Beyond Swings, Spinners, and Slides

Jay Beckwith's picture
Posted By Jay Beckwith
September 30, 2014

Beyond Swings, Spinners, and Slides

While not everything that moves is living, one of the fundamental tenants of science is that inanimate objects are not alive. Any health professional will tell you that when people stop moving, their lifespan is dramatically reduced. Child developmental experts will point out that during the early years of life, movement is not only essential to physical development but to the core functions of the brain.

Since we know that movement is so essential to life and the full development of human potential, it is surprising that when it comes to playground design and apparatus selection, we seldom consider how our choices will support optimum movement opportunities. Budget, space limitation, even color choices generally take precedence.

Sunflower swing courtesy of KOMPAN

Let’s Get Serious About Movement

When creating a play environment, it is helpful to think about two types of movement: the body moving in space and muscular movement. Swings, spinners, and slides, the three S’s, are the main ways playgrounds provide movement in space. The main appeal of this type of apparatus is that it stimulates the mechanisms of the inner ear. Referred to by physiologists as the vestibular system, the maturation of this system is essential for all activities that require balance without which bipedal movement such as standing, walking, and running are impossible.

While the role of the three S’s is fairly well known, fewer people recognize an even more important benefit of vestibular stimulation, that is the development of the visual system. The vestibular system sends signals to the neural structures that control eye movements and provide the anatomical basis of the vestibulo-ocular reflex, which is required for accurate vision, distance sensing, and the like.

To get a sense of this mechanism, imagine that you are sitting at a stoplight, when out of the corner of your eye you notice the car next to you is moving. Your immediate reaction will be to press on your brakes, because at that moment you can’t be sure if the neighboring car is moving or you are rolling. That’s because in this example the rate of movement is below the threshold of the vestibular system. What this in turn tells us is that when it comes to vestibular stimulation, speed is less important than acceleration. That means that a really steep slide with a long run-out, or one with waves in it, because of the varied rates of acceleration, are more “fun” than slides with constant slope.

Some years ago, as a consultant with KOMPAN, I helped design a “swing” that had a very short pendulum and very rapid reciprocation. This design was specially intended primarily for independent play by kids 3 to 5 years old. This design is particularly exciting for this age as it feels very “tippy” and the child has to hold on and keep his balance even though the arc of the swing is very small.

While the swing action of this swing is certainly age appropriate, it has other important benefits as well. Kids at this age will not only sit on the swing but will also lie on it. They do this for two reasons. First, the vestibular system, that has a snail shell-like shape, must function in 360 degrees of body orientation and so needs to be stimulated in all body positions. The second reason is that this is also the age when children establish the mid-line of their body, which they do by putting weight on their core, or tightening their belts.

This swing design illustrates that by thinking about maximizing movement opportunities, there is much we can do with simple and commonplace play equipment to enhance their benefits to children. Every piece of play apparatus can and should have multiple benefits. 

Move that body!

The second general types of movement opportunities on playgrounds are those that require moving the body. Climbers, upper body events, and balance challenges are the main types in this category.

It is unfortunate that most people think that any device that supports getting up on a play structure is a “climber.” This stems from the lack of a distinction between walking and climbing type movements. When we walk, our feet point forward and our arms are at our sides. Stairs are specifically designed to use a walking gait to ascend. It is not just the typical enclosed steps that use walking style movement, but also arch climbers and other common designs that require feet and face forward ascent on evenly spaced rungs. Stair-like climbers are developmentally appropriate for children from about 12 to 24 months. For older children, stair-like climbers provide no developmental benefit! 

True climbers on the other hand require the body to move in all directions. The quintessential climber is a boulder-like design where the climber must place hands and feet in many different orientations in order to ascend the apparatus. Hand and foot holds are irregular in size, placement, and orientation. Not only do superior climber designs require unique and innovative whole body movements, but they also require different types of finger grips and foot support positions. Because true climbers present a challenge to hands and feet, the texture of the holds is paramount. Smooth metal and plastic surfaces are not optimal for good climbing, yet these are the materials of choice throughout the playground industry.

These days it is rare to see a playground with even one true climber included in its design. This is another example where an understanding of, and dedication to, quality movement opportunities can vastly improve the benefits of playgrounds for kids. 

RockCraft climbing boulder Cheops Kildonan Park, Winnipeg

Start Monkeying Around!

Overhead “monkey bars” were included in the very earliest playgrounds, as they have always had strong appeal to children. Monkey bars beautifully demonstrate how a simple piece of apparatus can span a wide range of user abilities. Consider the skills that are progressively built on monkey bars: 1) support body weight with hand grip, 2) reach out with dominant hand to next rung, 3) reach with alternating right, left hands successively, 4) skip rungs.

In addition to strength and coordination skills, monkey bars also support “lateralization,” the ability to synchronize both sides of the body. This leads to the skill of “brachiating,” which is the fluid hand over hand motion that is the apex skill.

Overhead events can also illustrate the notion of “graduated challenge,” presenting physical challenges that require progressively greater and greater skills. We are all familiar with turning, chinning, monkey bars, and track rides that typically make up the range of upper body challenge. Have you ever seen monkey bars with unequal rungs that would require a higher level of motor control and coordination? How about the little known SkyGame from BigToys? This design is brilliant in that it requires a great deal of strength and coordination, and the kids become so engrossed in the game of passing each other that they forget to be tired.

The point here is not that any of these various designs are better than others, but that the typical playground has only one, or perhaps two, upper body challenges. Thus it fails to provide the full range of benefits for children of all ages and abilities and thereby fails to engage kids to the extent needed to provide a high level of activity and health benefits.

A Balanced Diet

Of all the activities on playgrounds, balance events are the rarest. It’s not because of cost, since these are generally the least expensive apparatus options. No, they are left off, because adults don’t appreciate their benefits. But just watch kids around you, and if there is a curb or a rail or anything they can balance on, they find it immediately. 

Like other play events, balance activities are available in a range of challenges from static balance beams to slack ropes.

Tow boys on Toddle Rocker

Motivating Movement

I get a bit tired of adults wringing their hands about the “obesity epidemic” and what can be done about it. For gosh sakes, the solution is staring us in the face. 

Give kids the chance to move and have fun and they will. Kids who have abundant access to quality play spaces tend to maintain a higher level of fitness than kids who rarely play vigorously. We also know that fit kids are better able to deal with high calorie foods and tend to make better dietary decisions.

To meet the real needs of kids from 3 to 13, we need playgrounds that are very complex and have top to bottom challenges in all the event types. We have known for decades that when you have complex linkages between a large number of events, kids will play games of tag until they are sweating and exhausted; that is, unless grown-ups make needless rules that limit play behavior or limit access by reducing or eliminating recess.

Playstructure featuring Skygame

The Old Bug-a-boo

We want our kids to be safe don’t we? 

Well, actually no! Of course we don’t want kids to be exposed to hazards like sharp edges or places where they could get entrapped, but we have to accept that all physical movement has some risk. 

Ask any parent, or just remember your own childhood, and you will be forced to accept that kids will play-up-to-the-point-of-pain. I call this the “Beckwith Maxim,” but it is just nature’s plan. That means that some pain will always accompany active play. Well-meaning “responsible adults,” who think they know better and can somehow change human nature, just need to get a grip.

Sure, our legal system has become unhinged from reality. For decades insurance companies paid outlandish sums for the typical bumps and scrapes of childhood, because it was cheaper than litigating. Now, insurance companies and risk managers have the shield of ASTM standards, and agencies have cleaned up their maintenance procedures, so much of the liability exposure has all but disappeared. In the wake of their expedient policies, we are left to marginally functional playgrounds and fat kids.

Let’s Make a Change

I’ve been part of the playground “industry” for more than four decades. I can personally bear witness that, for the most part, the people who make up the playground business, whether they make, sell, or install playground apparatus, genuinely care about kids. Most also know what makes for a great playground, and they are universally frustrated that they often can’t do what they know in their hearts is better for kids and their communities. These folks are right to be frustrated. As individual business people or companies, it is almost impossible for them to make change by themselves. 

Let’s state the argument. Do we believe that ready access to high quality playgrounds, as we have defined it above, would have a major impact on the health of children? 

Yes? OK then, what’s preventing us from providing the very best playgrounds we can imagine? You say limited budgets and small spaces? Who sets those budgets and chooses the places? Why it’s the planners, agencies, and the community, of course. And these decisions continue to be made, because it’s the way it’s always been done.

two children on a zipline

Throwing Down the Gauntlet!

I hereby lay down the gauntlet! 

Individuals, no matter how knowledgeable and motivated, are not likely to change the entrenched playground design and purchase paradigm. Real change requires a movement.

There is a precedent for this. The “golden age” of playground innovation and concern for safety of the ᾽70s and ᾽80s resulted in the replacement of the vast majority of the then existing playground apparatus. The ADA movement of the ᾽90s saw these upgraded for access. These movements combined passionate individuals with professional organizations and governmental agencies to create models and standards upon which plans and purchasing requests could be built with confidence.

Many of the same forces for change exist today. The rise of social media has given us access to a dozen or more really powerful advocates, who clearly articulate the need for more physical activity, more access to natural settings, more innovative playground designs, and more challenge. 

What’s different today is that these advocates are generally not part of a professional organization that is in a position to make change. In the ᾽80s that role was primarily the Alliance for Health, Physical Education and Dance (now known as SHAPE America). The Access Board spearheaded the ADA movement. To make the changes to the current playground paradigm and establish a new one that emphasizes high levels of challenge and physical movement, we need another organization to step up to the plate.

I suggest that that organization is the International Play Equipment Manufacturers Association (IPEMA). As an industry it has, in addition to tens of thousands of so-so playgrounds, many examples of really high quality playgrounds that are making a difference in the health of our youth in the communities where they can be found. It is time that as an industry it begins to actively advocate for communities to commit to these higher quality designs. 

Consider what happens today. Typically a group of community representatives is asked to provide input on playground equipment selection. This process is either to look at manufacturers’ catalogs or design proposals. While it’s great to get such input, there is almost no information about the deeper physical benefits the apparatus can provide. More importantly, all of the decisions about space and budget have already been determined. To make change, the community has to be better informed. To make change, agencies have to allow community input before they set budget and space limitations.

Sure, one company could be bold enough to try to change this on a case-by-case basis, but that is almost surely a prescription for bankruptcy. The only way this can work is for the industry as a whole to become advocates, so that their recommendations will be seen as impartial. By partnering with organizations and agencies as well as independent experts concerned with youth fitness, a new vision for playgrounds can and will emerge.

So IPEMA - show us the pictures of your best! Add more information about physical benefits to your catalogs and advertising. Bring out the experts to give the public a full understanding of what are the best practices! Help communities understand in-depth what a really good playground looks like. 

Here then is my challenge:
IPEMA, you can and should become the movement about movement!

About Jay Beckwith

Called by many as one of the “fathers of the modern playground,” Jay began designing unique play environments in 1970. As new materials came into use early in the 1980s, he designed one of the earliest “post and deck” play...

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