My kids have gone to several different schools over the last few years. Their current elementary school allows the kids to climb UP the slides (as long as there are no students trying to slide down, of course). They can also hang from the monkey bars and give each other under-ducks on the swings.
I know. It sounds normal and natural.
It’s pretty much what I did on the playground as a kid. But the two previous schools my kids attended didn’t even have swings because it was determined to be too much of a liability.
Here’s the thing – kids need to take risks when they play.
They need to climb, spin, and jump. They need to move their bodies in all directions and move often. There will always be a chance of them getting hurt, but those chances are typically small.
‘Children need to move in ways that make us gasp,’ says Cindy Utzinger, a pediatric occupational therapist and the author of Why Is My Kid Doing That?
Cindy explains in her book how behavior is linked to sensory input. Everyone – kids and adults – has different ways of processing sensory information. No one way is right. No one way is wrong.
In a podcast, she compares each person’s sensory threshold to a coffee cup. Everyone’s cup is slightly different in size and shape. Some of us have a hole in the bottom that allows the coffee (sensory stimulation) to always drip out, so we constantly need more. Some of us walk around with a cup that’s about to spill over, but we don’t want to take sip or can’t because we’re full. Some of us have just the right amount, but from time to time, we need a refill on sensory input.
Children can be perceived as being fidgety or rowdy or too loud or not paying attention when they’re supposed to. Those children don’t necessarily have a particular sensory issue or actually need a diagnosis. They just might need to move in all sorts of different ways so their “cup of coffee” is at the right level.
I know because those children are often my children.
As an occupational therapist myself, I say this: there are many kids who do have specific diagnoses and need specialized interventions. I am not generalizing their situations into this story. But I am speaking about MY children.
Long car rides can be brutal if my crew is restless. Waiting at the doctor’s office or even getting through an hour of church can be a challenge for us. More than once, I have found a kid belly crawling under the pews, removing the screws from the kneelers. It can be very hard for people to sit still when all they want to do is move.
And moving is what kids are meant to do. Climbing, spinning, and jumping are so important for developing motor skills, teaching problem-solving, and promoting sensory integration.
Whether it’s jumping on a friend’s backyard trampoline or bouncing on the indoor one that’s part of the floor at the kids’ gym, my children LOVE to jump. We spent several hours last autumn at a tree-top adventure that included an elevated trampoline. My kids would still be there if I hadn’t made them come home.
Jumping helps our proprioception, which is awareness of our body in space. It also promotes core strengthening and visual processing, as well as activating the vestibular system.
Swinging is also critical for developing the vestibular system which influences our inner ear, spatial orientation, posture, and balance. My children seek out the swings at any playground when they’re needing a minute to calm down or just think on their own. The preschoolers I work with each week also gravitate to the swings when they need a moment alone. I can see their eyes relax with the rhythm of movement. The platform net swing in our backyard allows my kids to sit, stand, or spin 360 degrees.
After soccer practice last night, my daughter climbed a tree near the parking lot. “Aren’t you worried she’s going to fall?” another parent asked. She might fall, but she’s been climbing trees all her life. Her hand-eye coordination and upper body strength are good. She knows how to problem-solve getting up and down from the tree. Sometimes she does make me catch my breath while I watch her, but she simply loves to climb. “It’s nice up here! I like it!” she says. I have to agree.