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The Developmental Benefits of Playgrounds

The Developmental Benefits of Playgrounds

Research Results From Leading Experts on Playgrounds and Child Development


Written by Joe Frost, Pei-San Brown, Candra Thornton, John Sutterby, Jim Therrell and Debora Wisneski.

©2004, Association for Childhood Education International. Copies may be obtained through www.acei.org


The following overview and summary of the content has been prepared by Lisa Murphy, Early Childhood Specialist and CEO of Ooey Gooey Inc.



Perhaps the very existence of youth is due in part to the necessity for play

-Karl Groos, 1898



Both the forward and introduction alone make the book worth the purchase.


Play is incredibly important to the development of children’s social, emotional, cognitive and physical development, as well as creativity and imagination.  Play is essential to brain development and the development of certain reasoning abilities.  Additionally, a lack of free, spontaneous play can be harmful to a developing child.  But you and I know this.


In the forward Tom Norquist hints to a correlation between this generation’s inventions and their inventors’ ability to play freely while they were growing up. He also asks why politicians and educators appear to forget that free, unstructured play has a profound impact on a child’s education, social skills and overall intelligence even directly asking, “Why are we eliminating recess?”


He challenges the playground industry for being too focused on “safety” at the expense of free play and hints to the fact that the figures touted about injuries on playgrounds are misrepresented reports of preschoolers who were “injured” while on equipment designed for school-agers, improperly designed or installed equipment, or while on equipment that had inappropriate (fall) surfacing.  Such conditions will continue to erroneously reinforce the socially accepted myth that playgrounds are dangerous.


One of the major challenges of the book is preserving (and creating) natural, yet challenging places for children to play.  We must preserve recess and other forms of free, spontaneous play.  And while I must insist that no one is looking to compromise children’s safety, we must stop making playground design decisions based on fears of litigation.   Safety is important, so is developmentally appropriate risk taking.  (At this juncture I am reminded of two things: 1) Jeff Johnson’s quote: “Children are curious, not suicidal” and 2) Play’s Place in Public Education, edited by Victoria Jean Dimidjian, which addresses the importance of taking risks and it’s link to literacy. But I digress.)


So we are faced with a problem.  Studies show that children ages 3-5 require certain kinds of large motor equipment for optimal development. Yet many of the items which facilitate this are banned from schools and child care centers. They go on to address that fixed equipment does not a complete playground make.  Sand and water is referred to as indispensable!  And gardens, blocks, wild places, loose parts, bikes and the occasional organized game are touted as possibly better than (emphasis mine) fixed equipment when it comes to promoting broad developmental goals. I would agree.


More so, studies show a causal factor between physical activity and higher cognitive functioning. But a physical activity is not defined as sitting on the bench, waiting in line or waiting for a turn. “But we don’t want them to get hurt!”  Fair enough, but someone told me once that a broken arm is sooner mended than a broken spirit.  We must constantly be finding the balance and the middle ground.  For the sake of the children.


Important Note:  The following lists are taken directly from the book.  None of the information, data or language is “mine” unless indicated.




Why do children climb?

  • because stuff (trees, fences and furniture) is there
  • to increase their visual field
  • for excitement
  • the feeling of accomplishment
  • to get close to nature
  • to experience basic physics (gravity, inertia, pendulums, optics)
  • to overcome physical challenges
  • to test abilities
  • to show off
  • to compete
  • to engage in pretend games
  • to retrieve objects
  • to stimulate kinesthetic perceptions
  • to increase vestibular sensations, and
  • because they are built for climbing and have an innate tendency to do so.


Cognitive Requirements of Climbing:

  • memory
  • problem solving
  • imagery/visualization


Affective Requirements of Climbing:

How the child feels directly affects her desire to participate in climbing activities.  Are they self motivated to climb?  Does climbing cause stress?  Or provide a sense of relaxation? Does a feeling of fear prohibit climbing experiences?


Physical Requirements for Climbing:

The physical requirements for climbing vary and depend on what is being climbed. Motor skills involved in climbing include:

  • Perceptual motor skills:  body, spatial and directional awareness
  • Fitness abilities: power, agility, speed, balance and coordination


Perceptual Motor Skills Developed While Climbing:

Perceptual motor skills are learned abilities relating to body awareness, spatial awareness and directional awareness.

  • Body awareness: ability to discriminate between body parts and an awareness of what the parts can do.
  • Spatial awareness: the awareness of how much space their body occupies and the ability to move the body through space.
  • Directional awareness:  left-right, up-down, top-bottom, in-out, front-back.


Motor Fitness Skills Developed While Climbing:

  • agility
  • speed
  • coordination
  • power
  • balance:  the ability to maintain equilibrium while the body is in various positions is greatly influenced by visual, tactile kinesthetic and vestibular stimulation.  The vestibular system is located in the inner ear. Vestibular stimulation through swinging and climbing plays an important role in balance, posture, coordination, agility and vision.


Visual Perception Skills Developed While Climbing:

While climbing, children develop the ability to perceive affordances.  Affordances are the foot and hand holds that the climber uses to support the body while climbing.


Tables Provided:

1) Developmental Progression Pattern on Climbing Apparatus

2) Stages of Climbing




Benefits of Overhead Equipment:

American children have very poor upper body strength.  And with 30% of the boys and 60% of the girls not able to do a single pull up, could it be that many of the playground injuries are not due to the equipment, but with our children’s inability to use the equipment due to their declining fitness levels?


Skills Developed While on Overhead Equipment:

  • visual perception of distance
  • coordination
  • grip strength
  • lateral weight shift
  • hand-eye coordination
  • upper body skills


Rusty Keeler (playground designer and author of Natural Playscapes) proposes that providing loose parts for upper body development might be more important than providing overhead apparatus in building children’s upper body strength.  It is unclear whether concerns regarding children’s ability (or lack thereof) to use overhead apparatus is due to inherent lack of upper body strength or in the lack of opportunities to use and experience overhead equipment.


Table Provided:

The book provides a table that includes the Developmental Progression Chart which summarizes the four stages of skill development on overhead ladders.




Swinging has been around as long as there have been vines hanging off trees.  Children generally are attracted to the movement that meets their current mood or needs.  An over stimulated child might relax on the swing while an under-stimulated child might seek out a feeling of excitement.


Benefits of Swinging:

Physical Development:

  • swaying
  • running
  • turning
  • leg pumping
  • pushing
  • jumping
  • landing
  • pectoral muscle development
  • rhythm
  • balance
  • grasping


Social Emotional Development:

  • cooperation
  • sharing
  • relaxation


Cognitive Development:

  • dramatic imagination
  • mental representation
  • problem solving


Sensory Stimulation/Integration

  • vestibular system
  • proprioceptive system

(Both of which are highly influenced by the visual system)


Tables Provided:

1) Stages of Swinging Development and Characteristics of Each Stage

2) Swinging Skills and Proficiency Levels




Benefits of Sand and Water Play:



  • fulfills the kinesthetic need to touch
  • the child is the “master” of the materials
  • physical and tactile exploration



  • mathematic concepts: full/empty, shallow/deep, counting, measuring, sets
  • scientific concepts; prediction, classification, experimentation



  • engaging in group play
  • sharing materials
  • negotiating
  • creating frames that assist in negotiating



  • open ended and unique texture of sand encourages positive emotional expression
  • calming
  • reduces anxiety
  • creates a medium of communication between adults and children


The Main Tools for Sand and Water Play:

  • loose parts for manipulating the substance
  • containers for the substance


Suggested Items:

  • gutter
  • shovels
  • sieves
  • plastic cups
  • molds
  • animals
  • materials for scooping and shaping
  • measuring ups
  • funnels
  • corks
  • small animal and transportation figures


Two Things to Consider:

From Stone, “The inclusion of too many props or having unrelated props might interfere with sand and water play” and from Betz, beware of over-containing children’s play.  Yes, have a water table and a sand box, but let them to “play in the water and mud they find after the rain” too.


The final chapter, chapter 8 lists overall recommendations for playgrounds in the 21st century and at the end of the book there is a Playground Checklist © Joe Frost and it is included not as a research tool, but as an aid in planning and evaluating playgrounds.


I hope you found this overview useful in your outdoor play and recess advocacy efforts!!

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