Jungle Gym Or Brain Gym?

Jungle Gym Or Brain Gym? – child development and physical activity

Teresa B. Hendy


In the sedentary.com world in which we live, playgrounds offer children opportunities to develop physically mentally, and socially, improving academic readiness as well as the overall health of the child.

Throughout the United States, health and physical education professionals agree that school-age children today are less physically active than in previous generations. As a society, we are leading our children–our future–to a less active, more sedentary life. In school, their physical education, music, and art time is being cut to squeeze in an extra “academic” class–a typical attempt of a school to improve their student body’s test scores. The irony is that the test scores are not improving. In fact, there is little change from the days when children had gym class and then would run home to spend the evening playing outside, instead of sitting in front of a television, computer, or video game screen. Now, when these kids get a little antsy in class, we label them with a disorder and try to fix them with pills when in reality we don’t look at the underlying problem–a lack of physical activity or play in their lives. Movement is instinctive. It is natural.

Dr. Mary McCabe, a leading expert in physical education and health of young children cites more than 80 brain research studies that suggest that the development of motor skills (movement) helps to facilitate academic readiness and learning. “The research suggests children can raise their achievement level, increase their motivation, heighten their understanding, accelerate their learning timeline, and expand their creativity through motor skills, music, and proper nutrition,” says McCabe. A well-developed playground environment in a park or school setting can greatly enhance a child’s overall physical and mental development, making playgrounds more than just fun.

The Importance of Movement

Play is an instinctive form of movement. An exciting outdoor space provides an opportunity for children to explore the environment at their own individual levels of development. A creative play experience enables children to test their skills, try new ideas, and seek challenges that cannot be duplicated in other environments. This type of creative free movement is vitally important to the development of the total child. All too often the perception of play is that it must be organized, limited to athletic challenges, or centered on a single monolithic fixed structure. An opportunity for a variety of experiences must be provided within the playground environment for children to meet their full physical and mental capabilities.

These movement experiences should be developmentally appropriate, allowing the child to develop skills at graduated levels of challenge. As humans, we develop physical and mental skills in sequence, which begin long before birth. When a baby moves in the womb, he/she is not just changing positions because he/she is uncomfortable. The baby is actually beginning to develop movement patterns. Turning or spinning helps to develop the inner ear, which corresponds to our sense of balance and depth perception. It also relates to how we see things, our ability to track objects, and eventually our ability to read. Even as aging adults, this kind of stimulation is needed to maintain a high quality of life.

But age is not always an accurate indicator of physical development. Because children learn sequentially, they should be introduced to various levels of physical challenge so that they can learn in sequence as their skills develop. Playgrounds should be designed accordingly. A playground should offer an area for running, ball playing, and bike riding, as well as traditional playground apparatus, that is developmentally appropriate for the age of the intended user.

Developing Movement Through Play

Children have a natural need to develop balance and climbing skills, which are the foundation for continued physical and mental development, and will progress naturally from one level to the next when given the opportunity. A child with a poor sense of balance will not only have great difficulty mastering other physical skills, such as climbing, jumping, and running, but also will often have trouble learning in school. There are many ways to provide balance within a play environment. A wide timber border surrounding a playground area is often used as a balance beam by children of all ages. Elements such as stepping-stones, boulders, and logs provide inexpensive opportunities for balance as well as interaction with the natural environment. For a young child, a wide beam, a low bench, and an inclined surface, such as a ramp, provides some of the least challenging forms of balance.

As the sense of balance develops, children become comfortable on a narrow edge such as a regular balance beam. Changing the shape and the elevation of the beam increases the challenge. Stepping pods or columns that enable a child to balance on one object and step onto another object not only develop balance but depth perception as well. To increase the level of challenge, add movement such as a chain walkway or suspended bridge. Games such as hopscotch also provide opportunities to develop not only balance but also social skills. Take care to include a variety of balancing opportunities in each play environment for both the preschool and school-age child.

Children also have a great opportunity to nurture their motor skills on playground structures. The variety of activities typically incorporated into these structures provides hours of challenging fun. Keep in mind that the type of activities selected and their locations may impact the overall safety and appropriateness of the playground equipment. This is especially true for very young children. When designing a play structure for preschool children, there should always be at least one form of access onto the structure that is not considered to have a high level of challenge.

During development, children first learn to walk on a level surface and then progress to an incline plane or ramp, just as they will crawl up a stairway before they learn to walk up it. A ramp or a wide enclosed stairway with handrails on both sides is an easy means of access for most children, does not present a high degree of challenge to the younger user, and even enables a child to move more easily from a wheelchair to the play structure due to its design.

Equipment such as stepladders and vertical ladders offer progressively steeper slopes and require increasing amounts of strength and coordination to navigate. One caveat of stepladders, vertical access ladders, and other types of climbers on preschool-age-appropriate equipment is that very young children may climb the structure and change their mind about going down one of the forms of egress provided. When this happens, they want to come down the way they got up, and if a less-challenging ramp or stairway has not been provided, they are at an increased risk of falling while trying to walk down a stepladder or vertical access ladder. Even on equipment designed for older children, it is important to include one of the lesser challenging forms of access as not all children have the same motor abilities and may require alternate means in order to use the structure safely. These types of access devices help facilitate movement throughout the play structure and develop motor planning, visual laterality, spatial awareness, and strength.

Climbers such as those mentioned, benefit children, as they help to develop a child’s balance, spatial awareness, eye-hand/foot coordination, laterality, and gross motor skills. According to brain development experts, the motor patterns developed by climbing opportunities help a child read, write, and solve math problems. Providing a variety of climbing devices at different heights and orientations encourages the development of a multitude of physical skills. A vertical type of climber, such as a coil or curly climber or a tree climber, would be considered a lesser challenging form of climbing and is a good choice for a preschool play area. They require a little more physical strength, as both the hands and feet are used to access the device, while the child’s center of gravity is still fairly centered within the body. Arch climbers, where the child’s center of gravity is more forward as they climb, are slightly more challenging than vertical climbers, but should never be used as the sole means of access in a preschool environment. And a flexible climber, such as a cargo or chain net, takes a child to the next challenge level. The more variety of climbers and challenge levels provided, the more exciting the play structure is and more developmental benefits are received.

The means used to get off of the play structure often are more fun than those taken to get on it. Kids of all ages love the sensation of moving freely through space as they slide down a slide or pole. Manufacturers of playground equipment are offering a tremendous variety of sliding opportunities to satisfy the thrill-seeking child. But, all of this fun is also beneficial, as sliding devices are great sources of movement that provide developmental growth as well as pure enjoyment.

Slides, like access devices and climbers, should be developmentally appropriate for the age group using the equipment. Children naturally seek out height; however, long, high spiral slides should not be used on a play structure for very young children because a toddler may not have developed enough strength and balance in his or her torso to remain erect while sliding. They may, in fact, tumble head over heels down the bedway. Again, consider the developmental abilities of the age of the intended user. A double-wide or a two-bedway slide is less challenging because it enables a caregiver to slide down beside a child that may need a little extra help or encouragement. Safety considerations, such as access/ egress traffic patterns–especially for very young children or children with mobility impairments–are vital, yet often overlooked by equipment manufacturers, purchasers, and designers alike.

Developing Strength (Physical and Mental)

Upper body strength building equipment, such as horizontal ladders, ring treks, and track rides are often the subject of debate–particularly in regard to whether or not they are appropriate to be used in a preschool environment. This type of apparatus builds muscle groups that are not often exercised during daily activities. A strong back and torso are important to keep the spine straight and to provide the proper support for the vertebrae. Upper body equipment also helps to develop spatial awareness, midline laterality, and eye-hand coordination. Good upper body strength and eye-hand coordination are vitally important to the child’s overall physical and mental development, and fear of injury should not inhibit playground owners from installing this type of equipment. Instead, consider the age group using the devices, the height of the device, its location within the play structure, and what type of surfacing material is under the device. Through careful attention to how and where these devices are located and by maintaining the surfacing beneath them, the major sources of injury associated with this equipment use can be substantially decreased or eliminated.

Children can be introduced to upper body development at an early age without putting them at risk of injury. By placing a turning bar 30-36 inches from the surfacing material, a two-year-old can grab the bar and lift his or her feet off of the ground with minimal risk. Once they learn how it feels to support their weight with their hands, they will quickly progress to swinging their feet. Two trapeze rings located at about the same height with a very short amount of chain enables young children to grasp the ring, swing, and spin freely, giving them a sense of control, while minimizing the risk of falling. There are levels of challenge associated with upper body devices and it is important to provide a good variety of this type of equipment. As the child learns to master the upper body devices that are scaled down to their size, they will be more prepared to tackle apparatus intended for the school-age child.

Children love the challenge of upper body devices and derive a lot of physical and psychological pleasure from mastering these events, making it desirable to provide them with a variety of upper body activities in a playground environment. Low turning bars, horizontal ladders, and ring treks offer varying degrees of challenge; however, the track ride is often considered to be the most challenging of the upper body devices–not because of the strength needed to hold onto the trolley mechanism, but due to the knowledge required to be able to anticipate cause and effect of the body being flung forward when the trolley hits the end of the track. A child younger than four years old often does not have the ability to anticipate the sudden stop and does not have the upper body strength to hold on upon impact.

Swings offer one of the best opportunities for a child to develop balance and coordination, as the movement of swinging is a form of vestibular stimulation (inner ear development) and is important to the development of the motor patterns that enable a child to read. When children learn to swing, they are developing a higher level of balance, coordination, and spatial awareness that translate to sequencing skills and, ultimately, academic readiness. Spring/rocking toys, merry-go-rounds, suspended bridgeways, log rolls, track rides, and flexible climbers are all play components that encourage this type movement.

Often playground owners are reluctant to install swings or other movement-related activities because of potential injury concerns. Because movement is so innate to human development, it would be more appropriate to evaluate the true causes of these injuries, such as where these items are located within the play environment, to reduce risk. Ensure that swings are isolated from of the general flow of traffic; don’t situate a swing set in a manner that forces a child to walk through the swings to get from one area of the playground to another. Keep merry-go-rounds to the perimeter of the play area and understand that a preschool-age child requires supervision when using one. Log rolls and track rides are a more advanced form of movement requiring a greater level of strength and skill; therefore, they should not be included in an area intended for preschool children.

Happy, healthy children are physically, emotionally, and socially fit. Providing a well-developed play environment enables children to leave the appeal of sedentary recreation such as video games and enjoy themselves outside. In turn, key cognitive and motor skills are developed and the child is better prepared for the academic world, enriching not only the each individual child, but also society as a whole.

Additional Reading:

Dennison, P. and Dennison G. (1994). Brain Gym. Ventura, CA: The Educational Kinesiology Foundation.

Hannaford, C. (1995). Smart Moves. Arlington, VA: Great Ocean Publishing Co.

McCabe, M. L. (1999). “FitKid” Curriculum Guide for Elementary School Exercise Equipment.

Getting bumps and bruises on the playground is normal in a child’s daily life, but when those bruises turn into serious injuries, playground safety becomes a major issue–especially to Teresa “Teri” Hendy. Hendy, whose article appears on page 84, brings extensive knowledge of design, standards, and guidelines to the playground business. Her primary concern is promoting safety, while developing challenging, creative, and fun play environments.

With a B.S. in art and a teaching certification, Hendy’s early interest was in creating sculptures for parks. This led to her realization that playgrounds were not meeting the needs of kids, so she began to design playground equipment. Thus began a journey of turning playground sketches into real-life fortresses of fun.

Hendy is currently the president and principal owner of Site Masters, Inc., a small consulting group based in Cincinnati, Ohio, and serves as an executive board member of the National Playground Safety Institute. She has earned numerous awards recognizing her for outstanding design and dedication to excellence in playground safety.

COPYRIGHT 2000 National Recreation and Park Association

COPYRIGHT 2001 Gale Group