Today's parents and caregivers are paying more attention than ever to the choices of activities for their children - not just in structured activities, but more increasingly in free-play. Parents recognize the need to choose wisely and offer their children the best experience possible. This means that landscape architects, play space designers, and decision makers are required to more carefully evaluate their choices for commercial playground equipment when preparing new playgrounds and schoolyards.
The motives for good activity choices in free-play are many, starting with the need for children to be physically active to build fit and strong bodies. These incentives extend with the benefits of active play in promoting better academic success, continue in the indirect learning opportunities, and include the enhancement of essential life skills such as decision making and self-confidence.
Physically, children's daily activities are becoming more sedentary. An ever-growing volume of studies show alarming trends in children's wellness, and childhood obesity is on the rise along with a variety of illnesses which appear to be attributed to poor overall health. Experts seem to agree that the one key to solving these health issues is for children to participate in at least one hour of moderate-to-vigorous physical activity each day. Some proponents advocate for organized sports, or for increased PE programs in school. While these are activities which can contribute to the total amount of physical activity a child achieves in a given week, these options cannot completely solve the problem. Many children lack interest or aptitude for organized sports, and even more will avoid any activity if they are told they must do it. The right kind of free play can present an environment which entices children to make their own choice to participate in activities which are inherently filled with beneficial physical activity. If a child feels like they are just having fun, not following directions, they are more likely to be active for longer durations and for repeated periods.
The goals when designing play equipment or play spaces to generate this type of play activity should be to include elements which contribute to the development of coordination, flexibility, dexterity, balance, upper & lower body strength, core body strength, and cardiovascular health. However, the majority of children don't want to go to the gym to work out; but wise choices by playground equipment and playscape designers can present play opportunities which offer most or even all of these key health benefits in the same play space.
Stay tuned for 'Step 2' to bettering our childrens' play experiences.