Slip, slide, bump, bash, climb, wibble and wobble! Who knew so much fun could be so valuable?! Having access to a safe, clean and developmentally appropriate playground can have far reaching benefits for the leaders of tomorrow! In an age where there is a tendency for little ones to be involved in more sedentary play, it is becoming increasingly important for caregivers to make opportunities available for climbing, swinging, sliding and balancing. This kind of invaluable play can help to strengthen your child’s core muscles needed for sitting endurance and task completion. Our children are becoming accustomed to getting what they want easily and quickly, and thus “practice makes perfect” is not always inherently part of growing up. In the past, when children spent many hours entertaining themselves, often outdoors, skills such as endurance, frustration tolerance, creative problem solving, perseverance and the ability to apply initiative were part of growing up. While our faster-paced world has provided amazing new opportunities to connect our children and expand their life space globally, technology has led to more time spent indoors, often sitting or lying down in front of a screen!
Playgrounds provide opportunities to move in many different planes and ways. Our movement sense sends information to our brain which provides our muscles with the information needed to stretch and contract appropriately in order to negotiate obstacles and balance on unstable surfaces. The way in which this movement is completed (successfully or unsuccessfully), in turn, feeds back into our brain to help plan and refine our next set of movements. The brain tells the muscles what to do, but the senses enable the brain to do the telling. The ability to come up with an idea for movement, plan and then execute that movement smoothly and efficiently is called motor planning. Motor planning is essential for a child to learn any new tasks. It affects how efficiently a child tackles this new task, and thus will impact how quickly he can master and complete it. A child who struggles with motor planning may often stand on the sidelines and watch other children play before feeling confident enough to join in. He may also be hesitant to try new movements and prefer to stick to what he knows. This is why it is important for children to have the opportunity to play at different playgrounds, or be encouraged to use one piece of playground equipment in different ways.
Climbing, pulling, pushing, and carrying weight over, under and through obstacles all provide the body with vital feedback about its position in space and how it is moving. This feeds into the child’s internal map of what his body looks and feels like. Your child needs a good body map when learning about depth perception and spatial concepts. Without this foundational skill, he may struggle later on to position his letters on a line, size his letters in relation to one another and grasp mathematical concepts. When a child is offered the opportunity to challenge his body and test the limits of what he can and cannot do, he will develop the ability to use the two sides of his body in a smooth and coordinated way. Many everyday tasks rely heavily on the ability to use both sides of our brain to effectively complete complex movements, from brushing our hair, buttering our bread and tying our shoelaces to cutting, ruling a line with a ruler and riding a bicycle. Clambering over carefully thought-out playground equipment can challenge and develop these skills.
Initially, children may find playgrounds daunting and need some help to explore the adventures that lie inherently therein. Do not be too tempted to pick your child up and simply place him where he wants to be! Try offering him a foothold, and simply give him some verbal cues or allow him some time to watch you or other children climb and play. There is so much learning potential in moving from one spot on a playground to another, e.g. getting from the ground up the ladder to the fireman’s pole! Often in our bid to help our children, we sometimes rob them of that opportunity to figure it out for themselves. Rather help him just as much as he needs and remember to praise his effort and not simply his success! Often younger children will need a few trips to the same playground before they are confident to attempt some of the climbing by themselves. Sometimes just having you close by is enough motivation. If he is hesitant about a particular part of the playground, check that it is not too hot, rough or unstable for him! Some newer playgrounds offer interesting and varied textures and surfaces for little hands and feet! Where possible, encourage him to take his shoes and socks off to allow for easier climbing and a fuller sensory experience.