Put the play back in play ground

With 2-year-old triplets, Grayson, Matthew and Christian, a little trip to the park can look more like a big preschool outing. But their parents, Chad and Jessica Stewart of DeKalb, wouldn’t have it any other way.

After all, that first playground experience is a milestone for both parent and child alike, something every parent looks forward to, says Jessica, who took her boys to their first playground when they were 6 months old.

“(It’s a) moment that you can share with your child unlike any you’ve had before because you are sharing a love you once had and enjoying it in an entirely new and endearing way,” she says."It’s also a new way to interact.”

Over the last two years, the boys have graduated from sitting in the baby swings to jumping and running."They have their favorite activities, usually swinging and swinging and more swinging,” says Jessica.

The Stewarts’ story is surely not a new one.

Lace up those tennis shoes

Although many children of all ages prefer to‘play’ indoors on their Wii or computer, there’s a world out there—right in the hometown playground—that kids would relish in if only they’d put down the remote control and strap on those tennis shoes. From the jungle gym to the tire swing and every grassy nook in between, children do more than frolic and play when they hit the local playground.

“Playgrounds provide opportunities for kids to learn how to join an ongoing play activity,” says Kathleen Hayes, child expert and author of Classroom Routines That Really Work For Pre-K and K."Just finding the words to say something like,‘What are you playing? Can I play too?’ are important skills that kids can learn as they begin to engage with others on the playground.”

In fact, in many urban environments, parks and playgrounds are one of the few places kids can play together in a relatively unstructured way.

For many parents, this means the tricky task of learning to let go, leaving kids to figure things out themselves. It may be hard at first, but parents need to step back and let children learn to fight their own battles.

Pat Montgomery, mother, grandmother and author of Now You Know What I Know: Parenting Wisdom of a Grandmother, raised three boys on this philosophy. In rushing in to fix everything, parents may do more harm than good. Children have spats, then move on to the next thing and are best friends again, Montgomery says.

“Besides, I learned with my boys that when I interfered everything goes bigger and lasted longer,” she says.

Playgrounds help development

At the very basic level, children learn to navigate their world through play, says Glandina Morris, communications manager for Boundless Playgrounds, an organization dedicated to building inclusive playgrounds accessible to all children. Just through play alone, children gain language skills, decision-making abilities, social strategies and physical, sensory and cognitive strengths.

“Did you ever watch a child go up a climber, across a platform and down a slide, repeatedly? To caregivers, it may seem silly that a child continues to do the same thing over and over again,” Morris says."But look closer. Each time that child goes up the climber he or she may lead with their left hand instead of their right hand. Or, that child may lead with their left foot instead of their right foot. That child is developing physical and cognitive strengths.”

Whether swinging from the tire swing like Tarzan or channeling their inner architect in the sandbox, allow your children to play on a variety of equipment, says Dr. Vicki Panaccione, founder of the Better Parenting Institute and a child clinical psychologist.

Here are just a few things kids can learn at the local playground:

n Slide: Balance, overcoming fear, creativity and ability to risk trying new things. First parents take them down, then someone is there to catch them, then they go by themselves and eventually they want to go on their tummies, head first or on their backs. Then, they want to walk back up the slide. The higher the slide, the more fear to conquer, including climbing the steps and adjusting to the increased height, says Panaccione.

n Swing: Coordination of movement (pumping) mastery, moving from dependence (someone pushing) to independence and accomplishment, creativity and confidence, sense of competence and positive self-esteem.

n Jungle gym: Lots of physical strength and coordination development. Toleration of the fear of heights, trust in the person holding them, then simply dangling with help, then alone, then coordinating the changing of hands to get across the bars.

n Sandbox: Social interaction, cooperative play or solo play can occur. Initially, tolerance for a texture and discovering what to do with sand. Digging and putting sand in a pail takes coordination, strength helps pick up more sand at a time and balance helps keep it from shovel to pail. Raking, smoothing, digging holes, making castles, all involve exploration/discovery, creativity/imagination and coordination.

n Open field: Great for running, jumping, somersaults, skipping, hopping, standing on one foot, throwing or kicking a ball, catching or hitting a ball, tag and Frisbee. All are great for coordination, social interaction, frustration tolerance and mastery, creativity and imagination.

The bottom line, at least according to Panaccione, is to get kids outside. The playground is one of the only places where many developmental issues are covered in a very basic learning environment.

“It’s all about discovering what their magnificent bodies can do and adapt to new environments and new situations,” Panaccione says.

The #1 rule of playground fun

Safety first. Follow these steps to avoid those bumps and bruises.

n Educate your child on safety, according to their age.

n Always have someone watching them, especially if very small.

n If larger and going to the park for football or the like, encourage them to go and stay in a group.

n As early as possible teach them their name, your name and their phone number.

n Teach them if they are lost to look for another mommy to ask for help.

n Stay nearby but don’t hover.

n Don’t overreact to a fall; help them try again.

n Don’t let your own anxiety get in the way of their exploration. Kids will sense your apprehension and may become fearful without understanding why.

n Don’t force them to do something they are afraid to do. Instead try to adapt the task—for instance ride with them, demonstrate or hold them. Don’t remind them that they didn’t like something last time or fell off of something, remain neutral and see what they do.

n Try to leave the playground on a positive note.

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