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.
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.