Think back for a second to when you were a kid. Did you love to run, jump, and play? How about the squabbling and subsequent negotiations that came when you played with friends?
Today's children need that type of activity as much as ever, but the daily activities built into their lives often ignore the physical, mental, and imaginative benefits engaging in such play can bring. Take a look:
The first thing most of us probably think of when we think of playground equipment is equipment that encourages gross motor skills -- skills children need to develop, like climbing, digging, running, balancing, swinging, and so on. Playground equipment and play systems that encourage this type of development encourages children's natural love of physical activity, making exercise fun. In 2010, the US Surgeon General reported that nearly one in three children is overweight or obese. When children play on playground equipment and are encouraged to exercise in fun and creative ways that engage every muscle, they become more physically fit without even trying. They're also developing motor skills and building important neural pathways that will serve them well later in life.
Increasingly, "fun activities" are becoming solo activities because of their very nature (computer games, television, etc.), but this overlooks a very important element in children's social development. When children play on playground equipment with other children, they learn to interact with other children in socially appropriate ways. On playgrounds, children develop friendships, learn how to negotiate with other children for "fair" play, solve disagreements, and observe each other to learn both new skills and appropriate behaviors. In addition, this gives children the chance to experience diversity, given that those who play together on playgrounds come from a variety of socioeconomic and ethnic backgrounds.
While playground equipment and play systems that encourage gross motor skill development are important to a child's overall physical and mental health, loose parts playgrounds are equally imperative to a child's imagination and creativity. Loose parts are things "naturally" available on the playground, like rocks, leaves or sticks; they may also be parts provided by the playground, such as boxes, large blocks or other easily movable equipment.
With loose parts playgrounds especially, creativity is encouraged because children can use these parts to in effect "create" their own environments using their imaginations. When children can manipulate their environment and create something completely on their own, they learn how to problem solve, and are more likely to come up with creative uses for these items as well.
Fixed playground equipment is certainly valuable in its own right because it encourages gross motor skill development and a fun way to exercise, but it can't provide the type of creativity outlet and choice loose parts playgrounds can.
Both when they learn a new skill on fixed equipment and when they discover new ways to use loose parts play systems, children develop self-esteem when they "figure out" and "conquer" their environments. Children are naturally inventive, and they also have a natural drive to figure out how to do things on their own. Because playgrounds offer all of this in one uniquely constructed environment, children can learn that they are capable and able, thus building self-esteem.
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