The park is all fun and games, until it isn’t! Playing at the park can present some interesting challenges, thoughts to ponder, and frustrations to navigate. Sometimes children just don’t seem to engage in playground opportunities like we hope they will. Others may jump at the chance of climbing to the highest peak as if they were superheroes ready to launch through the air! As occupational therapists working with children, we get questions from parents all of the time related to how their children play at the park, what parents can do to play with their children most productively, and inquiries related to how to engage those children who don’t automatically explore of their own.
Three common questions that occupational therapist’s receive from parents about park play with their children:
1. My child tends to run away at the park, what do I do?
Children who run and dart away from your watchful eye in any environment can be extremely worrisome and anxiety provoking. When picking a park for a child who may elope, we plan carefully and choose one that is surrounded by fencing or shrubs. Having defined visual boundaries can support a child who may struggle with having a firm sense of where his body is in space and encourages staying within a designated area. Here he can be encouraged to attempt new activities through adult or peer modeling. When in doubt, a completely enclosed area ensures the safety of a running child.
There can be a variety of reasons why a child may run aimlessly in the park. Difficulties with motor planning can limit the child’s ability to use park equipment. Running may also be telling us that the child has an increased need for movement or muscle work. Other children may be overwhelmed by all that is happening in the park and need help focusing on one activity. Fast moving and unpredictable children at play, loud sounds, the bright sun, temperature of the air and equipment, and challenging climbing structures can over stimulate a child more than we realize.
Motor planning challenges
This child has difficulty with knowing how to move his body in new situations and climbing on and off new things. This makes it hard to plan and coordinate ways to use park equipment. Before attempting something that your child has never tried before, model the approach to the activity, including how to get on and off a piece of equipment, the steps of the game, and clearly define the beginning, middle, and end to the activity. This helps the child anticipate how long they will need to ‘stick with it’ before taking a break. Remember, we are aiming to approach learning through play, but learning can be tough and tire a challenged child. Create a playful and motivating theme to the game, and you will be surprised at how eager your child will be to stick with the story! To start, consider more structured activities with distinct outcomes that can be easily achieved. For example:
- Catch the candies: Who doesn’t love a Halloween game at this time of year? Using a holiday, favorite theme or toy as inspiration, choose an item that your beanbags can represent. While your child is swinging in the bucket swing, have him catch a beanbag that is thrown directly toward his hands and lap. How many can he fit in the bucket swing with him? Once all of the beanbags have been collected, have your child toss them back to you, one at a time.
This is an activity that can take on many variations! One of our favorites is to hold the beanbag where the child can get it and let them throw it into a target.
- BAM! I got this: Jump from the bottom step of a set of stairs onto a chalk target. Using sidewalk chalk, print the letters of your child’s name out of order on the ground. One by one, jump on each letter to put them back in order. This activity works really well for learning spelling words, sight words and math too! For the younger child, draw simple shapes, flowers or bugs and have them jump to the one you call out.
- Park Tag: Identifying a specific park target to tag, run from one to the next with your child, touching the target when you get there. These can be trees, swings, park benches, slides, you name it! Starting with targets that are closer in proximity will reinforce the goal of the game, and then slowly expand the distance between targets. A child who elopes or looses focus on the activity might have a harder time keeping the goal target in mind for the duration of the run if it is too far.
Scaffolding park experiences for a child include choosing activities that are motivating and playful, while breaking down the steps to ensure the child can achieve success. That feeling of being able to complete an activity is essential if we want a child to seek out challenges.
Heavy work seeking
This child is looking for the heavy proprioceptive input that running provides. Try encouraging your child to do activities that use those muscles, such as:
- A simple jumping game (jumping over a still rope, a low wiggling rope, and turning rope)
- Climbing up the slide with a rope
- Taking turns pulling another person on a scooter board using a rope, then laying on the scooter board himself and being pulled with the rope.
- Wheelbarrow walks across the grass
- Hitting or kicking a ball while running
An Overwhelmed Child
A child who is overwhelmed by the environment will benefit from some additional supports as they ease into the park.
- Sunglasses or a hat with a large brim can decrease bright light and also visually limit an environment that just seems too big
- Locate a play area that has some sort of defined sides and a roof. Play structures often have an area below stairs or platforms that work well to reduce sights and sounds that may feel overwhelming.
- An ‘explorer’ backpack or vest – adding some light weight to a backpack or placing beanbags in the many pockets of a vest can provide calming deep pressure and proprioception, giving a child a sense of security and increased body awareness and he heads into new territory. There are also many fabricated weighted vests on the market that are designed specifically for use with children. Recommendations for weight are 5%-10% of your child’s body weight for effectiveness and safety.
- Compression garments– clothing that provides a gentle squeeze to the child’s body can also promote feelings of calm, security, and increased body awareness. UnderArmour is one common brand that children find comfortable, but there are many variations out there!
2. How do I encourage safety awareness without being a helicopter parent?
There is a fine balance between making sure your child doesn’t get hurt and letting your child experience the important value of “doing it all by myself”. In the therapy clinic and at the park, giving children enough room to try things for themselves but staying close enough to catch them if necessary, is essential. As we watch the child engage in play we recognize skilled areas and when the child may need more help. Physically tapping a leg or touching a hand to give positioning cues might be all a child needs to get himself up a ladder safely, rather than a parent lifting him to the top of the climbing structure. Using as minimal physical contact as possible for the child to achieve the goal SAFELY will allow your child to develop new skills and abilities.
This may sound crazy, but jumps, bumps, crashes, and occasional safe “daredevil” behavior can actually increase body awareness, affecting balance, motor coordination and self-regulation! While we do NOT encourage children launching themselves off of high surfaces (unless onto heavily padded floors and into crash pillows or ball pits!), research shows that each and every jolt to joints, muscles, and skin can shift how a child moves through space and interacts with his environment.
3. Any ideas for ways to help my child initiate social interactions with peers?
Bring a couple of interesting toys to the park and children will stick to you like magnets! One prop, paired with a play theme, might just attract more children than you are ready for! We bring our park kits and begin play with the child we are with. Before you know it, other children begin to appear and parallel play begins. Watching us model how to interact with other children during a parallel play situation offers opportunities to learn without the pressure of participating. Repetitive engagements can also allow learning one component of a social exchange at a time. Slowly encourage your child to jump into the mix by offering a job as a helper, and begin to back away from the lead role. Coming up with a play theme that will interest children and their peers is a great way to allow role playing, taking turns and negotiating. Simple themes are easy for children to adapt and change to fit their interests. For example: “We are pirates and the slide is our ship. Lets bring our treasures up to the ship!” (The treasure can be beanbags, or pinecones, rocks, and leave collected around the park grounds.)
If you are curious about where your child might fit developmentally with the skills often used on the playground or at the park, we encourage you to pop on over to Your Therapy Source’s post, Developmental Progression of Playground Skills to learn more!
What questions do YOU have about park play with the children in your lives? We are all ears!
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Hung-Yu Lin, Posen Lee, Wen-Dien Chang, Fu-Yuan Hong (2010). Effects of weighted vests on attention, impulse control, and on- task behavior in children with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder. American Journal of Occupational Therapy, 68, 149-158. doi:10.5014/ajot.2014.009365
Schaff, R., & Nightlinger, K.M. (2007). Occupational therapy using a sensory integrative approach: A case study of effectiveness. American Journal of Occupational Therapy, 61, 239-246. doi:10.5014/ajot.61.2.239