New-Age Playgrounds Rule, as Long as the Kids Are in Charge

Child's Play Critical

Like those in Europe, Rockwell's park project is based on solid research that confirms play is critical to learning.

"Play is not optional for kids," Rockwell told The New York Times. "Play is how children learn to build community, how they learn to work with other people. It's how they learn to engage their sense of creativity."

Play also elevates spirits, expands self-expression, relieves stress and connects children to others, according to the national Association of Play Therapy.

Play is such an important key to social development and competence, says the association's New York president David Crenshaw, that one of the first symptoms of traumatized children is their inability to play.

"Traumatized children have a difficult time engaging in free spontaneous fantasy play," said Crenshaw. "A healthy child uses play to discharge the normal tension of the day. If a child goes to school and the teacher yells at him, after school in play, he'll set up the classroom and scream at all the kids and then feel fine."

Educators like Rockwell's use of movable objects, such as pulleys and tubes, particularly for learning math skills. Most forward-thinking mathematics programs involve the use of manipulative objects.

"The curriculum development for kids aged 3 to 8 is totally based on these principles and materials to learn spatial ability and how to count," said Jeanne Brooks-Gunn, director of the National Center for Children and Families at Columbia University's Teachers College.

New-age playgrounds help parents, too.

"They are modeling creativity," said Brooks-Gunn, who would like to see partnership possibilities between Rockwell's play worker training programs and the Columbia research center.

But some psychologists are wary and say the notion of a play worker assisting children in the new-age park has the potential to undermine social development.

For years, psychologists have been fighting an uphill battle with micromanaging parents, and play therapist Pratola wonders if trained play workers might interfere with creativity.

"The best way to encourage kids to play is not to give them any direction and just watch them with a delighted look on your face," said Pratola. "That's all you have to do to encourage imaginative play. Adults watching can turn play into competition with adult judges. Who decides when there are two tubes and three kids?"

However, Pratola still believes old-fashioned playgrounds help children develop their imagination and learn.

"The key is not to make up too many rules," she said.

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