It’s that time of year when spring has sprung, the weather is warming up and the kids are aching to go outside.
But the benefits of taking your children to the playground goes far beyond helping them burn off a little energy. Joe Flannery, PT, DPT, OCS, CIMT, clinical director of Tidewater Physical Therapy’s Williamsburg Clinic and Aquatic Center, says that good old fashion playground adventures can help a child build up his or her endurance, coordination and strength – which can keep them healthier and less injury prone down the road.
“Our bodies always perform to stress,” Flannery said. “The stress we put on it helps develop it, to shape it, and resistance tolerance forces the body to adapt and adjust.”
What does that mean? The short answer is allowing your toddler to amble around the playground will help him or her get better at walking and running. Getting your 8-year-old to swing will help him or her develop core, leg and arm strength. And all that activity will help your child develop endurance, and hopefully a love of leading an active lifestyle.
There are other benefits, too, Flannery says. Playing on the monkey bars, for example, helps children strengthen the muscles and tendons around the elbow. All that shimming across the monkey bars stimulates the growth of connective tissues around the elbow, making children less susceptible to sustaining a partial dislocation of the elbow joint, a common childhood injury that occurs when a ligament slips out of place near the elbow.
Romping around the jungle gym can also help kids strengthen their knees, which reduces the risk of sports injuries down the road. Flannery says good old fashioned jumping – whether it’s from a swing, a platform or hopping along the ground – helps improve coordination and makes kids’ bodies strong.
But children don’t have to be doing something as strenuous as jumping to reap similar benefits.
“Just going outside and playing a game of tag, all that running, starting, stopping and changing directions, is the exact same thing you’ll do in most any team sport,” Flannery says.
And having solid coordination along with strong knees and leg muscles, means that children and teens are less likely to suffer a torn ACL, a common injury particularly in adolescent girls.
“Kids are getting outside less these days,” Flannery says, noting all the electronics that keep kids indoors. “Now when children need to have their bodies react while playing middle or high school basketball, their legs are wobbly because they haven’t developed that coordination from going to the playground in years prior.”
Before sending your kids off to explore the nearest playground, that old adage “Safety First,” should come to mind.
According to the National Program for Playground Safety, between 2001 and 2008, an average of 218,851 preschool and elementary age children went to the emergency room for injuries that occurred on playground equipment. A total of 51 percent of those injuries happened at public playgrounds.
The most common injuries were fractures, abrasions and lacerations, with more than half of the incidents reported involving falls or equipment failures.
Flannery says common sense should prevail when taking your kids to traverse the park swing set.
“Allow children to progress from a basic level,” he says. “No, your child should not jump off the swings the first time you go to a playground.”
Like learning to drive, younger children should start off doing what they can under the watchful eye of a grown up. Over time they’ll get the hang of playing and naturally move on to more strenuous play.
“Once they’re more comfortable they’ll challenge themselves more,” Flannery says.
Other things to consider when thinking about playground safety are playground surfaces and the stability and maintenance of the equipment.
According to the Consumer Product Safety Commission, here’s what to look for at your community playground:
- Make sure surfaces around playground equipment have at least 12 inches of wood chips, mulch, sand, pea gravel or rubber-like materials.
- Check that protective surfacing extends at least 6 feet in all directions from play equipment. For swings, be sure surfacing extends, in back and front, twice the height of the suspending bar.
- Make sure play structures more than 30 inches high are spaced at least 9 feet apart.
- Check for dangerous hardware, like open “S” hooks or protruding bolt ends.
- Make sure spaces that could trap children, such as openings in guardrails or between ladder rungs, measure less than 3.5 inches or more than 9 inches.
- Check for sharp points or edges in equipment.
- Make sure elevated surfaces, like platforms and ramps, have guardrails to prevent falls.
- Of course nothing beats careful supervision to make sure kids stay safe!
The thing about taking your kids to the playground is there’s a good chance you’ll benefit, too.
Running around in a game of hide-and-seek or climbing alongside your toddler on the play set’s ladder bridge and tunnel maze will definitely get the blood flowing. And helping your son or daughter successfully complete the monkey bars by supporting their weight is sure to work your core, arms and upper back.
But what happens when you tweak your shoulder, bang your knee or strain your back during this grand time on the playground? Flannery says if the pain doesn’t dissipate in a few weeks, a few sessions with a physical therapist might be a good idea.
“If the goal is I want to play with my kids, play on the playground, play catch, kick a soccer ball – we know how to get you there,” he says.
The bottom line, Flannery says, is if you use reasonable progression for yourself and your kids, along with common sense, you’ll have a great time.
“Go out there and have fun,” he says.
Top playgrounds in greater Williamsburg:
Mid County Park & Kidsburg, 3793 Ironbound Road:
This 19-acre park is home to Kidsburg, a 30,000 square-foot lighted playground. Other amenities include an ADA-accessible multiuse trail, volleyball courts, Pétanque/Bocce Court, lighted basketball courts and tennis courts, and lots of open space.
My Place Playground, 5301 Longhill Road:
This inclusive playground is designed to welcome all individuals and families, regardless of ability. My Place includes all the features of a traditional playground such as swings and climbing equipment, but was constructed to allow those with disabilities to access every aspect of the facility.
Quarterpath Park & Recreation Center, 498 Quarterpath Road:
This 23-acre facility includes three lighted softball fields; three all-weather tennis courts; two sand volleyball courts; playground equipment; and a picnic shelter. Quarterpath Park is also the site of the Quarterpath Recreation Center, a 35,000 square foot facility offering a variety of recreational activities.
Kiwanis Municipal Park, 125 Longhill Road:
This 27-acre park offers three lighted ball fields for youth coach pitch and fast pitch softball programs. Numerous pieces of playground equipment as well as a shelter with picnic tables, makes this a great facility for families or groups.
Freedom Park Playground, 5537 Centerville Road:
This playground, which is part of the new 600-acre forested retreat that features Freedom Park Interpretive Center, Go Ape Treetop Adventure Course and a host of bike and walking trails, features forest-themed play equipment, for children ages 2-12, including swings, slides and a small climbing wall.
Warhill Sports Complex Playgrounds, 5700 Warhill Trail:
This modern facility includes two playgrounds with the latest equipment for climbing, swinging and sliding. The complex also features baseball fields, soccer fields, basketball courts and several multi-use trails.