BRING BACK THE MERRY-GO-ROUND: It is a therapeutic tool

Playgrounds have drastically changed over the years and it is affecting child development in ways that would surprise most seasoned professionals. Due to increasing liability and safety concerns over the years, we’ve replaced the metal playground equipment that towered over us as young children with brightly-colored plastic chaos.

We’ve taken away merry-go-rounds and teeter-totters. Swing spans have decreased and slides and climbing structures are surprisingly close to the ground. Kids appear to master the equipment at a young age. When the equipment no longer presents an age-appropriate challenge for the children, they quickly become bored and indifferent to the plastic play pieces.

However, this problem goes even deeper than simply offering an appropriate level of challenge and letting children take risks. Changing the playground equipment actually affects children on a neurological level. Think about it. It really goes back to your basic physics classes. If you shorten the length of swings and slides, children are naturally going to be receiving less sensory input; specifically what we pediatric occupational therapists like to call vestibular (balance) input.

Children need rapid, changing, and accelerating movement on a regular basis. They need to swing high up into the air, they need to sled down large hills, they need to spin in circles just for fun, and even hang upside down from tree limbs. These types of movements are very therapeutic to the growing child and supports attention and school-readiness. It is when children’s movement is restricted or limited that we start to see problems in sensory integration, body awareness, self-regulation, and simply focusing in the classroom.

Not only are children not moving enough throughout the day, we’ve gone and changed a good thing: their playground equipment. Believe it or not, the metal playground equipment of the 1960s and 1970s were actually highly therapeutic to children. One great example is the merry-go-round.

As a child, I loved the merry-go-round! It was such a thrill. I remember holding on to the metal posts as we ran around and around, finally jumping onto the merry-go-round at the last second, hanging on for "dear life" as we experienced the thrill and funny sensation only the merry-go-round could provide. As a therapist, I believe the merry-go-round is one of the most powerful therapeutic pieces of playground equipment ever invented.

Pediatric occupational therapists use special equipment and swings to create a centrifugal force during treatment sessions very similar to what a child would experience if they were to ride a merry-go-round. We do this to maximize activation to the vestibular complex found in the inner ear, to help improve self-regulation and sustained attention to task in children. This is a very powerful tool, and if done on a regular basis, would strengthen that child’s vestibular (balance) system and improve their attention span over time.

I’m constantly hearing from teachers that attention in the classroom is problem. One teacher told me that on average, eight out of her twenty-two children have trouble with attention on a good day. Veteran teachers are also complaining that kids are falling out of their seats at school, running into walls, and are overall clumsier than they were thirty years ago.

In the days when playground equipment actually provided a thrill and a challenge, children were getting powerful sensory input on a regular basis. Kids were able to focus for longer periods of time and had better strength and stamina. You have to wonder if taking away equipment like the merry-go-round was really a good idea.

Merry-go-rounds, teeter-totters, tall swings, and slides all help children establish strong balance systems. They give us our “center” and allow us to move through space safely. By taking these away, we are exposing children to less vestibular (balance) input on a regular basis. In the meantime, children are becoming increasingly unsafe on the equipment. What do we do when kids become unsafe? We limit their exposure to risks--risks they actually need in order to develop a healthy sensory system. It is a vicious cycle we need to stop.

If our goal is to do “no harm” to our children, we need to re-evaluate our perception of playground equipment. We need to start providing equipment that will actually challenge and stimulate growth. It is time we brought back some of the thrill-provoking playground equipment of the past - for our children's sake.  

 

References:

Ayres, A. J. (2005). Sensory Integration and the Child: Understanding Hidden Sensory Challenges (Rev. ed.). Los Angeles, CA: Western Psychological Services. 

Frick, S., Kawar, M. (2005). Astronaut Training: A Sound Activated Vestibular-Visual Protocol. Vital Links, Madison, WI.

Jensen, Eric. (1998). Teaching with the Brain in Mind. ASCD: Alexandria, VA.

Lundy-Ekman, L. (2002). Neuroscience: Fundamentals for Rehabilitation. New York: W.B. Saunders Company.

 

 

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Comments

18-Jun-2014 09:31 AM HLC

This also sounds like the way that Dads (vs most Moms) play--more aggressively, with more "physical" (as in physics, and hands on) movement. As a mom, dad style play makes me nervous--but I guess it's necessary! And it begs the questions--if dads are around less for various reasons, or if moms (like me) are curtailing dad-style play because we are nervous nellies--is that also contributing to similar issues for children?

18-Jun-2014 12:06 PM Angela Hanscom

HLC - Great observation! I always recommend that dads "wrestle" and roughhouse with children, spin the kids around, etc... it all mimics the things we therapists do in the clinic setting in order to help children improve integration of the senses. All children need this input on a regular basis to grow strong and healthy bodies. Actually, adults need to move more too :) One reason why adults don't tolerate rides as much when they get older is because many adults aren't nearly playing and moving the same way as they did as kids. So they go on rides that they used to go on as children and get nauseous much easier. Zumba, Yoga, and other dance classes have been popular with adults in recent years...keeps them moving in all different directions and works on the core muscles at the same time. However, my primary concern is the children - we really NEED to keep these little ones moving!

18-Jun-2014 08:26 PM Nancy Blanning

At this very moment a colleague and I are involved in describing these very issues with a training group of early childhood teachers. In our child development work we have studied sensory development and recognize how critically important it is for young children to have access to sensory experiences that will support growth of healthy vestibular and proprioceptive systems.

All the teachers we are working with confirm how the children in their groups are struggling with balance and body coordination and lack confidence and a sense of security in how their bodies serve them.

All you have described in this post about the need for good, regular, strong vestibular stimulation has been our topic all week. Thank you for affirming this requirement for healthy child development and putting out the plea that our children desperately need to be allowed sensory stimulation and challenge. Bring back the merry-go-round.

19-Jun-2014 02:24 PM khat

Absolutely agree. We don't have swings at our local parks- too dangerous, too many lawsuits- when I called to find out why. What are children supposed to do on those "plastic colored chaos"?
We bought a 12 foot swingset for our children, who use it for hours...am looking for a merry go round. There's one at the 12 parks we frequent.
On ebay, there's an old photo of twenty children on a merry-go-round, the big boys running to push it. The old days. Makes sense!!! I agree with you.

21-Jun-2014 11:38 PM natasha

So interesting to read. Glad someone is paying attention to this.

24-Jun-2014 05:49 PM Emily

They took our merry-go-round out this last month. I'm hoping it's just to be repaired, but I'm not holding my breath. :( My 1 year old would lay down on it while I gently spun her and laugh watching the world turn, then my older kids would get on and spin as fast as I could make it go while she watched (Otherwise they learned centrifugal force lessons as she slid off.) Did anyone get really hurt? Nope. They had FUN.

Now? The playground has a plastic climb structure and a set of baby swings. Nothing really for older kids, who now show up there to make out and try drugs or graffiti the plastic chaos.

09-Jul-2014 10:10 PM Shannon

As a kid, I was seriously hurt on the merry-go-round (chipped my front tooth on it) and you know what? I still loved the damn thing. I actually saw one recently at a local park and was astonished and pleased to see it.

25-Jul-2014 02:22 PM Isabella

Hi Angela! Other than the sources you've cited for this blog post, are there are other books you'd recommend for parents, childcare workers and teachers to read? I'd love to know if you have any suggestions.
Cheers,
Isabella

13-Aug-2014 10:52 PM Gretchen

There is a merry go round at a playground near us. It is a big plastic one, with seats and footholds. It is so much fun!! It is industrial, so I could also ride on it with my small children, & even my 13 yr old didn't want to get off! Please ppl consider these when putting in equipment, you can only be a child once.. our kids deserve the wonderment & wild ride of the merry go round.

28-Jul-2015 11:17 PM Mona Jones

I can't believev people are talking about bring the old merry go round back! Hooray!! I truely enjoyed them when i was younger and am now SEARCHING for one. Anyone know of any in Western Mass - I would travel the distance just to spin one more! time!!

13-Apr-2016 04:16 PM sabrina

there was an old merry go round in savannah and I am so very sad they removed it !!!

 

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