October 20, 2021

Playgrounds about more than just play

Experts say children learn key life lessons, social skills

Shenandoah Briere/staff reporter

Students from Shari Powers’ and Jeniffer Block’s pre-Kindergarten class at Homer Elementary play on the new playground at the school. Powers said playgrounds and playtime are essential for child development.

About 20 pre-kindergarten kids ran around the playground at Homer Elementary School, climbing ladders and pushing each other on swings.

Playgrounds and play time are essential for childhood development and even for adults, say teachers and professors.

“Playing is the vehicle through which children learn,” said Anna Regula, chairwoman of the early childhood education program at Tompkins Cortland Community College.

Pre-K students at Homer Elementary get 30 minutes of recess and for pre-K teacher Shari Powers’ kids, that meant spending the time checking out the new playground at the school Wednesday afternoon.

The Cortland community is bustling with playgrounds — and new or improved playgrounds, too.

The playgrounds

The elementary school got a new jungle gym for children under 5 and plopped it next to the one for the older kids. In no time, the youngsters will race to play on the monkey bars at the “big kids’” set.

The village of Homer plans to install a playground at Newton Park this month, which will include an Americans with Disabilities Act-compliant swing set and jungle gym, using $24,584 from a Community Development Block grant and a bit from a $50,000 park reserve fund to add a bench and bike rack, too.

The idea for the new equipment came after resident Hannah Potter sought help from Mayor Darren “Hal” McCabe to fix the park after taking her 4-year-old son there to play.

There’s also a playground at Durkee Park, which is likely the next one to be updated, said village Treasurer Tanya Digennaro.

Cortland has four parks with playgrounds for kids, with more than $500,000 in renovations in the past couple years.

The Suggett Park playground opened in June 2018 on Madison Street. The facility, which is also an ADA-compliant park including a glider that accommodates wheelchairs, a whirla- ground similar to a merrygo- round — new swings and a sound panel. Poured rubber, expected to last 20 to 25 years, covers the ground.

Beaudry Park’s 115- by 50- foot playground opened in August 2018 on Scammell Street featuring slides, a climbing wall, swings, a climbing tower and platforms and a JAX Web, which looks like a giant spider’s web. The city also has playgrounds at Dexter and Yaman parks.

And that’s just naming the playgrounds between the two municipalities. Volunteers in 2016 did $120,000 in renovations, including building a new playground, at Montgomery Park in Dryden. That same year the Groton community got a $140,000 state grant to update the playground at Groton Memorial Park.

Playing is learning

“A playground is not a luxury, it’s really essential,” Powers said, be it a structured area with swings and slides or just space to jump rope or play foursquare. They’re areas where kids can learn while interacting with others their age is necessary to develop interpersonal and social skills.

“It teaches kids to negotiate in social situations, like waiting in line or taking turns on pieces of equipment,” she said. “It gives them an opportunity to meet peers that might not be in their class and form new relationships.”

“Playgrounds are often the first setting in which we get to practice how to join groups, lead or make choices in how we treat each other,” Regula said.

But playgrounds are also essential for learning how to climb, push, pull or whatever it may be — leading to development of gross motor skills or muscles.

“The kids are using a rock wall or monkey bars to develop gross motor skills and strengthen all parts of their body,” Powers said.

That type of activity and play time benefits kids as they get older, said Matthew Madden, an associate professor in the physical education department at SUNY Cortland.

“If you’re a physically active child and physically active adolescent, you’ll be a physically active adult,” he said.

Being active through play and on playgrounds also forces children to use their problemsolving skills as they decide where to place a foot or hand when climbing or how high to go on the swing and when to slow down.

But playgrounds don’t just build motor skills, relationships or muscles. They nourish creativity.

Let creativity flow

“The research shows that kind of outdoor play helps kids be more creative and selfdirective in life,” said Charles Yaple, a professor in the recreation, parks and leisure studies department at SUNY Cortland. “It helps them develop a sense of wonder about this big wide world they live in.”

The idea of creativity is notable in structured playgrounds, where “a climber becomes a spaceship, a boat, anything children can imagine,” Regula said.

Creativity is also is nourished on unstructured playgrounds where the tools kids have — a jump rope, a ball or whatever inspires the imagination — lets them create their own games.

Bye-bye ‘the wiggles’

When kids play, they’re able to release their pent-up energy. Powers calls it getting “the wiggles” out.

“It lets them get back into the groove of class time again,” she said.

Madden said play time, especially when it involves a playground of some type — structured or not — can lead to them being more inclined to learn.

“There’s really no evidence that they will learn more, but there’s evidence that they’re ready to learn,” he said.

Powers said she’s noticed the time spent on the playground has helped them prepare for the next round of activities and learning.

Creating the best playground

Carl Heastie and Barbara Lifton may not be in education or child-care careers anymore, but they understand the importance of play and playgrounds.

They stood Monday with Cortland Mayor Brian Tobin on a giant bit of playground equipment at Suggett Park. One is now speaker of the state Assembly, the other the Assembly member representing Cortland. Both were in either education or child-care before they got into politics, and they were behind some of the $500,000 in grants the city received to upgrade its parks.

Heastie (D-Bronx) and Lifton (D-Ithaca) were in town to see what the state grants had bought. Is it pork barrel spending to renovate a park?

If it is, Heastie didn’t mind. “I’m glad we’re standing on a big piece of ham,” he said.

His first job in college was working at a day-care center. He knows what kids can be like.

“It balances a child out when it’s not all academics,” he said. So what makes the best playground? Well, many things.

The equipment on a structured playground should be appropriate to the age of the child — the height of the monkey bars or type of swings.

“Research shows kids who have outdoors active games where they fall down and have to get have a greater ability to exercise resilience later on in life when things get tough,” Yaple said. “You want to encourage the children to take some risk but not to injure themselves to the point where they become afraid.”

But a good playground also includes pieces that kids can take apart and be creative with, making up their own games or activities.

Playgrounds should include something for everyone, Regula said.

At the same time, Madden said those pieces of equipment should challenge kids.

“In order to keep a child interested you have to make it somewhat cognitively challenging or they’ll just move on to the next thing,” he said.

And most importantly, he said, play time should not be so formal otherwise it “decreases skills because adults are telling them what to do.”

He said adults should provide a watchful eye for safety but shouldn’t stand near the slide with kids lined up dictating who goes next.

Make sure they’re just having fun, said Lifton, who was a teacher before entering politics.

“Play is children’s work,” Lifton said. “We should all play a little more.”