Any parent who has ever witnessed a child’s first steps knows what the glow of fresh independence looks like. It is a messy, non-linear process, as the new toddler begins teetering around, falling, and getting up again. As parents, it can be simultaneously splendid and terrifying to watch, and it is a practice they’ll have to learn to tolerate with the crossing of each new milestone. Few places offer more fertile ground for physical and emotional development than the playground. With that in mind, the following are six ways that parents can better support their children as they learn through free play.
1) Never place a small child on an adult lap going down a slide.
That first slide is a right of childhood passage. It offers a grand mixture of glee, fear and satisfaction. But slides can be steep and scary, which is why many parents instinctively tuck their toddler into their laps, assuming it is a securer way to the bottom. Unfortunately, experts warn that this simple act is the cause for one of the most common playground injuries around: tibia fractures.
Tibia fractures in young toddlers are surprisingly common. Many occur on the playground. In 2009, Dr. John Gaffney, a pediatric orthopedic surgeon, conducted a year-long study examining tibial fractures in 58 children between the ages of 1 and 3 years. He found that a full 14% of those fractures occurred while children were sliding on an adult’s lap. The mechanism of injury is simple: the rubber sole of a child’s shoe can easily become lodged on the slide itself, causing the child’s leg to twist. The weight of the adult body coupled with the downward trajectory bears down on the leg, causing it to break before the pair even reach the ground.
The injury is so common that the American Academy of Orthopaedic Surgeons has expressly issued recommendations advising adults to never go down a slide with a toddler on their lap. Tibial fractures typically require a foot-to-knee cast and 6-8 weeks of recovery. Additionally, most parents are wracked with guilt over having inadvertently caused an easily preventable injury. A 2012 New York Times article triggered widespread discussion of the injury, including dialoguing about the benefits and detriments of parent intervention on the playground.
The solution for sliding? Make sure the slide is appropriate for your child’s age range. Slides on playgrounds designed for small children are shorter and there should be a sign with an age appropriate sign or sticker. Parents should be able to easily reach the child at any point along the slide’s decline. Alternatively, consider placing the child halfway up the slide before sliding down. This will slow down their acceleration, and allow the parent to be within arms reach if the child tumbles laterally.
2) Don’t place a child up on a platform which they cannot descend without assistance
This is another easy mistake to make. Young children are not yet seasoned at
weighing risks against the urge of curiosity. Whether they can scale the climbing structure or not, they may covet a spot at the very top. Parents, wishing to cultivate a child’s love for play, may acquiesce. Unfortunately, a child who hasn’t learned to properly ascend a structure isn’t likely to know how to get down without assistance, increasing the likelihood of a fall.
According to the Children’s Safety Network, the majority of playground injuries are the result of a fall, usually from the monkey bars or a climbing structure. While no parent can prevent every possible injury, they can dramatically reduce injury potential by recognizing their child’s physical limitations. Children learn through play, and climbing teaches them how to experiment with balance and equilibrium. Repeated physical activity helps them to develop the strength to fully support themselves while scaling a climbing apparatus. If a child lacks the dexterity and strength to climb to the top of a structure or to hang on the monkey bars, they will also be unable to safely get themselves down.
Though parents should supervise children while climbing, the best way to support their learning curve is to encourage the child only to go as far as they are capable. Children who can conquer a scary challenge—whether that is making it across a set of monkey bars or climbing a single rung on a ladder—will develop the self-confidence they need to properly progress, both physically and socially.
3) Allow Your Child to Take Calculated Risks
This idea need not contradict the suggestions above. By allowing your child to occasionally falter in a secure environment, you are teaching them to understand both their reasonable limits and potential. Each time your child tries something new on the playground, they are mastering a host of crucial developmental concepts. A well-designed play area offers a variety of activities which encourage physical growth and flexible thinking.
As adults, we consider activities like walking, running, climbing, dodging, swinging, hanging, throwing, catching, pulling and pushing to be innate. For children, these movements are more than physical exercise. They are ripe opportunities for their fundamental development. Children learn about balance and gravity on a seesaw. They understand how to use their legs as levers on a swing. Monkey bars help them build upper-body strength. Children who shape these physical skills at a young age are likelier to emerge as happier and healthier adults.
At the same time, parents will want to use the benefit of experience to help teach their children how to best enjoy play areas. Encourage your child to feel the surface of a slide on a sunny day—even plastic slides can become quite hot in the blistering summer sun. Remind them to wear rubber-soled shoes for climbing, and to avoid loose drawstrings and straps on clothing, which may get caught during active play.
4) Ensure the play area is age-appropriate
Many parents take children on their first foray to a play-park before a child has begun to toddle on two feet. Small steps, baby-swings, and sensory and sound equipment can be delightful for even the tiniest of tots. At the same time, permitting your very young child share space on the play structure with larger, more physically capable children can feel daunting. Most well-appointed play areas will post a recommended age range. By ensuring that your child is playing on equipment made specifically for their age, you are giving them the opportunity to explore in an area specifically designed for their body size and ability.
At Goric, we are committed to creating a sensory and physical environment that nurtures children at a variety of ages. The K&K Tower Play Structure imagines a fairy tale tower with multiple climbing stories and a long, tube slide offering a thrilling spiral ride down to the ground. This structure is specifically designed for children five years and older. For younger children, the K&K South Park offers low, wide steps, tactile elements such as a spinning wheel and colorful abacus, and a covered platform with rain and sun cover. Each of these structures is meticulously created with the goal of supporting the needs and interests of children across a range of ages.
5) Pay close attention to playground surfacing.
Fortunately, most newly constructed play areas are required to be compliant
with the current safety standards, including resilient surfacing. Whenever possible, parents should avoid play structures situated on asphalt or concrete surfaces. Since so many common playground injuries result from falls, it should come as no surprise that pliant ground covering such as rubber, wood fiber or tiles can greatly reduce the risk of serious injury.
Goric’s EPDM Impact Protection Slabs offer soft, solid surfacing in a rainbow of vibrant colors, but we believe that lively playground topography is as important as a firm foundation. Our steppers and cubes are constructed from 100% recycled rubber and help create a multi-level terrain that invites exploration while fostering agility and strength.
6) Enjoy playing with your child
One of the most rewarding gifts a parent can bestow upon a child is their undivided attention. Children want parents to witness their evolution. It makes them feel loved and supported. For parents, play is an opportunity to not only bond with a child, but to begin to understand their child on the child’s own terms. The American Academy of Pediatrics notes that caregivers “who have the opportunity to glimpse into their children’s world learn to communicate more effectively with their children and are given another setting to offer gentle, nurturing guidance.”
Incorporated into Goric’s philosophy of play is a strong emphasis on creating spaces that serve intergenerational interaction. In the grind of modern society, adults are rarely given opportunities to loosen the binds of convention and simply play. In myriad ways, children give adults permission to do just that. Play allows adults to be silly, creative and adventurous—traits many of us lose or hide as we mature. Goric’s products reveal a commitment to the invention of play elements that can appeal across generations. A grandparent may not be able to scale the monkey bars, but they can join a child in play in many different ways.
In the demanding world of professionalized parenting, it is easy to lose sight of the critical importance of free play. Society places more pressure than ever upon parents to rigorously support their children’s development by fashioning highly programmed structure. Previous generations simply kicked the kids outdoors and told them not to come home until dinnertime. That generous freedom has been replaced by soccer practice, art class and tutoring. This societal shift in many ways contradicts the recommendations of so many experts in early child development, who repeatedly echo a single sentiment: children learn through play.
Intergenerational play offers parents and caregivers a host of opportunities to improve their own physical and emotional health. It is as beneficial to the child as the adult. Above all, it is a wonderful way to create magical, enduring memories.