Angela Hanscom is a pediatric occupational therapist and founder of TimberNook, a nature-based development program designed to foster creativity and independent play outdoors in New England. She has written a number of popular posts on this blog, including “Why so many kids can’t sit still in school today,” as well as “The right — and surprisingly wrong — ways to get kids to sit still in class” and “How schools ruined recess.” And here is her newest post, which adds to her exploration of the effects on children of limited movement. Her book, “Balanced and Barefoot: How Unrestricted Outdoor Play Makes for Strong, Confident, and Capable Children,” will be published in April 2016.

By Angela Hanscom

I’m sitting at the lake’s edge of our campsite reading a good book, when my 9-year-old and 6-year-old come running to my side.

“Mom,” my oldest daughter yells. “You have to come see what we did at the playground!”

“Yeah,” my youngest chimes in. “We got bored, so we made up our own ways to use the swings and stuff.”

As I watch my daughters climb up a tunnel slide together (on the outside!), I make a mental note that the playground equipment, which looks pretty standard today, isn’t challenging enough for my daughters.

Playgrounds have drastically changed over the years. Most no longer offer the same sensory and motor challenges as the playgrounds of yesteryear. Due to increasing liability and safety concerns over the years, we’ve replaced the metal playground equipment that towered over us as young children with brightly colored ultra-safe alternatives.

We’ve taken away merry-go-rounds and teeter-totters. Swing spans have decreased and slides and climbing structures are surprisingly close to the ground. Kids appear to master the equipment at a young age. When the equipment no longer presents an age-appropriate challenge for the children, they quickly become bored and indifferent to the plastic play pieces. Or worse, they use them in ways that they were never intended for – making the situation unsafe in today’s standards.

However, this problem goes even deeper than simply offering an appropriate level of challenge and letting children take risks.

Changing the playground equipment can actually affect the amount of sensory input children receive on a regular basis. Think about it. It really goes back to your basic physics classes. If you shorten the length of swings and slides, children are naturally going to be receiving less sensory input; specifically what we pediatric occupational therapists call vestibular (balance) input.

Children need rapid, changing, and accelerating movement on a daily basis. They need to swing high up into the air, they need to sled down large hills, they need to spin in circles just for fun, and even hang upside down from the monkey bars. These types of movements are very therapeutic to the growing child and support attention and school-readiness. When children’s movement opportunities are chronically restricted or limited due to insufficient playtime outdoors, playground equipment that no longer challenges, or too much time sitting at a desk,  we often start to see problems with sensory and motor skills, body awareness, self-regulation, and simply focusing in the classroom.

Believe it or not, the metal playground equipment of the 1960s and 1970s were actually highly therapeutic for children. One great example is the merry-go-round. As a child, I loved the merry-go-round! It was such a thrill. I remember holding on to the metal posts as we ran around and around, finally jumping onto the merry-go-round at the last second, hanging on for “dear life” as we experienced the thrill and funny sensation only the merry-go-round could provide. As a therapist, I believe the merry-go-round is one of the most powerful therapeutic pieces of playground equipment ever invented.

Pediatric occupational therapists use special equipment and swings to create a centrifugal force (physics again!) during treatment sessions very similar to what a child would experience if they were to ride a merry-go-round. We do this to maximize activation to the vestibular complex found in the inner ear, to help improve self-regulation and sustained attention to task in children. This is a very powerful tool, and if done on a regular basis, would strengthen that child’s vestibular (balance) sense and improve their attention span over time.

I’m constantly hearing from teachers that attention in the classroom is a problem. One elementary teacher told me that on average, eight out of her 22 children have trouble with attention on a good day. Veteran teachers are also complaining that kids are falling out of their seats at school, running into walls, and are overall clumsier than they were 30 years ago. If merry-go-rounds provide the type of sensory input that facilitates attention and better body awareness, you have to wonder if taking away equipment like the merry-go-round was really a good idea.

Merry-go-rounds, teeter-totters, tall swings, and slides all help children establish strong balance systems. They give us our “center” and allow us to move through space safely. By taking these away, we are limiting children’s exposure to sensory input that actually helps children become sturdy on their feet and prepares them for learning. If our goal is to do “no harm” to our children, we need to re-think our playground equipment. We need to start providing equipment that actually challenges, stimulates growth, and prepares the brain for learning.

It is time we brought back the thrill-provoking playground equipment of the past — for our children’s sake.