In our previous blog, we discussed the complexities of jumping in puddles and that the powerful trigger of water is often sufficient to overcome parent’s concerns about safety and mess. Mud puddles present a lot less of a hazard that going down a slide, and yet parents freely indulge their children in this sort of play as well. Slide play is exciting because, unlike puddle jumping that children approach gleefully, going down a slide, at least initially, is approached with some trepidation. Let’s review what we see.
The child will make a visual assessment from afar and then move up for a closer look. Soon they will approach and sit at the entrance. Depending on the confidence level of the child, this preparatory stage can take several minutes. What is happening is that the child is doing two mental tasks. They are shifting their metal processes from the “thinking” part of their brain, the cortex, to their “movement” part of their brain, the cerebellum. Once this change of focus has occurred, much like an Olympic athlete at the top of a ski run, they begin to visualize how they will move as they descend the slide. The sliding part is relatively easy, and they will soon learn to control their descent with hands and feet against the side rails. The crux of sliding is the landing and dismount, which is the most challenging part of sliding. What this means is that adults need to position themselves at the bottom of the slide rather than the top. The child will go down when they are ready but will need assistance initially with dismounting.
In addition to rehearsing these motoric challenges, children learn about gravity. There are two perceptual modalities involved. The acceleration down the slide stimulates the vestibular system in the inner ear that informs the mind about the body in motion. The act of sliding itself promotes the proprioceptive system that tells the child what their body is doing.
Note that jumping from a height is very similar in most respects to sliding, but the proprioceptive focus is primarily on absorbing the impact of the landing. From 6-ft or less, this involves just absorbing the shock by bending their legs. Above 6-ft, they learn to land and roll so that their inertia is dissipated over a longer period.
It is interesting to note that we are very comfortable adding slides to children’s play settings yet reluctant to offer jumping from elevated surfaces. To some extent, this makes sense for young children as they are unlikely to take a precipitous fall from a well-designed slide. Logically we should see jumping stations on play settings for older children, but these are as rare as hen’s teeth. I maintain that if a child can run with one foot in front of the other, as opposed to rapid toddling, they have sufficient motor skills to jump. The earlier a child learns to jump from a height, the sooner they will develop strong self-confidence.
A play pattern and its trigger are generally very specific. In the case of sliding, it is an inclined plane. Jumping is triggered by a high place and a clear landing area. It is essential to understand that play pattern specificity recruits a whole-body response. Here’s a simple visualization to get a sense of this. When I leave my home to go to the store, I have to cross a river. As I drive along parallel to its flow, I make a left turn to cross, and when I see the bridge, I need to slow down, turn on my turn signal, and steer my car into the narrow entrance to the bridge. Thus, the bridge is the trigger for the turning pattern. Still, during this whole maneuver, I am doing many more things, such as observing bike traffic and pedestrians, maintaining my posture, and thinking about what I will be buying at the market.
This visualization is important because we must see that a well-designed play setting will have many play triggers. In addition, the space will elicit specific play patterns and that these patterns promote not just a particular learning but a whole-body response and that these developing skills will overlap with the other play patterns in the space. When we create a play space, we are not building a fitness center with machines designed to develop specific muscles. We are creating an environment to promote the development of the whole child.
If it is true that play patterns are a general benefit, then why do we need to identify and implement 20 play patterns? The reason for this is straight forward. Unfortunately, we have come to view play spaces as having just a few triggers, i.e., swings, slides, and climbers. All too often, such spaces will not only omit spinning and balance but all of the other patterns. The only way to ensure the development of the whole child is to include all the play patterns.
It is also important to note that each play pattern has a developmental sequence. An adequately designed play space will have several instances of each pattern to ensure that children can progress through the whole range of challenges and that all children are accommodated regardless of skills.
In my five decades of dedication to creating play settings, I have only been able to achieve this ideal once, with the Gymboree Play and Music system. In that project, the team of designers and teachers together created a perfect play space system that can be reconfigured continuously to follow the children’s play and the teacher’s educational goals. This objective could not be achieved without providing the teachers with the ability to support the play with loose parts that they can change to present new functions. For example, the wonderful net climber can be dismounted from the system to become a spinner or a rocker. You can also see this ideal in the AnjiPlay program that started in China and is now spreading worldwide.
What is the bottom line? A perfect playground is a complex space and has both play leaders and loose parts so that the children can experience all of the play patterns as their interests dictate.