By David Reeves
One of the most interesting aspects of raising or caring for children is the opportunity to watch the way they change and develop, and much of this is seen in the way they play. Young toddlers spend time learning fine and gross motor skills while playing in tandem, but not necessarily with, their peers. This gradually progresses until pre-teens and teens are more interested in the social aspects of their play, having mastered the motor skills long before. When considering playground equipment, an understanding of these changes is crucial.
The Evolution of Play
How does play evolve? It seems to develop alongside the child’s physical and emotional growth. Children begin truly playing, rather than just exploring playthings, in their toddler years. From around the time they start walking until they hit the preschool, children are spending most of their time perfecting their gross motor skills. Walking, climbing, dancing and jumping are all favorite activities. Throwing and kicking balls are also popular playtime. Children this age may play with other children to the point of dancing at the same time or mimicking movements, but you will observe little in the way of cooperative play.
That begins to change around age three. During the preschool years, children begin to “pretend play” in earnest. They enjoy playing with other children and engaging in pretend activities together. While the motor skills are fairly well developed at this point, children can still be a bit unsteady on their feet, so they prefer smaller items to climb on.
Once children hit the elementary school ages, from six to nine years old, they become increasingly social, yet are still fine-tuning those gross and fine motor skills. During these years, risk-taking behavior is common. Children want to jump higher, run faster and climb higher than they have in the past. Their play is largely group-oriented, even if the group is somewhat small.
Once children hit the pre-teen years, from nine to 12 years old, they start to develop some independence in their play, yet still enjoy playing with other children. These are the years when children may begin to outgrow some childhood pastimes, like dressing up or playing pretend fantasy games, in favor of more strategic play activities and games, like organized sports or more difficult board games. Once they hit teenage years, play is almost entirely social, although some kids still enjoy physical challenge. Organized sports are quite popular with teens.
Play Development Considerations on Play Equipment
Understanding the development of children’s play is important when designing play equipment. For the youngest children, safety is paramount. Toddlers are not known for being steady on their feet, so falls are going to happen frequently. Play equipment that is low to the ground and set up on a soft substrate is essential.
Yet the equipment also needs to give the kids a chance to explore their developing motor skills. Sturdy steps, not ladders, for climbing, small slides and low-to-the-ground balance beams with a wide platform are excellent for toddlers. Keep in mind that the average toddler is no more than three feet tall — the equipment needs to be small so the children don’t get frustrated.
Preschoolers start to gain more control over their motor skills, but are not yet ready for high slides and exceptional risks. These kids can move to ladders and narrow steps and higher slides, and they need opportunities to explore other gross motor skills, from spinning to balancing to rocking and swinging. For safety, spinning elements should spin slowly and all equipment should be on a soft surface.
As children progress in to the elementary-school years, risk-taking increases. It’s important at this stage for the play equipment to offer challenging risks, without breaking safety protocols. Climbing walls, monkey bars, agility equipment and faster spinning elements are all ideal for this age. Keep in mind that social play is growing significantly in this development stage, so offer equipment that large groups can enjoy together.
Finally, don’t forget the teenagers. Teenagers are often overlooked when designing play equipment, but they can benefit from a place for themselves as well. Teens enjoy hanging out with their peers, so play equipment that features tall swings, challenging climbing areas and ball courts are popular with teens. Be sure the play area includes ample open space for them to simply hang out with their friends.
Why is this information so important? Statistics show that local parks draw people out, and nine out of every ten Americans will visit an outdoor recreation area in their community every year. The closer kids are to parks, the more physical activity they get. Sadly, those in lower-income areas have less access to parks and recreational facilities, according to Active Living Research.
In a society concerned with keeping kids active, these statistics are crucial. Children who live near playgrounds are more active than those who do not. If society is serious about keeping kids active, then access to age-appropriate playgrounds is crucial.
The Consumer Product Safety Commission, as reported by Dr. James C. Kozlowski of George Mason University, indicates that playgrounds need to offer graduated challenges that are appropriate to the abilities of children of different age groups. This will encourage play and protect children’s safety.
So the challenge to today’s communities is offering enough play equipment that is tailored to the needs of different age groups to encourage children to be more active. This begins with an understanding of how the children will utilize the equipment and what equipment is best for the differing levels of play. Once this is understood, appropriate and enticing play equipment can be designed.
About the author:
David Reeves is the Marketing Director of Superior Recreational Products (SRP) in Carrollton, GA. Grounds For Play, a division of SRP, is focused on designing play environments for specific age groups that provide challenging mental and physical exercises in a safe environment.