by Kelly Tolbert, Recreation Coordinator, City of Prescott
The concept of “play” means different things to different people and is likely influenced by environment and culture. Play can easily be related to the opposite of work, which has a connotation to something that is obligatory, and play is more of an “at-will” endeavor. Scientific research backs several things to be known about play, including that play is instinctive, has been around for as long as mankind, and that children learn through play.
Yet, it was not until the late 1800s that the playground industry started to see increases in manufactured play equipment. Documentation shows that in 1905 only 35 American cities had supervised playgrounds, and in 1920 the first equipment recommended for removal due to safety reasons was the Giant Stride.
The first official Consumer Product Safety Commission Public Playground Safety Handbook was published in 1981 and is still in use today, providing federal guidelines on playground safety. While there are no federal laws, agencies are encouraged to follow industry standards of care regarding organized playgrounds and surrounding areas.
While all play areas are not manufactured playgrounds, a commonality found between natural play environments and designated manufactured playgrounds is they function to help children develop physically, intellectually/cognitively, socially and emotionally.
Stephen Hinshaw, a professor of psychology at the University of California-Berkeley claims that “even more vital than early reading is the learning of play skills, which form the foundation of cognitive skills.” Modern playgrounds are designed with children’s development in mind, keeping openings free from entrapment or from clothing becoming entangled, ultimately providing a safer play area than some natural play environments.
For the last few decades, health professionals have detected a link between the decline in active play and the rise in childhood obesity. According to a publication titled Crisis in Kindergarten written by the Alliance for Childhood, in 2009 “a typical school-aged child … spends four to six hours with high-tech media, most of it indoors, and less than one hour outdoors in non-sports activities.” The report goes on to say that due to the complications associated with obesity and sedentary lifestyles, today’s children may be the first generation in 200 years to have a shorter average lifespan than their parents.
Another alarming statistic is the rise in mental illness among youth in America. While there is no solid research linking reduced overall playtime with increases in mental illness, the ways play activities are designed to strengthen social and emotional skills while also relieving stress are worth exploring.
Play is not meant to cease when one reaches adulthood. Many times recreation or play opportunities are overlooked to devote more time to careers, raising a family, or a variety of other variables. Considering the fast pace of today’s lifestyles, carving out time for personal enjoyment (adult play) is perhaps more critical than ever. Common knowledge supports that exercise leads to release of endorphins from the brain, but the idea of play leads to more benefits both physically and mentally. Activities such as scavenger hunts, geocaching, playing board games or card games, crafting and painting are also considered play.
As Recreation Services professionals, it is our role within the community to offer opportunities for quality play not only for children but adults. Fortunately, with Prescott’s mild, sunny climate, visitors and residents have ample opportunities for outdoor recreation. Community partners such as Yavapai College, the YMCA, Highlands Center for Natural History, Sharlot Hall Museum, Smoki Museum, Phippen Museum, The Adult Center, Prescott Public Library, along with many private businesses, offer ample opportunities for indoor as well as outdoor play.
Rather than thinking of playtime as a guilty pleasure, reframe thoughts to address it as necessary to daily routines. Experts advise that play does not have to take a lot of time out of the day. More importantly, it should happen as much as possible every day. Perhaps one has forgotten how to play or which activities bring joy. Try tapping into the same things that brought joy in childhood such as card games, hopscotch or coloring. Another suggestion is to be surrounded with playful people.
The City of Prescott Recreation Services Department offers 13 manufactured play equipment areas for children between the ages of 2-5 and 5-12 throughout the City. Each play structure is signed to indicate for which ages the equipment is designed. Adults are strongly encouraged to supervise children when they are playing on playgrounds.
These can be found at Acker Park, Boys and Girls Club of Central Arizona (Aubrey Street), Flinn Park, Heritage Park, Goldwater Lake (2), Granite Creek Park, Ken Lindley Park, Kayla’s Hands (Pioneer Park), Peppertree Park, Watson Lake Park, Willow Creek Park and Vista Park.
Opportunities for children of all ages to play include hiking or bicycling on trails, geocaching, interpretive nature walks at the Community Nature Center or Acker Park, fishing (check www.azgfd.gov for license requirements) or boating at the local lakes. Pickleball is one of the fastest growing sports and is said to be friendly for all ages. There are 12 courts at Pioneer Park available for public use. For more information visit www.prescott-az.gov.
Photo: Kayakers at Willow Lake. Photo courtesy of Dennis Mischler.