The modern playground provides children with numerous opportunities and developmental benefits. These benefits include social, emotional, physical, and cognitive opportunities that are related to providing children with play components to climb, slide, and various opportunities for varied forms of movement. As safety concerns grow, fear of litigation, and safety zones become more and more evident in today’s playground design many facilities have opted to eliminate moving components that provide children with opportunities to swing, spin, and bounce. But is this concern about safety and litigation hindering children’s opportunities to develop their vestibular and proprioceptive systems on the playground.
The vestibular sense is our sense of movement and is closely related to our sense of sight. We don’t think about how our body moves when we are walking up and down stairs, right? The vestibular sense helps us maintains our muscle tone and coordinate the two sides of our body. It tells us what our body is doing, e.g., sitting, rocking, crawling, etc., and helps us know where we are in space.
Closely related to the vestibular sense is our proprioceptive sense which gives us an awareness of body position. It is proprioception that allows us to guide our arm or leg movements without having to observe every action. It tells our brain when and how our muscles are contracting or stretching and how our joints are binding or extending so we know where are limbs are. As a result, we can go up the stairs without actively thinking about what we are doing.
So, why are the vestibular and proprioceptive senses so important to our children? It is important because these senses are involved in motor planning. Children who struggle with motor planning often have difficulties in school. These senses are necessary for writing, reading, looking at a blackboard, catching a ball, etc. Some children with poorly developed motor planning appear clumsy falling down or bump into things frequently. There are others who are compelled to constantly be moving, i.e. running, hopping, and jumping on people’s backs even running into walls on purpose! To avoid these kinds of outcomes, we need to give children frequent and regular opportunities for movement such as:
* riding on carousels or merry-go-rounds
Providing children with a variety of movement opportunities provides children with important vestibular activation which in turn stimulates the Vestibular System and another parts of the nervous system called the Cerebellum. Movement, particularly stimulation by rocking, spinning, or hanging upside down, helps develop a large important area behind the brain stem: the cerebellum, which connects the vestibular system that is linked to balance mechanism in the inner ear. The cerebellum also interacts with higher, frontal levels in the brain for cognitive skills such as language, social interaction, music, the ability to perform repetitive activities automatically (e.g. handwriting), and perhaps attention. (Healy, Jane M. 2004)
Information from both of these areas is fed to the brain, especially in an area that is important for spatial or sensory awareness. They also control posture and balance, coordination, the stabilizing muscles of the spine, eye movements (such as visual tracking). The vestibular sense is vital in both movement (dynamic balance) and stillness (static balance). (Macintry & McVitty, 2004), and facilitates children’s development of balance, walking, hopping, & running.
The rhythmic movement of play supports language development by helping develop eye-tracking necessary for reading. When a child achieves a regular rhythmic movement on the swings, it can produce a relaxing effect or a sense of excitement on the central nervous system. Play equipment that moves also provides children with opportunities to practice swaying, running, and turning (Langendorfer, 1988). Swinging benefits a child’s proprioceptive system as he moves through space and is thus required to make subtle adjustments to posture.
Planning your playground to meet current safety regulations is an important part of providing a fun and challenging playground, but do not eliminate valuable opportunities for a child’s healthy development and their ability to practice their movement skills because of an over concern about risk and liability. Providing children with numerous and varied opportunities for movements like swinging, spinning, swaying, and bounce not only provides for fun and challenging experiences, but also provides them with opportunities to develop their vestibular and proprioceptive systems which may not be achieved in any other place other than the neighborhood or school playground.
About the Author:
JC Boushh is a play consultant, head playground designer for Design for Play, and a specialist in child development. He has lectured worldwide, presented several training webinars for Kaboom, Head Start Body Smart, and Peaceful Playgrounds as well as authored numerous articles and blogs on play, brain development, and children’s play environments. He is a Board Member and Playground Liaison for The International Play Association/USA, a Past Member of ASTM International F15.29, a Past Board of Trustee Member of the International Playground Contractors Association, a member of NAEYC Play, Practice, & Policy Group, and an associate member of the International Playground Equipment Manufacture’s Association. He is a Certified Playground Safety Inspector, SAFE Certified by the National Program for Playground Safety, a Certified Early Childhood Outdoor Play Inspector, Head Start Body Start Physical Activity Consultant, and has been recognized by the California State Legislature for his contribution to designing safe play environments. He currently attends Pacific Oaks College where he is pursuing a Master of Human Development, and has a deep commitment to preserving all children’s right to free-play.