Playground Skills, Playground Fun


When did playing on the playground get complicated?

In New York City there is a playground staffed with “facilitators” to help children play. While that may sound ridiculous, it actually makes sense. The playground is an important social scene and learning environment for children. Free play gives a child the opportunity to interact with other children, create imaginative situations, and practice motor skills. For many kids, it is a welcome release from structure. However, play requires initiative in a way that computer games and television do not. Parents can help nurture children’s imagination, and gymnastics can teach children movement skills.

Gymnastics classes provide guided activities on equipment that has similarities to play structures. Monkey bars in the gym have a soft landing mat underneath. In the gym, kids can stand on tiptoe to reach the monkey bars as they learn how to swing across the rungs.

Children hang from parallel bars and swing on rings with soft mats on which to land. The rope gives children a chance to swing while holding on tightly. The balance beam in the gym prepares kids to walk across boards, beams, or suspended bridges in play structures.
Gymnastics teachers introduce children to the equipment and teach them how to use it. Playgrounds look fun, but a child unfamiliar with climbing and hanging may find the structures daunting. Think about an adult walking into a fitness gym who has never used exercise machines. It can be intimidating trying to figure out how to use the equipment without looking ridiculous. I suspect a child’s vision of the playground can be similar.

In past decades, children had more unstructured outdoor playtime. In today’s urban society, television, video games, and the computer are powerful distractions. The ‘screen’ can be more alluring than the monkey bars on the playground, especially since children may not be strong enough to swing across. Today, it has to be a conscious decision to play outside or go to a playground when in the past outdoor play was the more inviting option.

Active, physical play is important because it is a prime environment to learn motor planning and movement skills. There seems to be an increase in children with low muscle tone or those needing occupational or physical therapy. I can’t help but wonder if that is somehow related to our more technological and less physically active society.

By building physical activity and motor skills into everyday life, parents can help kids develop the beginning of active lifestyles. With our busy schedules, it isn’t always possible to devote a chunk of time to the playground, so adding bits of exercise wherever possible is useful.