Playgrounds Help Kids Be More Inclusive of Others, New Study Finds

A trip to the public playground offers more than physical benefits for kids. It's also a place fostering acceptance of different races and abilities.

Whether it’s flying down a slide, soaring on the swings, or swinging on monkey bars, public playgrounds have a little something for every kid. But a new study finds playgrounds offer more than just a way to keep kids active; they are also a place where children can learn to be more accepting of others who look different than they do.

Voice of Play, an initiative from the International Play Equipment Manufacturers Association (IPEMA) to raise awareness about the benefits of children’s play, surveyed 1,000 parents across the country and found parents believe public playgrounds help to foster inclusiveness and play equity.

Mixed race girl playing on playground going down a slide
JGI/Daniel Grill/Getty Images

Here’s the breakdown: 92 percent of parents feel “playing on the playground helps children to be inclusive of others who may have different abilities and backgrounds than their own.” Nine in 10 parents agree that “spontaneous play with other kids on the playground shape their view of equality for all, regardless of race and ability levels.” And 42 percent of parents say the biggest positive impact of public playgrounds is their own children playing with kids of all abilities.

"With play as a great equalizer, children learn that although they may differ from someone else, they find similar joy in an activity, like swinging, for example. This shared joy and engagement creates a bond and a feeling of commonality that transcends throughout the playground," says Tom Norquist, IPEMA immediate past president. "These child-directed play experiences are fostered by an environment that encourages children to test themselves, take age appropriate risks and participate in new activities, together."

The benefits of playgrounds are no surprise to Lea Lis, M.D., a double board-certified adult and child psychiatrist and author of No Shame: Real Talk With Your Kids About Sex, Self-Confidence and Healthy Relationships. Aside from playgrounds being a space where kids can challenge themselves emotionally and physically, she agrees on how valuable the social aspect is. “Playgrounds are often an area where children can meet other children from different ethnicities and socioeconomic statuses with different kinds of parenting structures, from single to adoptive, to learn, grow, and embrace diversity,” says Dr. Lis, who wasn’t part of the study.

What’s more? Eighty-eight percent of parents surveyed believe outdoor plays helps kids deal with mental impacts of social injustice in the country. That’s a big deal as race issues have been at the forefront with the Black Lives Matter movement and the coronavirus pandemic. A recent study from the Pew Research Center found 4 in 10 Black and Asian adults have felt people have been uncomfortable around them since the virus hit.

Of course, the latter is also a reason why children aren’t playing on playgrounds at the same rates. The study found 42 percent of parents will only let their kids play on public playgrounds once COVID-19 cases steadily decrease in their areas, while 40 percent said they are waiting for a COVID-19 vaccine to become available. “During this time of COVID, most of the playgrounds have been closed and this might have a significant impact on children who need an area to grow and learn,” adds Dr. Lis.

Still, more than 50 percent of parents in the survey agree that “play is more important than ever for children” at the moment. Luckily there are socially distancing games kids can play in the meantime until they are safely able to run around their favorite playground again.

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