, opportunities for meeting friends, and exercise. The benefits for a community consisting of healthy children and happy parents are too many to number, but in terms of value for money, a well designed, well maintained playground is surely high on the list of any local council.

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