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Healthy children growing up in urban dwellings need playgrounds!

While it should be obvious that the 300+ kids in the Rincon neighborhood need a playground in order to be healthy, here’s a detailed explanation of the benefits from an early childhood development professional:

Over the past three years the Children’s Creativity Museum (CCM), located in the Yerba Buena Garden children’s quarter, has experienced an influx of families with children under the age of 6. In 2010 only 35.5% of children visiting CCM were under 6, in 2013 that number jumped to 64.9%. As the museum’s Early Childhood Specialist I provide educational opportunities for young children, with specific attention paid to infant and toddler development. As this neighborhood continues to add more families, the need for developmentally appropriate, safe, and educationally informed play environments also grows. I am writing today to advocate for a toddler-safe play-space in the Yerba Buena Gardens (YBG). As an early childhood educator working in YBG, the following are my thoughts and recommendations regarding such a play area.

Developmental Benefits of an enriching toddler playground:

  • Playgrounds provide opportunities for free play. Free play allows a child to explore according to their own curiosity. A toddler-safe play-space ensures that the play interactions will be developmentally appropriate, safe, and enriching

  • There is substantial research showing clear links between free play and cognative development, motor skills, and social capabilities.

  • Cognitive Development

    • Our brains work via connections called synapses.  Play helps define and strengthen these vital brain connections. When a young child practices a skill, experiences something new, or interacting with another person their neural connections are strengthened. If these synapses are not used they are simply lost. Children’s brains function on a “use it or lose it” system. By age 3 children have about 1000 trillion (with a t!) synapses, but by late adolescence that number is cut in half to only 500 trillion for most children.  New experiences, interactions, and explorations – all of which unfold through play – directly correlate to heightened brain development.

    • Infants and toddlers are in the “sensorimotor” stage of development (according to theorist Jean Piaget). This means that their cognitive development is tied to sensory and motor experiences. Playgrounds designed with young children’s sensory and motor needs in mind will help children develop essential cognitive skills such as: understanding object permanence (i.e. when something is out of site it still exists), circular reactions (i.e. I shake the rattle, it makes a sound) and basics of making and pursuing goals.

  • Physical, Motor, and Sensory Development

    • A recent article by By Donna Thompson, Ph.D., Susan Hudson, Ph.D., and Mick G. Mack, Ph.D. in Early Childhood News states, “[recent research] suggests basic gross motor activities and sensory motor experiences should occur before age two (Gabbard, 1998). This means that as children grow from infants to toddlers, the importance of play activity is much greater than previously thought.“ The authors continue by citing research that indicates that children with poorly developed motor-skills by age five will likely never develop efficient motor-skills. I highly recommend that anyone interested in the benefits of developmentally appropriate playground equipment read the whole article here

    • In order to develop, children need opportunities to practice gross motor skills: pulling up, cruising, walking, running, jumping, climbing; and fine motor skills: reaching, grabbing, grasping, spinning, pulling, twisting, etc. While many of these skills can be practiced at home, what city apartment really has space for sophisticated gross motor development!? A playground offers physical space, equipment specifically designed to develop motor skills, novel (and therefore interesting)challenges, and – perhaps most importantly – other children.

  • Social/Emotional Development

    • Children learn from those around them. When a 15 month old plays next to a 18 month old at a playground the younger child observes, absorbs, and learns from the actions of the older child. This is referred to as the “zone of proximal development” and it is one of the most meaningful ways that children learn.

    • As children begin to explore the world through their own mobility (crawling and walking) it is important they be afforded independence from adults.  This independence allow for essential trial and error, both physical and social, that is the backbone of early learning. A secure play area gives parents the peace of mind to let their children explore, without fear of them wandering off or being overpowered by much older children.

    • Parallel play (two children playing side by side by not necessarily interacting) is the key way in which children under four interact. By just playing with engaging equipment side by side children form the building blocks of sharing, compromise, collaboration, empathy, and other essential social skills.


An enriching toddler playground should have:

  • Sensory exploration panels, including varying textures, sound exploration, cause and effect discovery, bright engaging colors, etc.

  • Items for fine-motor exploration, for example: cranks, gears, things to turn, items to grasp and pull and open and shut, etc.

  • Space for gross motor exploration, for example: low bars for “cruising”, unencumbered open space for new walkers and runners to test their skills, low platforms to practice jumping, short flights of stairs, opportunities to practice balance, etc.

  • A secure and engaging perimeter. Security insures children remain safely inside (and older children stay out), and engaging look and experience encourages toddlers to walk from one side to the other and “map” the space – an important cognitive skill.

  • Equipment that several children can use simultaneously. This encourages parallel play and builds social skills.

  • Conversely: items that can be used individually. Toddlers are essentially egocentric and they benefit from exploring at their own pace.

  • Spaces that encourage adult/child interaction. Swings are a standard example of this – though I encourage us to think of other, and more innovative, examples.

  • Open-ended equipment. For example: a toy car has one intended purpose, while box of sand can become a million things. As an early childhood educator I recommend the later.

  • Equipment that encourages dramatic play. This form of play bolsters children’s creativity, helps them work through fears and questions in a safe away, and provides opportunities for collaboration (both with adults and other children).

  • The playground should feel safe to parents (soft ground, structures low to the ground, secure perimeter) but still offer opportunities for learning through risk, challenge, and trial and error. This article advocates for the cognitive and emotional benefits of risk on playgrounds – and I tend to agree.

Written by Emmy Brockman, Children’s Creativity Museum’s Early Childhood Specialist.

Feel free to email emmy@creativity.org with any questions, and visit http://creativity.org/programs/early-birdles/ for more information about the museum’s early childhood programs and outreach.

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