The Value of Loose Items in Playgrounds

For a long time, early child educators and parents believed that a child care center’s fenced playground was primarily a place for children to safely go outdoors, get some fresh air, and to run around and “let off steam”. Playgrounds weren’t thought of as educational spaces but as exercise or “play” spaces; and the makers of playground equipment were effective at selling child care centers on the value of purchasing and installing increasingly large (and expensive) play structures for children to climb, slide, swing and chase one another around. And, boy did that large colorful play structure look attractive to parents (and their kids) during that tour of the center when parents were deciding where to send their child for child care.

Eventually, however, some educators started to realize that something was missing from this rigid outdoor play structure experience. The large and colorful play structures were constant and immovable behemoths that were interesting to children at first, but then gradually lost their appeal as children repeated the same fixed activities that the play structures offered them. A new large play structure that entranced children their first few weeks at a new child care center soon became repetitive and boring to play on.

More recently, educators and researchers have begun to recognize playgrounds as outdoor classrooms and see the value of having large interactive “loose things” for children to manipulate in their playground space. Instead of investing $20,000 in a “certified” play structure, progressive and engaged child care centers are now investing in their playgrounds by placing colorful plastic “milk” crates” in their playground, as well as some car tires, large yoga balls, rope cargo nets, rubber garden “stepping stones”, “pool noodles”; and even, traffic cones, or a length or two of heavy knotted rope, etc. Why this change? Because young children have vivid imaginations, and they want (and need) undefined “props” they can assign their own purposes for, and to arrange (and re-arrange) to make their own “forts”, “sailing ships”, “caves”, “rocket ships”, “stores” and “hideouts”. Large loose items give young children the ability to drag and stack heavy car tires on top of each other, and then put a yoga ball on the top to make a “tower”. Or they can stand the tire up on its edge and roll it around the playground; using their strength and coordination to keep it rolling forward without falling over. If a child doesn’t have the strength to move or stack a car tire by themselves, they can enlist the help of another child and practice teamwork as they coordinate between them to make a goal and to achieve it.

Child playing with milk crates at our daycarePlastic milk crates are strong enough to be stood on or stacked into walls, while their light weight and rounded corners make them safe to play with. Kids can use them as containers for other items, stacked on their sides to make shelves in a store, used as raised stepping stones over a “raging river” or interlocked vertically to create more stable structures. Of course, teachers need to give good instructions to children regarding the use of crates to ensure they are not stacked too high, and to police their activities. A frustrated child may be tempted to throw a crate at (or, towards) another child, which is unlikely to hurt the child but creates a teachable moment between the teacher and that child. Likewise, children need to learn how to carefully avoid getting their fingers stuck in the many holes in the milk crates. Many valuable life lessons in stability, friction, and of course safety can be woven into the child’s creative play with loose crates, including many nascent engineering principles.

Similar benefits derive from putting large cargo nets, heavy knotted ropes, traffic cones, yoga balls, rain barrels, and other sturdy dimensional items in playgrounds for children to assign names and purposes, and to stack, link or connect with one another to create more sophisticated and interesting creative play structures.

As parents, next time you visit a child care center, nursery school, PreK program or summer day camp for young children, remember to look beyond whether the center has a large fixed playground structure, and instead look for whether the center has any large loose manipulative creative play items in the playground that can be endlessly re-arranged by curious children engaging their creative minds. During the last year, Prime Time Early Learning Centers in Paramus, Edgewater and East Rutherford NJ, and in Middletown / Walkill NY has added many large loose creative play items to their playgrounds, including at least 15 or more plastic crates, 6 pool noodles, 5 traffic cones, 5 flat rubber stepping stones and 4 car tires in each outdoor playground. As part of Prime Time’s age-appropriate early learning of science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) curriculum, teachers also use these loose items in the playground to teach valuable engineering and math principles.

This article is part of a young child health and wellness series posted for the benefit of parents by Prime Time Early Learning Centers. Prime Time is a family owned child care company that provides Infant Care, After Care, PreK, Prekindergarten, and Summer Camp programs for children from six weeks to 10 years of age in Paramus, Edgewater, Hoboken and East Rutherford New Jersey, and in Middletown (Wallkill) and Farmingdale (Babylon) New York. See what parents have to say about their experience with Prime Time Early Learning Centers on Google and Yelp!