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10-16-20 | Feature

Interview with IPEMA Past-President Tom Norquist

COVID-19 and Play

Tom Norquist is the senior vice president for PlayCore, and a founding member for Voice of Play and IPEMA where he serves as the immediate past president. With over 35 years of industry experience, Tom is a passionate speaker, award-winning park designer, and international advocate for play.
The International Play Equipment Manufacturers Association (IPEMA) is a non-profit, membership-based trade association that represents and promotes an open market for manufacturers of playground equipment and surfacing. By serving its members, IPEMA provides information on key economic and governmental issues affecting the play equipment industry and promotes relationships among related organizations.
When discussing the benefits of play, the Voice of Play believes that socializing is a major component. The playground is a complex social network where kids learn valuable everyday life lessons about interacting with others, social norms and independence, all while gaining important relationship-building skills.
According to the Voice of Play, solitary play helps kids socially, as it develops a strong sense of independence, promotes creativity and imagination and can alleviate boredom. When a child plays alone, they can also learn social cues by observing other kids' interactions without being part of them.
Voice of Play promotes growth in the quality and quantity of children's free play and the use of playgrounds. Through unbiased, scientifically based information and resources, Voice of Play aims to increase education and awareness about the many benefits of children's play, including the development of critical physical, emotional, social, and cognitive skills.
Research shows outdoor play is much more than just fun, it's necessary to help kids be physically fit and healthy. When kids are playing, they are learning reflexes and movement control, developing fine and gross motor skills and increasing flexibility and balancing skills. On top of that, when kids are involved in physical activity, they're building stronger muscles and improving bone density, improving heart and lung function, and preventing obesity, diabetes and high cholesterol.

What are IPEMA's views on how COVID-19 affects outdoor play?
"Even with Coronavirus and social isolation measures putting limits on how and where families can play, it's important be reminded of the critical importance that the vital human activity of play has on childhood development. If children are not playing outside, they are missing out on these essential developmental experiences. Now that more playgrounds are open, we hope that children are given the opportunity to play outdoors on the playground, as long as they follow the proper protocols by the CDC, such as following social distancing guidelines and washing their hands often. We have resources on our Voice of Play website outlining these (see link at bottom of this article). Parents also seem to agree on the importance of play for their children. In a recent survey IPEMA conducted, 87% of parents say right now, play is more important than ever for children and over half of parents say they value public playground environments more today than before the pandemic."

In response to the pandemic, what actions have you taken to maximize safety for playground installers and the children who play on those playgrounds?
We have been speaking with the IPEMA membership often and have provided resources to ensure they are following safety protocols. In addition, we've connected with NRPA and developed co-branded informational materials for their members as well.

What are you actively doing and/or working on in these areas?
We are in constant communication within the industry, as well as staying up to date on CDC guidelines to ensure we have the latest information. We developed the COVID-19 resources for the parent, trade and installer audiences.

What do you believe the re-opening process should look like for parks and playgrounds?
Opening up playgrounds is dependent on local support and should be on a county by county, and/or state by state basis. Keeping an eye on case numbers in the area where you live is essential to making informed decisions and following protocol from local governments.

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What safety measures should be taken in this regard?
This includes:
1. Communicating the importance of staying healthy and social distancing
2. Ensuring playground is safety standard compliant
3. Making sure park and play equipment is clean
4. Staying informed
5. Visit our COVID resource page (link at bottom of this article) for more information.

For areas that haven't closed parks, what design techniques and practices do you promote that help increase safety and decrease viral spread?
Education and access are key. Education about social distancing and hand hygiene. Access to be able to practice what they learn. For example, hand sanitizer stations at playgrounds where children and adults can sanitize before, during and after play. Or a bathroom with soap and running water. Or even better, both because sometimes it can be difficult to stop play and leave to wash hands. If the sanitizer option is within the play space, kids will be more likely to adhere to the proper protocol. We need to give people the education and then provide the tools to help them put it into practice.

In acknowledging the social, physical, and cognitive benefits play can have on children, what kind of long- or short-term impact can a lack of play have on the minds and health of the youth?
The playground is a complex social network where kids learn valuable everyday life lessons about interacting with others, social norms and independence, all while gaining important relationship-building skills. Research shows outdoor play is much more than just fun, it's necessary to help kids be physically fit and healthy for the long run. When kids are playing, they are learning reflexes and movement control, developing fine and gross motor skills and increasing flexibility and balancing skills. On top of that, when kids are involved in physical activity, they're building stronger muscles and improving bone density, improving heart and lung function and helping to prevent obesity, diabetes and higher cholesterol. Studies have shown that free play improves neurological development and even helps create synaptic connections within the human brain. In other words, free play affects a child's confidence, intelligence and ability to articulate. These are all important benefits children develop through play that influence. And if children are deprived of play, it's linked to a variety of issues such as depression, aggression, stress and more.

Additionally, what type of playground elements/features have the most significant impact in this area?
Extensive research has shown swings, rocking toys and spinning devices stimulate the inner ear, namely vestibular stimulation, that is directly a source of improved concentration and a better sense of balance. Dr. Frost commented to IPEMA members the many benefits of play that moves the child through time and space. Climbing vertical and horizontal activities combine physical development with critical cognitive development including risk assessment and problem solving. Once a climber has been accomplished a common method of egress is to experiencing gravity and spacial awareness by sliding down to the ground. Finally, a very unique activity found on the playground is upper body equipment including overhead ladders, ring treks and "monkey bars". This upper body exercise is defined as brachiating which allows the child to develop upper body strength through moving their bodies through time and space primarily with their hands and arms. Research has shown these basic play activities help children develop and lead into more advanced activities including vital social skills including empathy learned through play experience and practice.

What research has IPEMA/Voice of Play found on the impact education elements in playgrounds have on children?
In a 2018 survey by IPEMA and Voice of Play on recess, 81% of teachers said that after recess, kids' behaviors change positively. These changes include more positive moods, longer attention spans, fewer behavior issues, increased participation in class, more eagerness to learn, and improved academic performance. In our latest survey on play, when asked what positive impacts parents see from their children playing with other children on public playgrounds, 42% of parents said playing with children of all abilities and improved physical fitness, 38% said less screen time, and 30% said confidence boosting.

How have safety standards for playgrounds advanced over the years?
Safety standards change with the changing playground products, for example, new categories develop when new product categories are brought in. They change with evolving research within existing categories. They also change with changes in society. The pandemic is changing safety protocols across the board and play, and recreation areas are part of that.

Voice of Play COVID-19 Resource Page: https://voiceofplay.org/covid-19-resources

As seen in LASN magazine, October 2020.

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