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Things adults can do to help children play

This is an excerpt from Let's Play! by Jane Watkinson.

What Can Adults Do to Help?

To engage in play, children must have sufficient movement competence to be accepted into their peer group activities. The key is sufficient skill. We need to ensure that children have sufficient skill before they enter school. We also need to be able to identify children who lack the skills to participate during their school years and provide them with the extra teaching and practice they need in order to develop a good repertoire of skills for play. For some children, being able to do one or two things well might be enough to provide them with entry to playground activities. For most kids, though, having many skills, and being able to do them all well, is the ticket to complete engagement with their peers. So they need a repertoire of skills that they can do, and the broader and deeper this repertoire is the more movement success they will have on the playground.

A good skill repertoire does not, however, appear automatically: The more free-play time available to children, the greater the chance that their repertoire will expand. It takes practice and opportunity; for some children, it also takes instruction and coaching.

The Right Repertoire for a Child’s Age

Very young children may start to acquire playground skills by learning how to go down a wide slide into the arms of their parents. They may walk across a suspended bridge while holding a big brother’s hand. They may climb a small ladder with wide rungs. A very young child may simply find it fun to hide under the climber, to run from one piece of equipment to another, or to be put into a baby swing. These activities all serve as first steps in playground skill development—and the more such activities a child can do, the better start he or she will have for life on the playground.

Even very little ones start to play alongside other children once they know how to climb the ladder and go down the slide by themselves, or hang on a bar, or pull themselves up a cargo net. Such skills allow them to play side by side with other children, to follow and lead, to take turns, to respond to other children’s overtures, and to have fun all the while. Children need to be able to do some of these very basic motor skills well in order to take full advantage of playground activity.

Fortunately, many of the skills that children learn between the ages of three and seven are so exciting and fun that most children want to do them again and again. Going down a slide is exciting and often makes children want to go down repeatedly, as long as they feel reasonably safe. Later, the sensations that children feel when hanging upside down make them want to repeat the experience. When they swish through the air on a swing or zip line, they feel a kinetic sensation that is thrilling—even more so if they do it upside down! A small jump to a parent’s hands as a preschooler can lead to jumping from a climbing structure. For the more daring, going airborne upon letting go of a moving swing produces a similar feeling. Many children seem to be driven to seek such thrilling experiences and to repeat them. They spin, twirl, hang, and jump, all the while getting practice at the very skills they need in order to take part in the vigorous play of the playground.

Certain skills are well learned by most children during preschool: running, jumping down from low heights, climbing ladders and stairs, going down slides, and hanging from a horizontal bar. Four- and five-year-olds chase each other, ride small vehicles, and do gymnastics maneuvers such as somersaults and taking their weight on their hands. Some can hang upside down or jump down from the stairs. Once children are in kindergarten, they learn other skills out on the playground: faster running; dodging; jumping down from greater heights; leaping over things; climbing higher ladders, as well as cargo nets and poles; and hanging from bars, ropes, and swings. Hanging from a horizontal bar develops into hanging from the knees or moving along the bar hand over hand.

During the early school years, most children build up a repertoire of such skills that they can use in many different solitary and group activities. In other words, they gain the skills to take part as they choose. They may not be Olympic performers, but they can do things well enough to participate in activities that demand certain skills. They can hang upside down without falling, run fast enough to play in a soccer game, or climb a ladder efficiently enough to keep their place in a line of children climbing to the top of the slide. They don’t hold others up! If their friends run over to the spiral pole, they go there too and are able to use the pole the way the other children do (e.g., climb up it, slide down it, drop to the platform below).

Having skills that are typical of one’s peers—having a broad skill repertoire to draw on when playing with them—may be the most important thing a child learns during preschool and the early school grades. Other skills, such as reading, are also fun and important, of course, but physical skills let children be part of the action.

Skill Repertoires for Boys and Girls

Playground activity is important for both boys and girls. Some differences generally exist in what and where girls and boys play, and in how hard they play. But having playground skill is equally important for both.

Boys tend to be more physically active than girls are on the playground, both during and outside of school hours. For girls, recess is their most significant opportunity to be really physically active during the day. This makes recess even more important for girls than it is for boys. Thus, as a parent or teacher, you should not encourage girls to stay inside during recess or assign them caretaking activities during free-play time. Such roles may look to them like rewards for good behavior, but they actually serve as punishment for girls’ bodies.

Boys’ playgroups tend to be somewhat larger than girls’, and girls tend to play more cooperatively; often, two or three girls spend time together, and often in less physically active ways than boys tend to play. Boys’ activities are more often undertaken in larger groups in which participants compete in some sort of game. Many of these games involve vigorous running and dodging, as well as ball skills, so it is very important that boys are competent at such activities. This does not mean that it isn’t important for girls to be competent at such skills as well. Girls should be encouraged to play ball games too, but they typically spend more of their time on playground equipment, and they need swinging, sliding, and monkey bar skills in order to be active participants there.

When boys and girls play together, they tend to play chasing games, such as tag, that are very good for their health. Children get a great deal of exercise during playground games that involve racing, scrambling, dodging, and sprinting; however, skipping and dancing can be just as good for the heart and lungs.

More Excerpts From Let's Play!