Health and Physical Fitness
It’s no secret that children love a visit to the playground, but there are many more benefits to these playtime trips than simply getting out of the house. Playground equipment provides children with the physical activity they need to improve their health and fitness levels. Children today are quickly falling prey to the influx of game consoles and other technology, and these pastimes are creating an even larger problem - childhood obesity. Playgrounds provide a safe environment for play, but they also provide a fun means of exercise that children need for health and physical fitness.
Health and Childhood Obesity
Childhood obesity is a serious problem in the United States, and the number of overweight and obese children has increased by nearly 300% since the 1960s. With this increase in weight come many health problems, including previously adult only illnesses such as Type II Diabetes and high blood pressure. Additionally, children who are overweight also experience psychological issues due to low self-esteem, depression, and bullying. Obese and overweight children are also much more likely to become overweight or obese in adulthood, resulting in significantly higher rates of heart disease and premature death as a result of their weight.
Causes of Overweight and Obese Children
There are numerous causes for the crisis facing today’s youth, including a prevalence of unhealthy foods, an increase in the consumptions of sugary beverages, and more frequent visits to their favorite fast food restaurants. However, the most significant factor causing children to struggle with their weight is a caloric imbalance, which occurs when children eat more calories than they expend on a daily basis. The answer to overcoming this calorie imbalance is to make sure that children are moving, and getting the exercise they need to be healthy.
Playgrounds provide an environment that keeps children engaged, and challenge them to get the exercise they need, while engaging in play. The running, jumping, laughing, climbing, and other activities that children take part in when playing in a playground provides them with exercise, without forcing parents to begin relying on kid friendly gyms and restrictive diets in an effort to control their children’s weight.
The Health Benefits of Play
Numerous studies have shown the benefits of playing for children, and the benefits go well beyond a way of burning off excess energy. Play plays a key role in brain development, social interaction, and improved motor skills. When children engage in active play, which involves jumping, running, and other types of physical activity, they are also building a healthier lifestyle through physical fitness. Playgrounds give children the space and structures needed to take part in free play, all in a safe environment that is designed to give them an opportunity to get moving.
Another health benefit for children is in relation to attention deficit hyperactivity disorder. There are more children in the US on medications for these types of disorders than anywhere else in the world. While there are many children who need these medications, there are also many who do not. Children who do not get enough active play often have an overabundance of energy, which prompts them to behaviors that they feel will relieve their boredom. Ensuring that children have plenty of free play time at a playground gives them an outlet for pent up energy, helping to reduce fidgeting and other behaviors that some parents find problematic.
It is also important to remember that children spend at least seven hours per day cooped up in a classroom, with very little time for play - especially since many schools have cut recess times due to funding issues. When you consider that many children go home and grab their favorite gadget or plop down in front of the television for a few hours, it becomes obvious that playground play is quite important.
The Developmental Benefits of Play
Research has shown that children who engage in free play, which is unstructured play that requires imagination, show faster cognitive, emotional, and social development. Additionally, younger children also increase their motor skills much faster than those that do not have plenty of opportunity to take part in free play. Another area in which playgrounds provide developmental benefits is in social skills. Children are generally exposed to other children when visiting playgrounds, and the interaction that occurs when children play together helps them develop an understanding of social and cultural rules.
Playgrounds also push children to use problem solving skills to determine how to play and use certain equipment in different ways. As children play together, they often come up with new games to play. This helps children to use imagination and critical thinking skills, especially when working together to develop rules and other points to the games.
Why Playgrounds are Important
Playgrounds have been proven to make a difference in the activity levels of children, with studies showing that children who visit playgrounds are much more active than their friends who do not. This difference in activity levels plays a key role in obesity, as children in areas where there is access to playgrounds typically have much lower instances of overweight and obesity problems. The reason for this is simple: children who go to the playground on a daily basis get considerably more physical activity than those that do not, which means they are improving their health and physical fitness through their playtime.
Play vs Exercise
While most associate exercise with specific movements that are designed to improve strength, provide aerobic exercise, or increase flexibility, exercise is actually any kind of movement that is physical in nature. Playing at the playground allows children to move, and many of these activities are similar to those that are dubbed as exercise at the gym.
When children play, they often run and chase other children. This provides them with aerobic exercise, which improves heart and lung function, and burns calories. As children engage more, these activities drastically lower the calorie deficit that is becoming such an issue with today’s children.
Playcore, a company that provides communities with the information they need to build playgrounds and programs for children, has conducted a number of studies to show the benefits of playing on a well-designed playground, and how those movements benefit the children engaging in them.
Children engage in a number of overhead exercises while on a playground, some of which include the monkey bars, overhead tracks for sliding, and other overhead equipment. Children move across this equipment by grabbing the overheard bars or apparatus, and swinging from one bar or ring to the next. This type of play, which is called brachiation, provides a range of health and physical fitness benefits for children, including:
- Developing eye hand and overall coordination
- Increasing arm strength by building muscle
- Assisting with the development of distance perception
- Flexibility in the shoulders, arms, and back
- Increased endurance due to physical activity
As children use overhead playground equipment, they also begin to improve their confidence levels, which challenge them to try other, more difficult overhead activities and equipment during play.
Another important part of playground activity is climbing, which provides a wealth of benefits to children who frequently play on equipment that requires it. Climbing encourages children to work through problem solving to move from one area to the next, and also challenges their sense of visualization as they figure out how to move from one level to the next. There is a wide range of playground equipment that requires climbing, including slides, jungle gyms, rocklike structures and walls, rope bridges and climbers, and ladders that allow children to reach other structures on which to play. As children take part in climbing, they receive numerous health benefits through the physical activity required. Climbing playground equipment helps children with:
- Building lower body function and muscles
- Increasing agility
- Increasing speed, which assists with burning off more calories
- Improved balance and coordination
- Improved arm, back, and leg strength
Climbing is an essential part of many playgrounds, but even slides and ladders provide plenty of physical activity for children who use them frequently. As children use these types of playground equipment, they become faster and more adept at them, further increasing their physical activity levels.
While slides provide climbing activities, they also benefit children in other ways as well. Children who use playground slides improve their overall ability to create smooth movements through engaging their core, even when not arranging themselves for the slide down to the bottom. As children begin to use the slides more often, they also become more aware of how the way they hold their bodies allows for a faster, more fun slide, and this provides increased flexibility in their hips and legs. This awareness of their movements also transfers to increased energy in the manner in which they move down the slide. Sliding also increases the amount of aerobic fitness that children receive while engaging in play, especially when the repeatedly slide down and climb back up to do the entire process over again.
For many children, swinging is one of their favorite playground activities. The added bonus here is that swinging provides a means of helping children learn how to better focus on their balance and synchronized movements in order to swing higher and faster. The process of swinging also builds better control of energy transfer, which further increases the amount and strength of the movements that children use while swinging.
Getting Children to Play
While the benefits of a safe playground have been proven repeatedly through research, many parents feel that their children will not want to go outdoors. However, the reality is children love to play, and a special trip to the playground is often enough to entice them to leave the video games, televisions, and laptops behind. However, for some children who are resistant to a playground outing, the answer could lie in the types of equipment available. Children of different ages require playground equipment that is designed for their age group. If the local park only provides equipment for young children, this could be the reason that your child as no desire to visit. Take the time to look for appropriately sized playgrounds that provide the equipment that will keep your child moving.
Another important consideration in getting children to take part in playground activities is to make sure that there are other children available with whom they can play. A solitary child is going to quickly tire of playing alone, which results in a lack of the physical exercise he or she needs for health. If you cannot find any friends to take along on the trip to the playground, get involved yourself. There is also plenty of research available that shows that parents can also experience health and physical fitness benefits from playtime at the park.
Health Benefits for Parents
Parents also benefit from time at the playground. Some parents use this time to wind down and de-stress as there are no pressing chores or errands that have to be taken care of during playtime. However, parents who get moving with their children also experience the benefits of healthy exercise, which leads them to better physical fitness as well.
If you have older children, consider looking for playgrounds that are in parks, or that provide trails for walking, hiking, or biking. This will allow you and your child to play together, deepening your bond, and helping you both to get the exercise you need. If you have tweens and teens, you can also search out parks that have areas dedicated to tennis, basketball, and other sports that you can do together as well.
Choosing the Right Playground
While nearly any playground that provides activities is beneficial, parents need to make sure they are choosing a playground that is appropriate for specific ages. The playground also needs to have a range of physical activity potential available to make sure that children remain engaged, and gain the most benefit from their playtime. The first step in choosing the right playground is to make sure that it is designed for your child’s age.
Six Months to 23 Months
Younger children need specially designed playground equipment that provides them with plenty of space to crawl, walk, and stand. Many of these types of playgrounds are indoors, and provide a safe environment for the little ones to get the exercise they need.
Two to Five Years
Children in this age range need playgrounds that provide low platforms and small steps to allow them to play without constant adult assistance. These playgrounds will have plenty of handholds and bars that children can grab to pull themselves up. These playgrounds often have tables for playing in water or sand, as well as equipment that is mounted on low springs. Shorter slides, such as those around four feet or less are also great play choices for younger children. These playgrounds should also have soft rubber or foam type surfaces under the equipment to make sure that children who might fall are not injured.
When choosing a playground for children in this age range, you need to make sure that your children will not have access to walks that are designed with cables or chains, free standing climbing equipment, track or sliding rides, vertical slider poles, or long slides in the shape of a spiral. These types of equipment present fall hazards for younger children, and can be dangerous if the children are left unattended.
Five to Twelve Years
School age children require more challenging play areas, but they should still be designed to meet their height and skill requirements - especially for children on the lower end of this range. These playgrounds will often have climbing equipment, monkey bars, sliding equipment, larger swings, chain and rope style climbing equipment and many will also have areas designed for playing basketball or other sports.
Playgrounds for Children with Disabilities
Children with disabilities require the same interaction and exercise as other children. If your child has a disability, he or she can still benefit from time spent at the playground to see the health and developmental benefits seen with other children. More cities and communities are adding parks that are designed to be all-inclusive, which means that the overall design and types of equipment are geared towards making sure that children with disabilities can play alongside other children.
There are also specially designed equipment types available that allow children in wheelchairs to use them, such as family swings that provide a safe way for the entire family to swing with the child. Other playgrounds incorporate textures and other features that are designed to engage children that suffer from sensory impairments. If there are no such playgrounds available in your area, you should consider taking your concerns to the local city council, or speaking with leaders within the community to see about developing a playground that provides for children with a variety of needs and skill levels.
No matter which type of playground that you choose, it is important to remember that every child has different needs and different rates of development. In order to make sure that your children stay engaged and interested in playing at the playground, you will need to keep track of their skill and growth in play. If you notice that your child seems to find the available equipment too easy, or it does not present any kind of challenge that adds to the physical activity, you may need to move on to a playground for the next age level. Just make sure to keep a close eye on the children while playing to make sure they do not get in any trouble or potential danger.
Some children may initially whine or fight against leaving behind their newest game or device, but once they arrive at the playground, few children can resist the laughter and obvious fun that other children are engaging in. If your child does resist playing even after arriving at the park, whether due to shyness or some other reason, take things slow and do not give in. Once the child sees that they will either be sitting doing nothing, or having fun playing, he or she will eventually decide to play. If not, take the time to calmly speak to your child about why he or she does not want to play, and address the issue. This may mean having to help your child through self-consciousness, especially if he or she is already overweight. If this is the case, you may need to take things slow, and try to visit a park that is less crowded, or make sure to include your child’s favorite friends in the trip so that everyone has someone to play with.
Playgrounds are Vital to Children’s Health and Physical Fitness
As you can see, playgrounds are a vital part of improving our children’s physical fitness and health. The drastic increase in the number of children suffering from weight and obesity issues is not something that should be ignored, or taken lightly. As parents and caregivers, it is our duty to ensure that we are helping our kids develop the habits and skills they need for a long, healthy life. The most important change that we can make in our children’s lives is to make sure they are getting the physical exercise they need to remain healthy and active throughout their childhood, and into adulthood.
Playgrounds provide a fun way of doing all of this, simply by allowing children to play in ways that give them plenty of movement and exercise. While schedules seem to become tighter every day, the time has come to put down those gadgets, and get our children moving. Parents should plan on giving children at least 30 to 45 minutes per day at the playground to get the most health benefits. If your child has been sedentary, and already has a weight problem, it is never too late to start getting the problem under control - just start planning those trips to the park.