Voice of Play Interview

Susie McGee
Joe Frost discusses the importance of outdoor play for children.

Dr. Joe Frost serves on the Voice of Play Board of Advisors, a group of professionals focused on advocating outdoor play, an essential part of every child's healthy growth and development.

Please tell us about yourself.

I've been a researcher, teacher, student and author in the field of play and child development for more than 40 years. My latest book, A History of Children's Play and Play Environments: Toward a Contemporary Child Saving Movement is scheduled for publication in New York and London by Routledge by November 2009.

Why is it important for children to go outside and play?

Outdoor play is vital for children's fitness, health, learning and development - physical, emotional, social and cognitive. Voluminous research by scholars in many disciplines confirms that diets of junk food and sugary drinks, fast food consumption and excessive sedentary cyber play contribute to the growing prevalence of obesity, rickets, fatty liver disease and early circulatory disease. The National Center for Health Statistics reports that the percentage of elementary-age children considered obese doubled since 1980, from 7 percent to 14 percent. Outdoor free play is a cornerstone to preventing and combating such health effects.

  • Physical Benefits- The physical benefits of play include development of reflexes, movement control, fine and gross motor skills, coordination, strength, flexibility and balancing skills. Essential physical movements such as learning to walk, run, jump, balance, throw, climb, and slide result from spontaneous play early in life. Development of these and other motor skills is essential for forming a life-long ability to meet and master potentially risky activities at play and in everyday circumstances.
  • Emotional Benefits - Free play is an important key to a child's emotional growth. Play builds self-confidence and self-esteem, such as risk-taking, conflict resolution, imagination and socialization. Play is therapeutic, helping children cope with abuse, trauma and everyday stresses. Playground equipment such as climbers, slides and overhead apparatus presents physical and cognitive challenges that build a sense of accomplishment and motor memory, leading to higher levels of achievement and self-esteem. Playing, working and reflecting in and with the wonders of nature add complementary benefits of varied challenge, skill building and learning.
  • Social benefits - Grounds for play can form a complex social network where kids learn valuable lessons about group interaction and social norms while gaining important relationship-building skills. Children can move in and out of group play to engage in solitary play and reflection that promote creativity and sense of security.
  • Cognitive benefits - The accelerating body of research by neuroscientists, psychologists and child development researchers confirms that play is essential for healthy brain development. Through play, children learn and practice skills they will need as adults, including language, reasoning skills and behavior control. Through play, they learn about discovery, verbal skills, judgment and reasoning, negotiation skills, and creativity as they improve thought processes.

How can parents, educators, and communities maximize kids' outdoor play experiences?

It's as simple as making free play outdoors a priority and ensuring that availability of challenging yet reasonably safe outdoor play and learning environments! Parents can visit the Voice of Play website to access the "Play Pledge." By signing the pledge, you're making your child's play a priority and creating a "play program" with your child to ensure an hour of outdoor play a day at home and/or at school. Once you return your signed Play Pledge, you'll receive a packet by e-mail with information about how various play activities can help children grow, ideas about creative ways to fit play into your child's day and tips to make play a priority for your family's health, growth and development.

The International Play Equipment Manufacturer's Association (IPEMA), sponsor of the Voice of Play, provides third-party product certification-validation services for U.S. and Canadian public play equipment and U.S. public play surfacing materials. IPEMA's website also has resources to help schools and communities create and maintain reasonably safe yet challenging play environments for optimal developmental benefits and a high fun factor.

What safety issues surround kids playing outside?

  • Falling is the number one cause of injuries on playgrounds.
  • Never allow a child to play on play equipment that is placed over a hard surface such as concrete.
  • Even grass can cause serious injury.
  • Check that the equipment is free from jutting pieces of hardware or parts that would snag pieces of clothing, jewelry or strings.
  • Surfaces should be smooth and level with no tree stumps or roots. *Rust and other signs of deterioration may signal poor maintenance.

How can parents, educators, and other concerned citizens ensure that kids are safe while playing outside?

Interaction with adults, support and modeling are keys. Ensure that the playgrounds children visit provide multiple challenges that help them meet and master reasonable risks and promote the appropriate forms of play. Currently, the absence of trained play leaders or play workers in schools and parks are a critical missing link in providing and maintaining safe, developmentally appropriate outdoor play environments. Reasonable levels of risk are essential for learning and development.

What other advice would you like to offer our readers?

Strike a balance between free, spontaneous outdoor play and structured activities such as physical education classes and organized sports. Balance children's play yards with built and natural materials with varied functions, and gradually introduce children to more complex play materials and settings while ensuring their natural forms of play - exercise, social, pretend or dramatic, wheeled vehicle, construction, sand and water, loose parts, play in nature, and traditional and created games organized by the children.

Spontaneous, challenging outdoor play results in children using their brains in healthy ways as they think independently and create their own fun and activities. This helps alleviate boredom and allows children to learn and have fun on their own during solitary play and in social play and traditional games. In sum, children's vigorous outdoor play builds brains, enhances development, reduces obesity and related disorders, and promotes development and learning.

Where can we read more about your organization?

Visit the Voice of Play website for more information about the value of play and how to ensure a safe and enriching play experience!

Voice of Play Interview