Playground Rules to Break for Greater Play Skill Development

Playground Rules to Break for Greater Play Skill Development

There are so many ‘rules’ surrounding playgrounds, which prompt the questions: “Who made the rules?”, “For what purpose?” and “It is a helpful guideline for my child whilst they go about their business of playing?” .. or… just maybe…“Could the benefits to children’s play skill development be greater, if a ‘rule’ is, in fact, broken?”

Whatever your ‘parenting style’, I invite you to read on…

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Supporting play skill development in playground environments is not clear cut. Although rules are supposedly there to keep children ‘safe’, (and presumably avoid law suits), there is no ‘one size fits all’ set of rules.

Many factors contribute to a child’s safety and skill development:

  • the type of playground (playground design (a totally separate issue altogether), specific environmental features and interactive opportunities)
  • the individual child (age, developmental level-  visual and sensory motor capabilities, sensory processing efficiency, tiredness/fatigue, sickness, injury, stress/anxiety, attention, impulsiveness)
  • the social situation (how busy the playground is, the skills and play ideas of the child and other children)
  • the weather conditions (how windy it is will affect balance, how rainy and wet it is will affect tread/grip and the degree of slipperiness, how sunny/glary it is will affect visual motor capacities)
  • supervision and support (how much, how frequently, what kind, and at which moments?)
  • repetition/practise opportunities (has the child had a chance to problem solve around particular playground features, and have they had time to consolidate their learnings?)

TYPES OF PLAYGROUND RULES

Rules around playground use can be explicit,  (eg. printed signs), or more covert, socially accepted ways children are expected to play at the playground – you know, the casual comments from parent to parent about the ‘best’, ‘most responsible’ way to allow kids to play. When adults are overheard commenting on how kids other than their own should and shouldn’t be allowed to play, it creates an additional layer of stress. Parents feel pressured to encourage their children to play in a certain way at the playground based on comments (and even ‘looks’) from other parents, who are keen for certain rules to be upheld, lest their own child be injured or influenced to play less ‘safely’, due to breaking with a rule. It is okay for children to see themselves and others playing differently to each other.

What if I was to tell you that from an occupational therapy perspective, a good number of common playground rules may prove more harmful than helpful to children’s play skill development?

In fact, the very activities that playground rules tend to restrict, are often central to occupational therapy sessions and home program recommendations! The benefits are powerful in terms of: 

  • Sensory maturation and sensory processing efficiency
  • Perceptual motor development
  • Postural control, balance and coordination
  • Fine motor skill development
  • Motor planning skills
  • Social and interaction skills
  • Emotional regulation
  • Symbolic play skills
  • Attention (including divided attention)

Adults and communities despite seeking to act in the child’s best interest, may actually be limiting their right to play by perpetuating inappropriate, unhelpful rules at the playground for all children to follow. This is limiting, even to the extent where children’s play is being compromised. This is greatly concerning.

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A CLOSER LOOK AT SOME COMMON PLAYGROUND RULES 

Playground rules are not black and white, and there is nothing an occupational therapist loves more than analysing an activity (say, for example, play at the playground), and seeing multiple possibilities. So, here is a list of rules either seen or heard around how children should play in playgrounds, and some food for thought as to how breaking them can be beneficial to play skill development.

 

LADDERS

“Do not climb without using both hands.”

Why? A child may be perfectly well balanced, practised and ready to climb in different ways, if they feel like it. Maybe they want to try hooking their elbows around the vertical posts, or sliding one hand up the post in between taking steps, whilst balancing well, and holding a ball or handful of cars to roll down the slide in the other hand. We cannot say a child is unsafe climbing without two hands until we see their skills in action.

Also, how about letting them try, experience what ‘wobbly’ and unbalanced feels like, and allow them to practise adjusting their bodies accordingly. Chances are they’ll work out while still pretty close to the ground whether they think they’ll make it all the way to the top in the same manner. On the other hand, it may be perfectly reasonable to cue certain children into using both hands, but making it a set rule is not helpful.

“Do not start at the opposite ends (of horizontal ladders). Everyone start at the same end and move in the same direction. Do not stand on top of ladder. Stay well behind the person in front.”

“Oh, thank you very much for taking the exact moment of learning away from me; the moment when I am confronted with the problem of predicting I may crash into the person coming towards me from the other end of the ladder. You telling me how to work through a problem I’m yet to encounter is not nearly as powerful as me working it out myself. I may even practise some interaction and negotiation skills with my friends on the ground, if left to me to work out.”

Adults need to have a little faith in the fact that kids will solve problems when they arise naturally in the context of their play, and consequently, it will mean more to them.

Regarding the rule to not stand on top of the horizontal ladder, it is as valuable as saying: “Do not swing really high”, “Do not go down the slide really fast” or “Do not balance on a tree stump on one leg with your eyes shut”. Children typically attempt challenges within play when they are ready for them.

Playground Rules to Break - walking on moving equipment

SEE SAWS / TEETER TOTTERS

“Do not lean back (on see saws/ teeter totters). Sit straight. Hold on with both hands. Do not stand or run on board. Sit on seat only.”

Really? Again, this is perhaps a good tip for children who are new to see saws, and I would think that parents generally would support little ones who are first experiencing see saws in this way without a written prompt. However, once children achieve independence on the see saw riding in this way, they will naturally find ways of making the play more exciting by making little adaptations, gradually increasing the degree of difficulty. Therefore, it seems incredibly restrictive to make a rule that children must ride in this way.

Who remembers the fun had standing at opposite ends of the see saw with a buddy, gradually shuffling towards the centre? … or one person clinging to their end, whilst the other attempted to ‘catapult’ them off the board by jumping onto their end?… Sure, it didn’t always end happily, but the more practise we had, over a long time, and with many small modifications to match a growing sensory motor skill set, the more challenging the activities became.

SLIDES

“Do not climb up sliding surface (of slides). Use the ladder. Hold on with both hands. Take one step at a time. Do not slide down improperly. Slide feet first, sitting up and one at a time.”

Oh dear lord, way to take the fun right out of a slide. Firstly, way too many words. As if a child is going to correctly understand, interpret, remember and integrate all of those instructions into their play ideas. Play – flow – gone. Let’s look at each point separately…

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No climbing slides? Well, certainly, some kids may not yet be physically ready to manage climbing slides. However, climbing slides is a brilliant way for children to have a powerful burst of tactile and proprioceptive (“heavy work”) sensory input. Hard working muscles engaged in the gripping, pulling, climbing action, as well as the deep pressure input going through the open palms, feet, wrist, shoulder, ankle, knee and hip joints in the ‘bear walk’ position (hands and feet), send strong messages to the brain about body position. As a bonus, these sensory inputs also calm and regulate the sensory system. The ‘bear walking’ also strengthens a child’s coordination of arms and legs and of the two sides of the body.

Sure, ‘learner bear walkers’ may need to focus extra hard on their balance and movement whilst climbing, and require a quiet playground in which to practise. However, competent slide climbing kiddos will be ready for the added challenge of shifting their attention to who else may be approaching the slide they’re keen to climb, and integrating that information into their play scenarios, automatically.

So, as for dangerous collisions…what a fantastic opportunity to build safe play skills including: visual attention shifting, speed and force control, skills of prediction, as well as practising negotiating around social problems in the playground.

“Wait a moment! I’m coming up!”  

“Look out! I’m about to slide down!”

“Hello down there! Can you tell me when the slide’s clear?”

… Us adults can help facilitate and strengthen safety in the playground this way, which is a much more effective way than simply shouting out “No slide climbing!” repeatedly. 

Now, I’m not saying sliding hands/head first is a safe idea. I am saying… check the situation out, maybe the slide plateaus out for a decent distance at the end, meaning it would be highly unlikely, or impossible they would shoot off the end of the slide onto their head. They may come to a stop well before the end of the slide.

As for one person at a time… how much fun are ‘slide trains’? This is where you straddle the person in front of you, and no-one goes until the agreed signal/countdown, then everyone squeals in delight as they travel down the slide holding onto each other, or laugh hysterically as everyone separates instantly after minutes trying to achieve the perfect set up. I rest my case.

SWINGS

“Only one person per swing at a time.”

Does this exclude mums and bubs?

Playground Rules to Break - swings

“Always sit in the centre of the swing: don’t stand or kneel. hold the chains tightly with both hands. Stop the swing completely before getting off. No jumping off the swings, twisting the ropes/chains of the swing, or sideways swinging. Do not push other children on swings. If you cannot start swinging, ask as adult to push you softly to get you started”

When I watch children at the playground exploring and enjoying the swings, (as well as in the sensory gym at the private paediatric OT clinic in which I work) I can tell you, children do NOT like swinging for hours on end in exactly the same way. In fact, the creativity surrounding swing use is astounding. Children, at least, would be pretty reluctant to follow these rules, should they stop to read the sign and understand the message.

They love running up and launching themselves on their tummies on regular ‘sling’ swing seats. And what about the classic: twist the chains as far up as possible and then setting it loose to spin wildly, for as long and fast as possible, until it unwinds, and then re winds itself up again of its own accord, further extending the fun… over and over! Sideways, forwards/backwards, round and round, standing up, sitting back to front, hanging upside down – these are all wonderful movement experiences (vestibular sensory input) to support a maturing sensory system.

Jumping off the swing is a great way to practise the motor planning skills of prediction and timing. Here is the problem with this rule (and many others): It encompasses both leaping from the swing seat 3 metres into the air, in full, fast motion; and landing with a jump off a slightly moving, almost stationary swing. This rule is so limiting and confusing.

FIRE POLES

“Hold on with both hands and wrap your legs around the pole when you slide down fireman’s pole. Slide down carefully and make sure you land on two feet with your knees slightly bent.”

I suppose these tips could be helpful to an adult stuck for how to verbally cue their child into how to first attempt a fire pole. Children will typically learn how to slide down (or shimmy up, or swing around…) fire poles, by watching other children (or adults) as visual examples.

FOOTWEAR

“No bare feet. Wear proper footwear.”

This is a whole other topic, and hazards such as broken glass or used syringes hidden from the view of the child in the grass is another matter entirely. It is up to the adults to help check safe barefoot play areas.

Essentially, sensory seekers will love feeling the variety of textures at the playground through their feet (wood, metal, leaves, sand, dirt, mud, grass, puddles etc.). Feeling a variety of textures through the feet, will support the development of tactile discrimination and sensory processing efficiency in general. This relates to the development of good body awareness and knowledge of how one’s body interacts with the world/environment. It therefore is important for the development of well coordinated movements.

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And there are many other playground rules around too, which should be carefully considered…

“Don’t overcrowd the equipment. Everyone start from one side and move in the same direction. When climbing down watch out for those climbing up.”

“No rough playing or yelling permitted”

“No ball games”

“No bike riding, scooters, skateboarding or rollerskating/blading”

“No playing with rocks or sticks”

“No playing on the adult exercise equipment” – Which I have already responded to in a whole separate post entitled: Of Course Kids can ROCK Adult Playground Equipment too! 

In contrast, how do you feel about a sign frequently popping up in Adventure Playgrounds, which are by their very nature, rich in play skill development opportunities?

“Adults must let children lead their own play, step back”

Maybe it is ultimately the most achievable, realistic, and beneficial ‘rule’ of all for children’s play skill development. (Stay tuned for more on adventure playgrounds soon!)

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*This sign is courtesy of the dynamic PLAYworkers, Justine and Nicole at Journey Into Play and the play and PLAYwork advocates, led by play expert – Marc Armitage, at Malarkey. (Be prepared to be blown away with inspiration around all things ‘play’ should you follow these links to their sites!)

FINALLY…

Suggesting that there is only one way to play at the playground is against everything occupational therapists stand for. There is beauty in individuals creating their own rules, (if they want to of course), and in respecting every other person’s ideas about how they would like to play at the playground.

The point is not to go ahead and deliberately break ‘rules’ for the sake of it. I am not advocating that ALL children should break ALL the rules, ALL the time, in ALL playgrounds and circumstances. Common sense applies always. Rules should never replace parenting or the facilitation of children based on their individual needs. Parents should never be made feel either negligent or overprotective for doing what they believe is right for them and their children. I would, however, like to encourage adults to trust their instincts as well as those of their children, and to consider each rule as ‘breakable’.

We cannot expect children of all ages and stages, experiences and abilities to play in exactly the same way; and certainly not to remain bound by those same ‘rules’ for entire childhoods. Breaking playground rules can lead to deeper, more meaningful play, a broader play skill set and many, varied developmental gains.

Let’s keep our playgrounds buzzing with children happily playing and not lose sight of the very essence of play. 

What do you think about playground ‘rules’? Are you or your child/children regular ‘rule breakers’, or does breaking a rule make you feel nervous or maybe even angry when you see others breaking the rules? Have you seen an unhelpful, extremely limiting rule in a playground area recently? Did you break any of these rules when you were a child? Do you smile reminiscing about those fun times?

I always love to receive comments, so feel free to leave a thought or response to this post in the section below.


 

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This post is part of the Functional Skills for Kids 12 Months Series by Occupational and Physical Therapists. You can read all of the functional skills HERE.

Read all of my monthly posts in this series HERE.

Looking for more information about playground skills from an occupational therapy and physical therapy perspective? Stop by to see what the other OTs and PTs in the Functional Skills for Kids series have written…


Developmental Progression of Playground Skills  | Your Therapy Source

Promoting Fine Motor Skills at the Playground |Miss Jaime OT

How to Support Gross Motor Skills Needed for Playground Success | Mama OT

Sensory Integration Therapy at the Playground  | Sugar Aunts

Modification Ideas for Playground Equipment for Children | Growing Hands-On Kids

Playground Rules to Break for Greater Play Skill Development  | Kids Play Space

Playground Games and Activities for Kids | The Inspired Treehouse

Essential Social Skills To Survive the School Playground! |Your Kids OT

Developing Visual Skills and the Playground  | Therapy Fun Zone

 

Thanks for visiting Kids Play Space,

Until soon,

Happy playing,

Anna 🙂

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Comments
  1. Tonya

    I admit, I am a rule breaker on the playground.

    • Anna

      Tonya, I am yet to meet an OT who isn’t a playground rule breaker! Thanks for stopping by here! Anna 🙂

  2. I needed to read this. I have three kids, two on the spectrum and one with a vision impairment. I feel like I’m always hyper vigilant at the playground, waiting for something to happen and ready to intervene if it does. I think we all need to be reminded that our kids do need to learn for themselves – thanks for writing this Anna!

    • Anna

      Hi Kirsty, Thanks so much for your comment! Us parents shouldn’t be so hard on ourselves – everyone knows their own kids best and is doing their best based on what they feel comfortable with and what they feel their kids are ready for. If your kids have particular perceptual / sensory processing needs – of course, they may be relying on you (the adult) to help them to interpret, adjust and plan their movements/actions for success. But kids are pretty incredible and sometimes surprising when it comes to judging their own ‘comfortable risks’/ challenges. Happy playing! Anna:-)

  3. Kate

    Brilliant article. I’ve never seen these signs(or do I choose to ignore them). Ha. “play” should be free, fun and learning for kids. They will definitely take risk at their own pace, my 3 children couldn’t be more different and I’ve let them all explore freely. If only more people were “normal” these days.

    • Anna

      Thanks so much Kate! you raised the perfect point – your 3, as all kids – are different / individual. I love your approach. Anna:-)

  4. What a ridiculous bunch of rules, they make playing sound way too complicated!

    • Anna

      I agree Kate – simple is often the best! You wouldn’t believe the number of crazy rules I found!! Anna 🙂

  5. Cindy @Your Kids OT

    I have to admit to being a rule-follower when there are lots of people at the playground. When we have the park to ourselves I’m much more laid back and encourage my kids to try out new things and “break” the rules. It is tricky because we have all seen the big 10 year old kid climbing up the slide when the toddlers want to slide down… so there is some common sense, safety and parental concern as well. Yet the OT in me is nodding with everything you write! 🙂

    • Anna

      Thanks so much for sharing Cindy! I certainly don’t think you are alone in your anguish between letting the kids go, and stepping in when the playground gets busy. I like to imagine: “what would happen though, if I did just leave them to it?” and “Who would learn to negotiate the near collision first? – the 10 year old or the toddler?” (I’d expect the 10 y o, but often toddlers surprise us, and toddlers learn so quickly from role models – so may either copy a parent waiting their turn or calling out “is the slide free? Can I go now? Is it my turn yet?” or they may even like to try copying the big kid – lying on their tummy, attempting to shuffle up the slide – maybe with a bit of assistance, when it is their turn.) You raised an excellent point though Cindy – are playgrounds actually attractive/ appropriate to both little and big kids simultaneously? Often the big kids get forgotten when it comes to design – so rather than more challenging equipment, they are forced to use the existing equipment in more challenging ways. Anna:-)

  6. Gail Timmer

    We have so many rules on our playground that the kids can’t really play. Reason…. Parents will sue! Sad truth!

    • Anna

      Thanks for stopping by Gail – this whole business of suing is getting ridiculous isn’t it? I have faith (and hope) that as more and more parents become informed of the great benefits of no ‘one size fits all’ rules at the playground (except – “respect”… I like that one… and “follow children’s lead – let them play” – another goodie!!)… that parents will increasingly see that the rules can actually be more limiting than helpful to kids’ development. Otherwise, as you say, we may as well stick up a sign reading: “No playing at the playground!” Anna:-)

  7. Great post Anna! I am cracking up reading these rules….what fun squashers they are! Thanks for taking the time to explain WHY stepping outside of these rules can be so important to developing so many skills! It’s always good to think about safety, but as a society we seem to be going too far overboard for our own good!

    • Anna

      Thanks for commenting Suzy! I agree – some of the ‘rules’ are almost (or actually) laughable! #climbuptheslide Anna:-)

  8. Jaime Spencer

    What a great post, Anna! I love how you included all the signs. It’s so true. Kids need to play and explore outside on the playground more than ever, and all these rules are just getting in the way! This is a great post for all the nervous moms – it shows how much kids need to just play without rules. Love it and will be sharing.

    • Anna

      Thanks so much Jaime! I was (and continue to be) shocked at just how many signs and verbal (not written) I ‘ve seen and heard around playground use! Let the kids play!! Anna:-)

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