Spinning, Swinging, Sliding and Sand: The Many Benefits of Playground Play

On the surface, playgrounds are clearly good fun. Dig a little deeper and discover even more great things.

Parker Barry

Playgrounds go with kids like roads go with cars — they were made for them!

Just as with free play, playing on playgrounds is a lot more than rambunctious fun, though. Kids gain social skills through figuring out how to interact with and share space with other kids. They develop resilience through mastering new skills. Add a playground to kids’ play, and the benefits of play get even more physical. Kids get healthy Vitamin D from time in the sun, and they’ll burn energy and build muscles being active.

So much more than meets the eye

It turns out that those fun playground activities — like spinning, climbing, swinging and sliding — trigger important body systems to develop and function properly. Playground moves build gross and fine motor skills, along with core strength. They enhance the vestibular system — the sensory system that helps with balance and coordination — and develop proprioception, or body awareness.

These systems help kids maneuver the world around them as well as their own emotions when dealing with the environment and sensory input. Kids with sensory issues may need the help of physical or occupational therapist to focus more specifically on these areas, but neurotypical kids can still benefit from access to playing this way — and most probably do it on their own if given access to the equipment.

Excellent sensory experiences, therapists say

Physical therapist Kizmi Olson, MSPT, works to introduce kids in physical therapy to new sensory inputs — like water, sand, sounds — but also keep it fun. “Playgrounds are great,” she said, “because they’re fun and allow kids to get the sensory interactions they need. The motivation to play is high, so parents don’t have to feel like they are making kids do exercises.” Her three favorite playground activities for kids are slides, swings and sand pits.

Playgrounds are a sensory smorgasbord, too, providing kids with input to stimulate their senses, which helps kids learn to regulate themselves, Jennifer Philbrook, MS, OTR said. “Playground play gives kids such great input to calm themselves, organize their bodies and minds, and to facilitate just right levels of alertness all while playing!” she said. “They get to touch a variety of textures from the smooth metal of the equipment to the feel of the grass or mulch that sits under the playground equipment. They can swing, spin or rock to get vestibular input; or jump, hang, or climb for proprioceptive input.”

Benefits of playground equipment

Just take a look around the typical playground for a fun way to help kids grow and develop through play.

  • Slide. Kids have to climb up to the slide, building coordination and developing strength in their arms and legs. Then they get increased vestibular involvement sliding down the slide.
  • Swings. Swinging enhances the vestibular system and builds core strength holding onto the swing. The swings help relax an overstimulated child since they have a calming effect, Olson said.
  • Sand pit. Playing with sand helps with sensory integration and fine motor skills as kids dig and pile and grab the sand. It also improves balance when kids walk on the uneven terrain. Sand pits that have construction-style diggers help kids develop upper body strength and coordination while digging.
  • Monkey bars. Hanging from bars strengthens hands and fingers, which helps with handwriting skills. Any grasping activity is useful — from the pretend steering wheels atop some play structures to raising and lowering something on a rope.

To maximize the benefits of unstructured play, parents may have to consciously resist interfering, letting kids figure out how to get themselves out of challenging situations (an important life skill). If they were able to climb up somewhere unassisted, they should be able to get themselves down safely. Don’t feel pressured to create a curriculum for playground time, though. Let kids play and rest assured that what they are doing is important work.

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