07-21-21 | Department

Importance of Play at School

Trends in Playground Design
by Aaron Schmok, LASN

: The playground at Dove Mountain SCTEM K-8 School in Marana, Arizona has a space exploration theme with a rocket ship shaped play structure and custom shade feature planets.
Bright colors were incorporated into the playground and throughout the exterior of the campus to contrast the surrounding desert landscape.
This unique playground design in Maple Grove Central Park in Minnesota is made up of mostly customized pieces including a tower play structure with stacked tunnel slides, hillside climbers and custom slide tunnels integrated into the landscape design.
Resilient play surfacing was shaped into playful mounds that create opportunities for self-directed and innovative play.
The vision for this 25,000 sq. ft. area in the West Commons area of Central Park in Carmel, Indiana was a to create a big and bold, modern, and challenging playground.
Tower slides, wall and net climbers, tunnels and bouncers help create a one-of-a-kind play experience. Weather in school or a public playground it's important to engage children in play to balance their academics.
John W. Cook Academy, a pre-kindergarten through 8th grade public elementary school located in Chicago's Auburn-Gresham neighborhood, was transformed into an inspired play and learning space for students, and an outdoor place for the whole neighborhood to get together and reconnect with nature without engaging frontal lobe brain activity.
John W. Cook Academy, a pre-kindergarten through 8th grade public elementary school located in Chicago's Auburn-Gresham neighborhood, was transformed into an inspired play and learning space for students, and an outdoor place for the whole neighborhood to get together and reconnect with nature without engaging frontal lobe brain activity.

Tom Norquist, one of the founding members of the International Play Equipment Manufacturer's Association (IPEMA) in 1995 and has served the association as the president, treasurer and secretary, was interviewed about school and campus design related to play.

Educational Environment & Recess
Norquist described how the modern educational environment puts pressure on children, especially in elementary school, to pass exams to progress through each grade level resulting in cognitive strain on the developing minds. Looking at common academic activities such as reading, writing, practicing arithmetic, and in later years, complex thought process, problem solving, and literary studies, those are all activities that require, what brain researches tell us, is their executive function in the frontal lobe of your brain. They require concentration, focus and for children to engage the frontal lobe. More broadly, the process of memorization utilizes the executive function portion of the brain, and therefore the frontal lobe.

"When we let our children get into, what I call, a state of play: some kind of a chase game or they're on an apparatus or swing and maybe they are have social interaction with their friends. When we get into this state of play it lets your frontal lobe rest. It uses millions of other connections in our brains, but it's not something that is requiring this executive function part. So, when you think about a playful campus design that last thing in the world I want to do on a playful campus is have somebody play tic-tac-toe."

In regard to the contemporary progression of the educational system with the United States, some of the trends within the past 10 to 15 years have centered around the possibility of eliminating recess and converting it into additional study time. Norquist pointed to the misinformed perception of play, especially seen in higher energy children, that the purpose of that time and those actions is to expend energy as a reason for the conversation around substituting recess.

What Happens When Kids Play
Publications on the topic of play from Kathy Hirsh-Pasek and Roberta Michnick Golinkoff along with the research of the science of play from Jaak Panksepp and Sergio Pellis, who looked at the brain function of mammals, help paint a picture that reveals this concept of how play fertilizes our brains and how that's important in school campus design.

"Dr. Joe Frost (considered historically one of the leading experts on play and playgrounds with a global reputation as the contemporary father of play advocacy) taught us through extensive research of human study factor research that educational play panels are counterproductive when it comes to elementary school playground design because the purpose is not to have the children go from the class room to the playground to learn more things and to use their frontal lobe and the executive function part of their brain. Its really there to let that part rest and to open up these other millions of connections within our brain that are so important to get you into a state where you can now start thinking creatively. The emotion that is created in play is fixed in our memories and directly related to our abilities in terms of innovation and creativity."

Norquist encourages to think of these ideas while considering a child's curiosity and about a child's brain in their formative, prepubescent years. Hara Estroff Marano, Psychology Today Magazine, wrote a book, in 2008 called "A Nation of Wimps: The High Cost of Invasive Parenting" and she discussed children in their prepubescent years entering into a state of play called, Brain Drive Neurotropic Factor (BDNF). While they are playing, they are also wiring the millions of synoptic connections in their brains at the same time. Her book she describes this as "natures spitball."

"I'll never forget reading that and meeting with her and talking with her about that. When Hera was describing it... in those prepubescent years that playful activity is creating these connections to parts of our brain that then, during puberty, get trimmed and pruned, but the more the merrier, because you use them later in life when they are called upon for higher levels of thinking."

Trends in Playground Design
Within school design and play, Norquist identified visibility within playground structures and elements as a current industry trend, however, this does not necessarily incorporate posts and platforms as a solution, but rather the new potential are the rope type products, some of which include popular elements from the post and platform, including transfers, new way transferability for ADA, and similar components.

"Another really cool trend on campuses and play areas is a more naturally inspired play environment and I call that a playful landscape where, let's say the school has some topography that is natural, rather than going in a cutting it all flat, leaving that naturally topography and building some accessible roots to travel to some of the elements and adding some elements that might require more able-bodied children to climb and maybe even into part of the hillside. We see this happening all over the place right now. People are starting to say, "what can I do with natural elements and combine that with the built environments."'

Scholars at North Carolina State, Robin Moore and Nilda Cosco, did some extensive research on combing the natural environment with the built environment and they concluded that when you combine the natural and the build together, you get higher levels of energy expenditure. They conducted this work through human factors research with children wearing heart monitors, and they found that when it was 100% natural or 100% built that their energy expenditure was not as high when it was a combination of the built and the natural. The trend of combing the natural with the built started with parks, but relatively recently, it is beginning to make its way into school and campus design.

As seen in LASN magazine, July 2021.


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