As a playground professional, one of the many trade mags I subscribe to is Playground Magazine. I have found a lot of very useful information in it. One article I would like to talk about that I recently seen was in the Summer 2013 edition that talks about why kids climb. It was written by Dr. Joe Frost. He is the Parker Centennial Professor Emeritus in The University of Texas at Austin College of Education’s Department of Curriculum and Instruction, and an advocate for developmentally appropriate children’s play. I want to do a brief synopsis and add some of my own thoughts to the mix as a playground professional. After all, it is my job to design and build these things for kids right?
Every child likes to climb on things from an early age. As a mom, I know just from watching my child that as soon as she was able, she was “cruising” and climbing on the furniture. While we know as parents it is important for babies to climb to develop motor skills, upper and lower body strength, and depth perception; do you know why it’s important to make sure your older kids continue to do it? Why should my 12 (almost 13) year old climb trees? Why should she care about scaling rock climbers? The answer is simple. Because even though she acts like an adult (God help me) she is still a child. She is still developing and honing the same skills are her younger sister (now 4).
Elementary and middle school children are still working to develop thinking, exploring, and climbing skills. Climbing is good for both older and younger children by helping them develop strength, motor skills, vestibular senses, confidence, and creativity. Kids naturally like to get to the highest point they can get! The younger children watch and learn how to move, and where to put their feet and hands by watching older children. I have experienced this myself. My oldest loves to scale poles on swings just to see if she can do it. My youngest then grabs on and starts to mock her sister. Of course, the little one doesn’t get near as far, but she is progessing. The more she copies her older cohort, the stronger and better she is getting at climbing that pole!
Now I am not saying that kids are not going to fall while they are honing these skills. Hence, the importance of safety surfacing in a playground setting. However, falling is not always a bad thing. Kids learn from their mistakes. “Ok, I put my foot on that little ledge and slipped and fell. I think I need to try a different way up.” Planning. Coordination. Concentration. All of these things are healthy for a child’s development. I know that as a parent we like to spaz when they fall off of something. But rather than showing panic, dust off their butts; ask them if they are ok; and then let them carry on and try again. It is the only way they will learn. And learn they shall!
Another challenge kids face when climbing is that moment after glory when they get all the way to the top, only to realize now they have to get down. Oh no… If they are able to get down on their own by planning, let them do it. Obviously, there will be instances where a grown up will need to help out. And you should help them if it is needed. But if it is a challenge you believe they can master, give them encouragment and guidance, and let them get down on their own. Do not let your fear ripple through to your child. One of the laws of nature is that if mom or dad is afraid, so are the kids. Children are impressionable and will mock your behavior. Be careful what you say and how you act.
Children need a healthy amout of risk in play. There is a certain amout of risk associated with climbing on anything. The Law of Gravity states what goes up, must come down. The higher the climb, the higher the risk. Kids know this and will push their own limits to see how far they can get.
Though you should encourage your kids to conquer the playground, you should also be aware of the dangers that you may encounter while you are out and about. As a parent (or playground supervisor) make sure the equipment your child is climbing on is age appropriate. All public playgrounds will have stickers or signs on the equipment that tell supervisors what age group that equipment is appropriate for. Typically, you will have 6-23 months, 2-5 years, and 5-12 years. The development in these age groups is very different. Playground equipment is designed to cater to the developmental abilities of each individual group. So what does that mean? If your child is 2, please keep them off of the playground equipment that says 5-12. Common sense right? You would be suprised. A lot of parents do not realize that there is different equipment for different age groups. Climbers on a 2-5 structure are significantly lower than ones that you will find on a structure that caters to the older kids. Bigger kids need bigger equipment, more challenges, and greater risks.
Something else to watch for on the playground is the surfacing under the climber. How does it look? If it looks like plain old grass, and the climber is 6-8′ high, stay away from it. Though a lot of safety standards are in place for surfacing, they are not always followed. Low or incorrect surfacing levels can lead to a serious injury if your child falls. According to the article in “Playground Magazine,” 60-80% of all serious injuries are a direct result of falls to inappropriate surfacing. And I told you not to spaz right? Just be aware of the state of the surfacing and the equipment your child is playing on. If it looks bad…then chances are it probably is.
So, what is happening if we have the right kind of equipment and surfacing, and the kids are still getting hurt? It happens all the time. Statistically, kids are spending less and less time developing essential skills they need to thrive because of the loss of something called “free play.” Free play is when a child is allowed to play unscriped in the outdoors. They can climb, run, jump, slide, spring, push, and pull freely. With the increased demands in education, parents working longer hours, daycares afraid to allow kids to play outside for various reasons, and the elimination of recess, kids have lost a fair amout of essential free play time. Kids now spend more time in front of computer screens, sitting at a desk, and in front of televisions sitting on their backsides than playing outside. They are disconnecting from much needed exercise and nature.
Another thing that is causing declines in free play are all of the safety standard constraints that are being put on playground equipment manufacturers. Because of our “sue happy” capitalist economy, the playground has been “dumbed down” so to speak. Kids can’t take needed risks to thrive. They are losing their sense of adventure, and their ability to take calculated risks. To develop their natural sense of self preservation, children need to be able to take risks. Kids that are allowed to take these risks vs. those who are not, have faster reflexes and processing abilites that will help them save themselves in the event of a fall. These kids are able to adapt and learn the difference between risky and out right dangerous play, without even thinking about it. These children also excel at things like ballet, wrestling, parkour, and gymnastics. They are more athletic and far less likely to sustain any injury from partaking in riskier recreational activities.
1. Let them climb!
2. Let them take reasonable risks. (Notice I said REASONABLE).
3. Limit screen time.
4. Make them play outdoors as often as possible.
Give your child a chance to grow and develop in ways that are natural to them. Allow them the freedom to make choices, take risks, and most importantly, HAVE FUN! Be that parent that plays with them; takes risks with them; and has fun with them! They will reward you with perserverance, confidence, and a healthy, happy childhood.