There’s no doubt about it. Multiple studies have uncovered a correlation between play and academic achievement. Increased physical activity during the school day can help children’s attention, classroom behavior, and achievement test scores. In fact, children in Finland’s elementary schools — who get an average of 75 minutes of recess a day — consistently rank higher than U.S. children (who get 27 minutes of recess) in International Student Assessment Scores.
In a recent article in Playground Professionals, writer Mary Whitman asserted that children who learn through play are better at learning in the classroom, that play prevents obesity and diabetes, and that playgrounds teach children important lessons about social interactions.
Meanwhile, the decline of play is closely linked to ADHD, behavioral problems and stunted social, cognitive, and creative development.
It’s clear that playgrounds aren’t just places for horseplay. Here at No Fault Sport Group, we believe play is serious business! Here are a few of the often-overlooked benefits that come from playtime:
Children develop behaviors based upon their senses. Through play, they discover their surroundings and how to navigate it. Sensory-rich playgrounds allow children of all abilities to integrate and develop perception. The more they play, the more they develop skills necessary to engage, change and impact the world around them. Narrow spaces, plus tactile, auditory, and visual experiences give children an understanding of the world around them through self-led exploration. So, encourage them with appropriate play equipment and activities.
Developing Motor Skills
Gross motor skills refer to skills that involve large muscle groups and the whole body. Climbing, walking, and jumping are all gross motor skills developed on the playground. Fine motor skills include smaller, controlled use of smaller muscles, such as gripping a ball or pulling a chain. Games, like kickball and four-square are great for developing motor coordination. They also help with critical thinking and problem-solving as children decide where to throw the ball or when it is time to run.
Flexible thinking benefits children on the playground and in the classroom. Climbing equipment (such as ropes, monkey bars, and ladders) can help them build confidence and awareness as they learn how to use their bodies while thinking spatially. Climbing helps children think about the area around them as it encourages problem-solving and thinking ahead to “next steps.”
Working with Others
Free play is an essential part of playtime. As opposed to group participation in playground games, it gives children an opportunity to explore and make believe without structure. Free play builds communication skills and teamwork. Often, children invent games with ever-changing rules and objectives; these creative exercises also give them practice reading social cues from others. Sure, these skills are learned in group activities in the classroom, but on the playground, free play is driven by the children themselves, and that counts for a lot!
Overcoming challenges helps children develop a sense of accomplishment and self-esteem. Self-confidence comes from classroom achievement, but it also comes from the achievements made outdoors during playtime. These playground achievements range from resolving conflicts to reaching the top of a daunting play structure. As long as it’s safe (and surrounded with the appropriate safety surfacing), playground equipment challenges children and encourages them to take risks.
Playgrounds provide a place for children to work off energy, have fun, and interact with peers. It also gives them a safe learning environment to develop physical, social, emotional, and cognitive skills. At No Fault, we believe playgrounds should be places where children can safely take risks. We recommend that both indoor and outdoor play areas meet or exceed recommended national safety standards, and that the appropriate surfacing products are used to further promote safety.
Young children with disabilities have the right to participate in extracurricular activities on the playground. When they can’t participate, they miss out on important health and social benefits.
Including children of all abilities means creating an environment where they have equal access. That is why schools often use an Individualized Education Program (IEP), a written plan detailing how a child’s needs will be met in the classroom and on the playground. Developed by school staff and parents, the plan helps educators, administrators, and families set learning goals for a child and designate the services that the school district will provide.
When planning a playground, designers should consider various types of disabilities such as medical, sensory, cognitive, social, and mobility related disabilities. These considerations should play into all decisions related to the playground’s design so that it can be an inclusive play area for children of all ages and abilities. The play equipment, the placement of equipment, and the surfacing are just a few design features that make a playground more inclusive.
Familiar and inviting environments can encourage social play among children of all abilities. Accessibility and safety should be the top priorities. According to the ADA Accessibility Guidelines for Play Areas (2000), “Designers should consider the optimal layout of ground-level play components to foster interaction and socialization among all children.”
A playground’s design can encourage (or hinder) socialization. Children with autism spectrum disorders, for example, rarely interact with other children in “free play” situations, and they typically have difficulty with imaginative play. A “circuit-style” layout (where playground equipment is arranged in a circle with a central open area) encourages them to navigate the playground and stay active. This encourages more imaginative play and physical challenge by creating a structural boundary surrounded by an open area for free play.
A 2013 report called A Systematic Review of the Best Practices for Playground Inclusion (Mejeur, Megan; Schmitt, Graceann; and Wolcott, Hannah) describes the physical and social barriers disabled children face on the playground. Physical barriers might include uneven surfaces, narrow entryways, and equipment that can’t be used without help from an adult. These physical barriers make social engagement between children with disabilities and those without rather difficult (hence the social barriers). Children with disabilities might have different scheduled play times, which further isolates them and excludes them from social play with the rest of the children.
All of these barriers—both social and physical—should be eliminated for play to be truly inclusive.
Playground Activities for Disabled Children
From modified equipment to inclusive activities, your playground can also incorporate games and play structures that make inclusive play easier. These might include:
- Modified swings: Several companies create adaptive swings for children with special needs. Swinging helps the brain make sense of speed and direction, which is beneficial for kids with visual perception issues.
- Bright colors: To help kids with impaired vision, bright colors can help identify equipment from a distance. Bright-colored cones or tape can mark boundaries. Visual cues can also be important for kids with autism.
- Modified sandboxes: An elevated sandbox gives kids who can’t play on the ground a chance to dig. This gives wheelchair-bound children the same creative and tactile play experience able-bodied children enjoy.
- Outdoor hide-and-seek: This classic is a great way to get kids playing together. Plus, it integrates counting, visual perception, and turn-taking into the game.
Surfacing and Inclusivity
Not all surfacings are made alike. Playgrounds that include loose fill surfaces such as pea gravel and mulch do not facilitate inclusive play. Wheelchairs cannot easily pass through these substances. For optimal inclusivity, it is recommended to use a seamless, flat surface such as No Fault’s Poured-in-Place Safety Surfacing or Bonded Rubber Mulch. No Fault Sporturf also makes a great option for an inclusive play area.
Incorporating these surfaces not only provides a safer environment for children better protecting them from falls and accidents that may occur, but also makes it easier for children with mobile disabilities to access the play areas.
For more inclusive activities, see the Let’s Play Together! Guide published by National Council of Social Service and Singapore Disability Sports Council.
No Fault can help with wheelchair accessible, all-inclusive playground surfacing, and playground design. Give us a call at 866-NFSPORT. We are happy to assist you!