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Why is playing serious business?

Published in Pediatrics, For the Health of It Author: Sue Peck, Pediatric Physical Therapist

When you watch kids on a playground, it appears that they are just running around having fun. Actually, play is vital to the development of children’s social, emotional, cognitive and physical development.

Playgrounds are built for varied ages and abilities. Some playgrounds simply have swings and a slide. Some are far more complex. Playgrounds may offer ladders, stairs, rock walls, ropes, monkey bars, balance beams or trapezes. And the list can go on and on. Playgrounds are important for strengthening children's muscles just like a health club helps adults.

Bringing your child to a playground can help children to develop problem-solving skills and build safety awareness. It can help children get the movement they need for sensory development. Children will build self esteem when they conquer new challenges. Social skills and cooperative play can be developed on a playground. Playground play can build confidence, self awareness and sometimes even helps children to learn about failure when challenges are above their ability level.

Some children find the challenges of a playground too difficult. These children may need help to explore all aspects of the playground. You can help them with challenges such as the monkey bars to learn how to get their bodies aligned properly and use momentum to help progress from one bar to another. You also can help to encourage the confidence your child needs to try new challenges.

Children with physical disabilities or sensory issues often seen in children with sensory processing disorders, developmental coordination disorder or autism may have an especially difficult time exploring a playground. Some of these children will need very close supervision to keep safe but should be assisted to explore the variety of challenges a playground may offer. Some playgrounds are built for accessibility. Swings can be adapted to have seat belts and back supports large enough for older children.

Trying new playgrounds can be exciting for children and will create the need for all new problem solving skills and physical challenges. Some children will seek these new challenges and others need a little nudge to try this new playground. Some children need more direct assistance and supervision for safety but nonetheless playground play serves an essential purpose in child development. Sometimes children need even more help due to underlying issues that are more complex. Pediatric physical and occupational therapists are trained to evaluate and serve children with special needs. The therapists can help develop the skills needed for success that playground play offers. 

If you have concerns with your child's development, contact your provider and ask for a referral. Log in to MyChart to send a secure message to your provider.