Providing for Physical Activity

Play involving a good deal of physical activity is often called adventure play. In fact a sense of adventure accompanies a good many play situations whether either a real or an imaginary challenge is met. The benefits of very active play are obvious. The exercise involved is often associated with fresh air, improved appetite, sleeping well, eating well and all the desirable habits which lead to good health. Exercise encourages muscle development, coordination, balance, knowledge of distance, height and space and leads on to competence and therefore self-confidence. Once children can play with others and have mastered basic skills a good deal of social play and cooperation goes on if the right materials are provided.

Provision of suitable materials is likely to be dictated by the amount of space and money available but the needs of children also have to be taken into consideration since, whatever limitations exist on choice of equipment, there are basic activities to provide for any situation. Children seem to need little encouragement to be active, but their age, stage and temperament will make a difference to their play. Some children accept a two-foot-high barrier without question and do not attempt to go by it or over it. Others see a six-foot-high gate as a challenge simply because it is there. The more cautious child needs carefully graded obstacles. The more adventurous needs equipment which will allow for his undoubted ability, giving him a sense of achievement while keeping potential danger within reasonable bounds. One child is not necessarily more courageous than another. Some ‘dare-devils’ simply do not see far enough ahead to work out possible cause and effect. Other ‘timid’ children may have had only limited experience or perhaps they have learned a hard lesson too early.

If we look at what children can do now and have some idea of what the next stage will be this gives some guide as to what to provide. The crawling child will enjoy chasing after a ball. The ^ next stage for him will probably be trying to stand, so a heavy, stable object on which he can try to pull himself up is a good idea. Once babies sit really firmly they enjoy a safe baby-swing or a rocker which provides them with a lot of movement for little effort. Baby bouncers also come into this category. Toddler trikes which are ‘paddled’ rather than pedalled, baby walkers and more equipment to climb (scramble up would be a more accurate term) fulfil other needs of the rapidly developing child. Push-and-pull toys are useful to the efficient crawler who can spare one hand to use them, or to the toddler who does not need to use his hands to help keep his balance. The size and weight of the toys also need careful judgement. A baby walker which moves too freely can almost run away with a child. If it is too light the centre of gravity may not be sufficiently low to counterbalance the weight he applies to the handle. All toys need to be safeinthemselves-no lead paint, sharp edges, splinters or dangerously pointed nails, and screw holes or the unfortunately common staple holes should be filled.Toys should also be safe when used in conjunction with the inevitably clumsy movements of the toddler.

Two-year-olds will appreciate a small tricycle with pedals on on the front wheel but it is important, especially during the difficult early stage of learning the ‘press with one foot, then the other’ movement, that the tricycle is the right size for the individual child. This age group likes climbing, crawling and hiding and, given the opportunity, enjoys nursery steps and hidey-hole cubes. A firmly fixed barrel is also useful although it is often used more profitably by the next age group. A low slide with safe access, a slightly larger swing which still has a safety bar, an air bed or mattress to jump and roll on, a larger rocker allowing for more movement, a sturdy truck with two wheels at the front which can be moved without too much ‘lift’ being required, would all be a good choice for a second-birthday present. Where homes cannot provide these, and very few could provide all of them, a mother and toddler group or One O’clock Club may well be the nearest source of this kind of play.

The next progression is a question of stage rather than age and for different children may occur anywhere between two and a half or three and a half, even as late as four years for some children. The same basic activities are followed but more effi-ciently. This is where climbing needs are best met by climbing frames and short ladders. The two-year-old who screamed with frustration at being unable to make his first tricycle move along now manages a pedal car with skill, or a larger, more efficient, tricycle with frightening speed. Slides need to be higher, swings should allow more movement and rockers can be two-seaters to allow for cooperation between children. Seesaws, if they are carefully chosen, serve the same purpose. Wheelbarrows, trucks, battle-wagons and porter’s trolleys are now easily managed and they are often used in an imaginative game. Handling a ball is by no means efficient yet but a helpful adult can assist in throwing and catching games. Improvised skittles may add an extra attraction for a child who is not interested in a simple game.

Depending on the individual child, previous experience and opportunity, most four-year-olds are ready for rope-swings, larger-size climbing frames, space hoppers and balancing material such as stepping stones. They will also make good use of such raw materials as, for example, a pile of tyres and trestles and planks to make their own obstacle course. Concrete pipes and tunnels are great favourites. Most four-year-olds can manage a scooter, and the newer go-carts propelled by a hand action are another possibility for self-generated speed. These require sufficient safe space for children to learn to use them. Although they are not ideal nursery group toys, being used by only one child at a time and requiring more space than may be convenient, there is perhaps a case for having them in a nursery if the children who attend have no other opportunity of learning to use them. The same lack of space which leads to homes without gardens often means nursery premises which also lack adequate outdoor space. If tricycles have to be for indoor use it is necessary to confine them to a specific area.

Equipment

Provision of physical activity materials for over-fives is neither as difficult nor as urgent as for pre-school children. Once school starts large equipment for both inside and outside is usually available there. It is also possible to make use of the equipment found in parks and play areas which is often more suitable for over-fives than the younger children. A further factor which helps is that by the age of five children are more competent at making use of non-special equipment for physical activity. They run further and faster in their games, climb gates, fences and trees and start to invent games which involve hopping, jumping, skipping and balancing.

There is a good deal of equipment which can be bought. The same basic designs appear in every manufacturer’s catalogue. There are varied sizes and materials and there can be a vast difference in price. Nursery groups have more money to spend and more children to use this equipment than in the home and most of the larger items are produced with the nursery market in mind. Within the home it may be necessary to improvise or make things, since good equipment is often too expensive for a family and poor equipment is expensive at any price.