Climbing, swinging, running and sliding on the playground are all childhood rites of passage. Playgrounds provide not only a safe place for children to exert their energy, have fun and interact with peers, but also a valuable learning environment where children of all ages can develop their physical, social, emotional and cognitive skills.
Play is an essential part of child development. Studies show that free play — and outdoor play in particular — benefits children in many ways. It helps them gain strength and endurance while preventing obesity and other health issues such as diabetes, high cholesterol and bone and heart problems. It helps relieve stress and anxiety while building self-esteem and confidence. Children learn to socialize with peers and build relationships when playing with others and practice independence when playing alone. Free play helps develop problem-solving skills and may help improve conditions such as ADHD.
In recent years, opportunities for children to experience free play have rapidly diminished. Parents working long hours, involvement in extracurricular activities and ready access to technology have all contributed to this growing trend. According to the Kaiser Family Foundation, children between the ages of eight and 18 spend an average of 7.5 hours a day in front of a screen. The rise in health conditions such as diabetes and obesity in children shows just how detrimental spending too many hours in front of electronic devices is to their health and development.
Although there isn’t an exact amount of unstructured physical activity that’s ideal for each age level, it’s recommended that children engage in 60 minutes or more of physical activity each day. Science shows that physical activity and free play has a number of benefits for children of all ages and stages of development.
Ages 1-3: The Toddler Years
During the toddler stage, much growth and many exciting changes occur. Play is essential to the development of fine and gross motor skills such as coordination, muscle control and balance. In the early years of this stage, children are just learning how to stand and walk. They learn how to walk with assistance, keep their balance and negotiate changes in terrain.
During the middle of this stage comes skills such as throwing or rolling a ball, climbing, jumping and beginning to explore stairs.
The later period of this stage brings skills such as walking up stairs while holding a railing, kicking a ball, running proficiently and playing on playground equipment such as swings, ladders and slides.
Socially, toddlers are just beginning to establish their independence. While they still need assistance from caregivers, they often get frustrated when help is offered. Play dates are usually introduced during the toddler years, although children in this developmental stage typically play beside each other rather than directly engaged with each other. Since they are just beginning to understand emotions, sharing and taking turns is a skill that is still very difficult. Toward the end of the toddler stage, children start to seek out other children with which to play actively. Since their language skills have also improved, their ability to communicate and understand emotions fosters more social interaction, which in turn helps develop further skills such as sharing and taking turns.
The development of play activities also develops rapidly throughout the toddler stage. While in the infant stage, toys were shaken and banged. During the toddler stage, children can actively seek out the toys with which they want to play. The early stages of pretend play are also developing around this time. It’s not unusual to see toddlers imitating things they’ve seen adults or older siblings do.
Toddlers enjoy observing the outside environment through all of their senses. They are naturally curious and enjoy asking questions about the world around them. Toddlers should be given ample opportunity to practice all of these skills in a safe, secure and supervised environment.
Activities such as playing with different sized brightly colored balls, learning how to pedal a tricycle and playing on playground equipment are all appropriate activities toddlers can do. For this age level, there should be a blend of structured (adult-led) and unstructured (free play) physical activity each day.
Ages 4-6: The Early Childhood Years
During this stage, children leave behind their toddler behaviors. Their fine and gross motor skills have developed to the point where they can now engage in many activities that require coordination and balance. Their ability to throw, kick and bounce a ball with accurate aim improves along with their ability to climb trees and playground equipment and jump from heights. They can also hop on one foot, begin to pedal a bike with or without training wheels and balance on a narrow beam or line.
Socially, children at this stage continue learning to share, communicate and take turns with others. The early childhood stage has children engaging in active play with one another and enjoying socialization. They are beginning to understand and follow rules, which extends into their play activities.
They are also more understanding of their peers and the emotions of others and can demonstrate empathy and perspective-taking. Children are also learning about expectations and beginning to develop their sense of identity. They want to lead and be leaders.
Pretend play and make-believe are a large part of play in early childhood. Children at the end of this stage have a good grasp of fantasy and reality and enjoy role-playing and using their imaginations. Safe jungle gyms, slides and tree forts are an excellent way for children in this stage to act out dramatic play activities and safely carry out their desire to run, jump and climb. Children enjoy participating in play dates and may begin requesting them with specific friends.
For children in this developmental stage, engaging in physical activity at the playground helps them develop their coordination and balance further while also increasing their independence and social skills. Here, children are free to use their imaginations freely and make choices about what activities they would like to do and with whom they want to play.
They should be encouraged to try new activities and take minor risks by engaging with other children and initiating group games and activities. Children at this stage benefit from increased responsibility with parental support nearby if needed.
The recommendation for this developmental stage is for children to participate in moderate-to-vigorous-intensity physical activity for at least 60 minutes each day by age five and then transition to include at least three days of vigorous activity and three days of bone- and muscle-strengthening activities each week by age six.
Ages 7-9: The School-Age Years
This developmental stage ushers in more physical and emotional changes in children. They continue to grow bigger and stronger and gain stamina and more refined fine and gross motor skills. Most children in this stage can run farther and play games longer without getting tired than they could in previous stages. They can ride a two-wheeled bike adeptly, skillfully throw and catch a ball and swim vigorously.
During this stage, peer relationships become a big part of children’s lives and peer influence becomes very important. Children at this stage enjoy spending more time with their friends and these friendships can change rapidly. Children enjoy being part of a group or team and begin to spend more time with peers of the same sex. Although they can understand other’s perspectives more easily than in previous stages, conflict resolution on the playground is a skill that is frequently practiced during these years.
School-aged children have a greater attention span and can also plan. They can identify distinct likes and dislikes and begin to show interest in specific activities. Children in this stage start to compare themselves with others. They may want to become good at a particular skill such as running fast, throwing a ball accurately or climbing the highest.
The spirit of competition truly comes out during this developmental stage and it's not unusual to see children engaging in and making up games that involve a winner and a loser. While school-aged children thoroughly enjoy winning, they may still be unable to lose graciously.
Children in this developmental stage can follow directions and rules and enjoy playing and making up games with specific rules. Boys in this stage enjoy activities such as running and playing ball while girls still enjoy imaginative and dramatic play. Playground equipment that provides covered spaces for hideouts, hide and seek and other group activities is ideal for this age level. Children of both sexes benefit from opportunities to play with other children and having supportive adults who will encourage their independence without interfering.
This developmental stage benefits from 60 minutes of medium- and high-intensity activity each day. At least three days a week should focus on high-intensity movements and include bone- and muscle-strengthening activities.
Ages 10-12: The Preteen Years
This developmental stage ushers in many dramatic physical changes in both boys and girls. The early signs of puberty may be seen and girls usually begin to mature faster than boys. Girls may experience weight gain while boys start to show muscle development. Boys also continue to refine their gross motor skills by engaging in rough and active play. Preteens are often proud of their increasing physical abilities yet lack self-confidence when acquiring new skills.
Preteens are very concerned with peer relationships and often begin to spend time with a few close friends. Both sexes want to fit in and be accepted by their peers. They may be moody and emotional for no apparent reason and may frequently experience fear and worry. While preteens show an increased ability to sit and focus for long periods of time, they still have a great deal of physical energy that needs to be released.
Their sense of competition continues to increase and many preteens become interested in competitive games and activities and team sports. Preteens often want complete independence from their parents, which often results in conflict and rebellion. They benefit from participation in community activities, team sports and positive peer groups.
Physical activity during this stage is more important than ever. Not only does it help preteens stay healthy and maintain a healthy body weight and body image, but it also improves their mood and self-esteem. Daily participation in both structured activities (such as team sports) and unstructured activities (such as playing on the playground) help preteens have fun, release stress and stay healthy.
Experts recommend children at this developmental stage participate in moderate and vigorous physical activity for at least one hour each day and engage in vigorous, bone-strengthening and muscle-enriching activities three days out of the week.
Ages 13+: The Teenage Years
During these years, teenagers rapidly gain height, weight and strength. They are heading toward complete physical maturity and can do many physical activities with skill and dexterity. It's imperative that teens continue to be mindful of safety and always wear proper protective gear such as helmets and pads when engaging in specific physical activities such as cycling, skating or soccer.
Teens enjoy both competitive and non-competitive games and express an interest in personal fitness. They enjoy spending time with large groups of friends and less time with their parents. They desire independence and privacy and want to feel important. Joining teams and community groups can help foster a sense of purpose for teens. Teenagers have a strong moral sense of right and wrong but may struggle with making decisions.
With this age group, it’s particularly important for parents to regulate and limit screen time and be sure their teens are getting enough sleep, exercise and proper nutrition. Keeping televisions out of bedrooms and establishing rules and limits for electronic devices such as cell phones, tablets and videogames can help to keep teenagers up and active rather than lazy and sedentary.
While teens’ schedules and social lives may not leave much room for free playtime, encourage them to exercise by walking or bicycling when traveling from place to place. Taking the stairs instead of the elevator is also a way to incorporate exercise into the day. Playing in a neighborhood park or playground remains a recommended activity for teens who can utilize the space for running, climbing and playing games.
The recommendation for this developmental stage is for children to participate in moderate-to-vigorous intensity physical activity for at least 60 minutes each day, with at least three days of vigorous activity and three days of bone- and muscle-strengthening activities each week.
The Importance of Safe Playground Equipment
When parents spend more time outdoors, engaging in activity, children will naturally follow. Encouraging the whole family to get outside, be active and limit screen time demonstrates healthy habits that children will carry into adulthood. To encourage more family outdoor time, many parents and caregivers choose to have customized play equipment installed in their yards.
Playground equipment allows each child’s imagination to run wild. It can become anything from a fairytale castle to a rugged pirate ship. Playground equipment naturally promotes group interaction by providing areas for games and gatherings. Bridges, ramps, tunnels and platforms encourage groups to gather and play. Swings and slides encourage taking turns and sharing.
Covered areas and tunnels encourage children to use their imagination and engage in dramatic play. Hanging equipment and activity panels — like tic tac toe boards — also helps children develop spatial awareness and depth and visual perception.
Playsets provide a space where children of all backgrounds and abilities can interact and play together. They encourage children to be more accepting of those who are different from them. It's important that playground equipment is accessible for children of all ages and abilities where they can play and interact with peers without limitations.
Playgrounds should be places where children can safely take risks and play freely. For this reason, it’s imperative that children are always supervised and safe. For all age levels, experts recommend that both indoor and outdoor playsets and play areas meet or exceed recommended national safety standards. There are many playsets available on the market today. However, they’re definitely not all the same.
At Playground One, we’re proud to offer fun, safe and sturdy playsets that encourage the whole family to get outside. Our customizable sets grow with the needs and play habits of your family and children and can be expanded and changed throughout the years.
All of our playsets are constructed of solid 100 percent Pacific Cedar beams. Pacific Cedar naturally resist pests, fungus, cracking and warping. We then connect the beams with sturdy, hot-dipped galvanized hardware. We also boast numerous “ouchless” safety features such as snag-free hardware, double-wall reinforced slides and pinch-free swing chains. Our products are meant to look beautiful while providing safe and long-lasting fun for many years to come.
Our comprehensive 10-year warranty ensures long-term peace of mind to our customers. Browse our product catalog today to learn how easy it is to start building your dream playground!