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Movement Experiences for Children
KIN 366
Instructor: Dr. Shannon S.D. Bredin
Office Hours:
Class Schedule:
Important Course Pages
Lecture Notes
Course Discussion

In general, a child's play is defined as freely chosen, personally directed, intrinsically motivated behaviour that actively engages the child (Mussen, 1983). Play is a portal through which children can learn, receiving information from their environments for use in their physical and mental development (Metin, 2003). Playgrounds as discussed here are defined as specialized indoor, or outdoor spaces specifically designed to be a place of play for children within towns and cities (Metin, 2003). Playgrounds can take many different forms in many different setting, but currently there are 3 major types of playgrounds for children: contemporary, adventure, and traditional (Barbour, 1999). Contemporary playgrounds include various multipurpose structures with many means of entry and exit meant to promote play (Barbour, 1999). Adventure playgrounds are areas that contain the materials and tools necessary for children to create their own play structures, and require more strict adult supervision (Barbour, 1999). The typical type of playground seen in most areas is the traditional playground. Traditional playgrounds are characterized by familiar playground equipment such as slides, swings, and climbers on which children may play, and they focus on promoting large muscle group exercise as well as general activity (Barbour 1999; Metin, 2003). Research has shown that children prefer to play on contemporary and adventure playgrounds, but traditional style playgrounds remain the dominant playground form due to a number of determining factors (Cohen et al., 1994). Among other reasons for their continued popularity, traditional playgrounds can be easily ordered by organization such as school and parks boards without too much input from expensive designers, are easily maintained, and can be used with relatively little supervision (Erickson, 1985). While the focus of traditional playgrounds has historically been on promoting general physical activity and exercise, more emphasis is now being placed on their effects on physical, cognitive, social, and emotional development (Shackell et al., 2008). It is not hard to see that the use of playgrounds has an effect on physical and motor development, but these effects can be difficult to quantify given the open nature of the playground environment (Ball, 2002)

A Brief History

In the 19th century in Europe, loss of public space in cities due to rapid urbanization lead to the concept of playgrounds: a discrete area set aside where children could safely go to be active (Metin, 2003). The first playground in the US was established in the late 19th century and included sand piles, ball areas, shovels, wheelbarrows, and swings (Erikson, 1985). Over the decades, more complicated playground structures such as climbing areas were developed and were initially built from wood and metal (Metin, 2003). In recent years the general theme of playground equipment has remained essentially constant with the major changes coming in the form of new materials such as plastics and rubber in attempts to increase the safety of playgrounds (Metin, 2003). For example, many metal slides have been replaced with plastic alternatives which has reduced the incidence of of burns and cuts from sharp edges (Metin, 2003). In addition to changing the materials, legislation has been put into place to address playground safety, introducing restrictions on maximum structure height and angle for slides (Mott et al., 1997). Playgrounds have remained very similar in spirit to the original playgrounds of the late 19th century with the main goal being to develop healthy, exercised children (Metin, 2003).

Traditional Playground Equipment

Effects on Motor Development

As previously stated, the main focus of traditional style playgrounds is to promote physical activity and exercise in order to keep children healthy and allow for proper development of their growing bodies (Metin, 2003). Physical activity in general has many proven health benefits and positive influences on the developing body including increasing bone density, cardiorespiratory development, muscular strength, decreasing the risk of being overweight as well and numerous long term health outcomes (Gabbard, 2012). Just as intended, it has been shown that traditional playground apparatus do indeed promote physical activity in children and leads to increased upper body muscular endurance and muscular efficiency, especially if the playground includes equipment such as climbers and monkey bars (Gabbard, 1979). Traditional playground equipment as a whole also provide affordances – aspects of the environment that allow an individual to engage in a particular behavior – for a wide range of movement patterns and thus can aide in the development of many fundamental motor skills (Mohora, 2007). Fundamental motor skills are common motor activities such as walking, running, climbing and jumping that have specific movement patterns and provide the foundation upon which more complicated movement skills can be developed (Gabbard, 2012). The attainment of mature fundamental motor skills is extremely important not only as they are the basis for learning more complex or sport related motor skills, but also because a lack of fundamental motor competency in children puts them at risk of being isolated from their peers through teasing or bullying, or by voluntarily removing themselves from certain activities as they are not confident in their ability to do what the other children are doing (Mohora, 2007). In fact, a child's level of competency in fundamental motor skills has been shown to be a predictor for their activity levels in adolescence – the greater a child's motor skill level, the more likely they are to be active later in life and reap the many health benefits of physical activity (Gabbard, 2012). By providing diverse movement activities, children are able to explore and improve their own physical skills and this helps to maintain their interest as they age (Metin, 2003). Conversely, a lack of sufficient movement possibilities can result in a number of negative outcomes such as poor imagination, nervousness, and poor physical development (Metin, 2003).

Examples of Equipment Types

Some typical examples of traditional playground equipment are: slides, swings, climbers, monkey bars, balance equipment, spinning equipment, and multi-play structures (Metin, 2003). These pieces of equipment provide different types of motor stimulation which is important for many aspects of a child's development including eye-hand-foot coordination as well as balance and locomotor skills (Frost, 1992).


Slides are a popular piece of equipment as they are enjoyed by children of a wide range of ages (Heseltine & Holborn, 1987). The height and choice of material for slides is an important factor to consider in regards to safety (Metin, 2003). Slides can be be made in a number of different heights, and shapes and this variety can allow children to choose a slide appropriate to their level of confidence (Moore et al., 1992).


The use of swings requires a child to learn a relatively complex pattern of full body coordination, involving many different muscle groups as well as balance (Brown et al., 2001). However, their use can result in injury from falls and jumping from them at full height (Moore et al., 1992). They should be placed apart from other pieces of equipment and use soft seat materials to reduce the risk of injury (Moore et al., 1992).


Climbers provide an excellent affordance to practice the fundamental motor skill of climbing and help to develop strength, coordination and balance (Brown et al., 2001). Height of the climbing equipment is an important consideration in regards to safety (Moore et al., 2002). A wide variety of climbing equipment exits, and climbing equipment of varying levels should be included in playgrounds to provide climbing opportunities to children of varying levels of motor competence (Metin, 2003).

Monkey Bars

The use of monkey bars has been shown to develop upper body strength and efficiency in children and require a high degree of coordination (Gabbard. 1979, Brown et al., 2001). However, there are those who have advised against their inclusion in playgrounds dues to a high incidence of injury on monkey bars compared to other types of traditional playground equipment (Mott et al., 1997).

Balance Equipment

Balance equipment provides an opportunity for children to work on control over their balance and coordination, but they should be kept low to prevent injury (Metin, 2003). It has been shown that dynamic balance equipment such as rolling logs, chain bridges, and spring platforms result in greater developmental gains than static balance equipment like simple balance beams (Metin, 2003).

Spinning Equipment

Spinning equipment such as merry-go-rounds are a child favorite (Metin, 2003). Most merry-go-rounds have been removed from playgrounds due to safety concerns, but some have been replaced with spinning alternatives (Metin, 2003). Spinning stimulates the vestibular system and promotes its healthy development (Fay et al., 2004). Lack of vestibular stimulation early in life has been connected with vestibular issues and so it is important that children are given opportunities to spin (Fay et al., 2004).

Multi-Play Structures

Multi-play structures are large continuous apparatuses that combine many play elements into one continuous piece of equipment (Metin, 2003). They promote physical activity by provide opportunities for many different types of play (Metin, 2003). Again, the height of the structure, and the materials it is made up of are important considerations to make sure the structure is safe for children (Metin, 2003)

Design Considerations

Safety vs. Risk

Playground related injuries of children in Canada number over 28,000 per year, the rate of hospitalizations increased by 8% between 2007 and 2012 and so playground safety is a serious concern that designers need to take into account (CBC News, 2013). Many injuries come from falls from heights, resulting in fractures and other more minor injuries, and so there have been rules and recommendations put into place such as restricting maximum equipment height and changing the ground materials in order to reduce the number of injuries (Mott et al., 1997). On the positive side, some of the changes such as changing hard playground surfaces for softer rubber surfaces does reduce the amount of certain types of injuries (Mott et al., 1997). However, there are negative consequences of making a playground too safe (Ball, 2002). In some cases, a theoretically safer playground – one with lower equipment and softer surfaces – can lead to a false sense of security that results in even more dangerous behaviours to emerge, resulting in more injuries (Ball, 2002). As such, is considerable debate on the balancing the need for playground safety with the desire to provide challenging, stimulating environments that provide the most affordances for development (Beate & Sandseter, 2007). It has been shown that children actively seek risky and challenging play and prefer it to safer alternatives (Stephenson, 2003; Beate & Sandseter, 2007). 6 major categories of risky play have been identified: 1) Play with great heights; 2) Play with high speed; 3) Play with harmful tools; 4) Play near dangerous elements; 5) Rough-and-tumble play; and 6) Play where the children can ‘disappear’/get lost (Beate & Sandseter, 2007). While these types of play are 'risky' they have a number of benefits, and playgrounds that are too safe can lead to boredom, discouraging further use (Stephenson, 2003). Through risk taking in play, children push the limits of their physical abilities while learning how to properly asses risk and master risky situations (Beate & Sandseter, 2007). This enables children to learn new skills and explore all the things that they can do with their own bodies. Risk-taking in play has even been shown to reduce the incidence of phobias in later life (Beate & Sandseter, 2007). For example, a child with experience playing at heights is less likely to have fear of heights as an adult than a child who does not have this experience. It is still extremely important to make sure children are safe when using playgrounds, but this must be balanced with opportunities to engage in appropriate risks, allowing children to have fun and resulting in the best developmental outcomes (Shackell et al., 2008).

Prescriptive vs. Open-ended

A concern with many types of traditional playground equipment is that they are too prescriptive in that they can only be used in the one, or one of a couple different ways that the piece of equipment was designed to be used (Shackell et al., 2008). For example, a sea-saw can only really be safely used for its intended purpose of alternating jumping with a partner, and cannot easily be incorporated into different games or activities. A successful playground should be able to be used by children of various age, ability level, and size and central to this is the idea of open-ended playground equipment (Shackell et al., 2008). A truly open-ended structure is one that can be used in a variety of different ways depending on the age, size, abilities, and interests of the children using it, making it more accessible to a wide range of users and promoting creativity (Shackell et al., 2008). Theoretically, open-ended equipment have many advantages: 1. a dynamic relationship can develop between the equipment and the user as the child can use the equipment in different ways as they develop physically thus retaining interest in the equipment and promoting further activity, 2. it can be used by a wide range of children regardless of age, size, ability, or disability, 3. Since it can be used in different ways, a single piece of equipment can be used in such a way to engage a variety of different muscle groups and fundamental motor skills, and 4. It can promote imagination and creativity by putting its use into the control of the child (Shackell et al. 2008).


Another concern many have with traditional playgrounds is that they are not accessible to children with a variety of physical and mental difficulties (Shackell et al., 2008). Some playgrounds have done a good job of being at least partially wheelchair accessible by installing ramps and wheelchair swings for example, but many other disabilities are not considered in playground design (Shackell et al., 2008). Tied in with the idea of accessibility is the concept of open-ended playground structures, as they can be used in numerous different ways to fit the level of the user, regardless of disability (Shackell et al., 2008).

Overview of Design Recommendations

In today's world of increasing traffic levels, heightened use of technology, and overemphasis on safety, children have less opportunity for outdoor play and so playgrounds need to fulfil the many needs of developing children and their design should not be taken lightly (Shackel et al., 2008). Of course, the available resources, such as budget and available space can limit the possibilities of what types of playground can be built, but there are many other factors that should also be considered. A successful playground should be designed for flexible use and incorporate many different play elements, enabling children at varying levels of ability to develop motor skills, strength, coordination, balance, and confidence, all while having fun (Shackell et al., 2008). Playgrounds should allow children to take appropriate risks with graduated levels of difficulty so that children can develop their decision making skills (Metin, 2003). Traditional playgrounds have focused on physical development, but playgrounds also affect cognitive, social, and emotional development and so those areas must also be considered (Metin, 2003).


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Barbour, A.C. (1999). The Impact of Playground Design on the Play Behaviours of Children with Differing Levels of Physical Competence. Early Childhood Research Quarterly, 14, 75-98.

Beate, E., & Sandseter, H. (2007). Categorizing risky play – how can we identify risk-taking in children's play? European Early Childhood Education Research Journal, 15, 237-251.

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