Playground fitness serves many masters
By Linda Freeman
CORRESPONDENT | October 28,2012
Jeb Wallace-Brodeur / Staff Photo
Zac Tinker, 3, of Barre, crosses a monkey bar apparatus at a new playground in Barre on Wednesday.
The next time you are near a playground, stop and take a look. Watch kids at play. They’re usually noisy, flushed, with discarded jackets, untied shoe laces and often dirty. Obviously they are busy, having fun being with friends and interacting with new kids.
Just as obviously, they are doing an impressive job of addressing fitness on their own uniquely personal and age-appropriate levels.
Recess is common time for crowded playgrounds. Weekends and after-school hours hold equal value for those who choose to visit. An hour spent on a playground might be the most economical way for you and your kids to get a strenuous, effective and family-building workout.
Early on, pediatricians warn of the dangers of playground accidents and caution anxious parents to supervise their kids. Today, however, childhood obesity is headlining the news. So is the need for healthy activity. Isn’t this a time to encourage kids to test their wings, to reach a little farther, to climb a little higher, to step outside of their child-sized box?
Recently I was at my neighborhood school with three kids, ages 4, 6 and 8. Champing at the bit, they ran from the car to the equipment, reveling in the new-to-them array of jungle gyms, slides, swings, monkey bars and more items to climb up, suspend from, crawl under and jump from than they could dream of. There seems to be an endless supply of creativity used in building the play areas as well as ways in which to use the equipment.
I stayed closeby as they passed hand-over-hand along the bars, slid down the fireman’s ladder, walked on balance beams and found sometimes frightening ways to master each challenge. I was reminded that the younger the child, the more determined he might be to keep up with older siblings and push himself until his grip simply couldn’t hold. I watched as the first-born proved to be a mix of “mother hen,” watching out for her siblings and “show-off,” as she bested them whenever possible. I was fascinated to see the 6-year-old become absorbed in a single activity that demanded complete focus for over 30 minutes. The playground itself, not a parent’s order or an adult sense of obligation, was the motivator.
The fitness industry is bulging with fancy, expensive gym equipment. Here, on a playground, maintained by the public school system, children and adults can find all that they need to become and remain fit. In fact, appreciation for such activity has led to a proliferation of at-home jungle gyms, fitness facility play-yards, climbing walls, boot camps and outdoor classes.
Begin a visit to the playground by investigating the assortment of equipment using each item as it was designed to be used. Then repeat and have at it. Watch as children find unexpected ways to climb the ladders, play pirates and alligators on the swinging bridge or hide-and-seek in the tunnels.
If you must, while your children are playing, and keeping one eye on their safety as well as their performance (so you can congratulate them later), devise a means to address your own personal fitness. Chin-ups on monkey bars, box jumps to a platform, pushups with feet elevated, knee-ups suspended from an overhead bar are easy transitions from gym to play set. Swings are great – with feet on the seat and hands on the ground, it is possible to perform any number of core-taxing movements like planks, side planks, pikes, rotations and many more.
Create circuits for yourself or for you and your kids together. Aerobic fitness is increased by running from one piece of equipment to another; chasing, racing and giggling get the job done.
Balance is demanded from seesaws to ropes courses. Upper-body strength is a must for hanging, gripping, pulling up and lowering with control. Lower-body strength kicks in for climbing, jumping and landing. Core strength is increased by pumping to new heights on a swing or assisting in just about every playground gymnastic.
Coordination becomes natural when practiced within the context of reaching the top, getting across or sliding down. Pushing, pulling, lifting, squatting – all are familiar moves to the dedicated gym-goer and here, on the playground, they are simply part of play.
Though it’s tempting to sit on a bench with a hot cup of coffee, or worse, to bark out orders, don’t. Join in, interact with your kids. Above all, remember to keep it fun. Moving their spontaneous energy into a disciplined workout zone would be a mistake. Basically, if you are playing with your kids, lose your structured workout. Help your youngsters to gain confidence. Model for them, let them be proud of their parent or adult care-giver who can do these things and then tell them you are proud of them. Insure their safety. Assure their success. Don’t tease, show off or critique. Free play is a bargain.
Brian Grasso, contributor to www.coreperformance.com, in ‘The Playground Workout,’ said: “Movement is more than what you do in the gym. It’s about living an active life. So get outside and play with your kids. Free play has become an overlooked commodity, somewhat deemed to be a waste of time for youngsters to engage in, but it’s the essence of physical fitness for kids. It’s good for you, too. You’ll strengthen your body and your relationships.”
Socialization is a significant benefit of playground activity. Meeting, sharing, teamwork, fair play, and lending a hand demonstrate the early practice of life skills. Children who grow up in families that play together often assume that fit and active lifestyles are the norm and go on to be fit and healthy adults and later parents themselves.
Give a child the gift of memories – memories of uncomplicated time shared with them devoid of distractions. Let them see you laugh, be silly, struggle with a task or awkwardly fail. You will be more human, more a part of their team. Like all good team players, they will learn to give and to take, to learn and to teach, to be active and value health and family. As the adult, you don’t always need to be the coach.
Just maybe you’ll have as much fun as they do.