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19.12.2014 - Ausgabe: 6/2014

To promote the development potential of children it is necessary to design challenging activity venues

By Dr. Dieter Breithecker (Bundesarbeitsgemeinschaft für Haltungs- und Bewegungsförderung e. V.)


Living conditions and thus also the spaces available for exercise by growing children have changed out of all recognition.

Those of the baby boomer generations (1946 - 1964 ) will probably recall how, as children, they were able to enjoy the excitement and adventure of being in the company of others and having the freedom to undertake their own recreational activities without outside intervention. And the motivation for this was never really the physical activities as such, which we now see as factors determining health and normal development. Physical activities were the means to come into contact with others during play, to discover one's own limits and test one's physical capabilities in daily interaction with the surrounding environment.
But living conditions and thus also the spaces available for exercise by growing children have since changed out of all recognition.

• There are increasingly fewer outdoor play and exercise opportunities available to children in which they can spontaneously indulge their need for physical exercise.
• Such activities now take place in specially dedicated areas, such as playgrounds and school recreation fields.
• In accordance with the concept of a 'programmed childhood', children's freedom of choice is being increasingly eroded by the organised activities supervised by adults.
• More and more children are spending their leisure time seated and inactive in front of multimedia play and information programs (gaining experience at 'second hand').
• Children now have fewer friends with whom they play and will often play alone.
• Thanks to the obsessive concerns of their parents which predispose them to overprotect their children, the freedom of children to spontaneously play and exercise is being increasingly suppressed.

These facts clearly contrast with the currently accepted principle that children require a certain quantity and quality of physical exercise if their development as a whole is to progress normally. Children, especially before they reach the age of 11 years, need to be able to undertake diverse, challenging, exciting activities such as climbing, balancing, jumping, swinging and sliding. Exercise is more than just participation in sporting activities, performing, competing and consuming calories. Exercise is a natural resource that growing children can use on exposure to corresponding external stimuli for their own pleasure and at their own discretion to 'promote' their own development, as it were, almost incidentally. This concept of exercise has a holistic perspective and in this context it can be defined as a form of relationship between individual and world that assumes the nature of a discourse between the two (Dietrich 2003). All activities undertaken by children “benefit their understanding and leave behind traces that we call 'skills'” (Fischer 208, 174). With this in view, the role played by physical exercise with regard to the education and development of our children must be accorded even greater significance.

Unfortunately, educationalists in general and playground designers in particular tend to consider that exercise spaces need to be as hazard-free as possible and that the activities of children need to be manageable at all times. Because there is the risk of accidents, everything must be carefully organised and out in the open. Without due consideration, the exercise needs of children are thus being restricted to the behaviour models preferred by the adults. And it is usually the same adults who design, coordinate and specify the environments within which children are permitted to interact. The joy and risks associated with play all too often fall victim to an activity environment of a monotony that is imposed by standards and analogous regulations. “As numbers of overly protective parents grow, the number of children who require therapeutic help also increases.” (Korczak 2005)

Children need space and time to develop

The high degree of plasticity (in both form and adaptability) of the growing brain − the control centre of all our actions and the source of our emotions and thoughts − in children of pre-school and primary school age means that exposure to complex stimuli is continually required. The development of the brain is a self-governing process that involves the motivational and targeted interaction of children with an exciting and challenging environment. Development is thus predominantly determined by the autonomous activities undertaken by a child. Every child needs to discover and where possible overcome the limits imposed by physical capabilities and the environment and to learn not to expose themselves to unnecessary dangers and excessively hazardous situations. Children have the need to control their bodies, to acquire abilities and skills, develop dexterities and face up to challenges. At the core of this is exercise as undertaking, the motivational challenge of physical activities that children face up to with all their senses, in pleasant but tense expectation (Fischer 2008). An enhanced self-image informed by physical abilities can promote the acquirement of other fundamental aptitudes, such as self-confidence, self-awareness, self-esteem, the ability to assess risk and to protect oneself. Children repeatedly need to feel that they have achieved something and that they have overcome their fears.

The best material and stimuli that will feed development are those that a child can itself garner from a richly structured environment. As a rule, children intuitively know what aspects are of use to them. Children thus need to be given room in which to undertake attempts, experiments and dares and in which they can also experience failure. They will discover much about their own limitations and will gain an ever more accurate understanding of their own capacities. They must be provided with sufficient time and opportunity for these experiments and autonomous activities; these should not be restricted by regulations or because of the overly protective concerns of adults. It is very important that they are granted this room for trial, experimentation, risk and error. Learning is an emotive process. Successful mastery of problems and tasks generates positive emotions that guarantee the best outcome. Through this, children can discover much about their own limitations and gain an ever more accurate understanding of their own capacities. In view of the above, play space planners need to take the following requirements of children into account:

 Children's own need to plan and design must be encouraged by providing them with attractive environments that stimulate their self-directed activities and creativity.
 Children of various levels of ability must be accommodated by means of the provision of different levels of challenge and manageable risks.
 Children's ability to assess risk must be promoted by allowing them to experience hazards in borderline situations.
 Children's self-confidence and ability to protect themselves must be promoted by allowing them to assume responsibility for themselves.
 Social learning should be encouraged by confronting children with problems that require mutual and coordinated action and planning to be resolved.

Exercise must get under the skin

The appropriate requirements for child-orientated exercise systems can be outlined using the example of the fundamental activity of 'climbing'.
Climbing is a basic activity enjoyed by children that trains their active and passive musculoskeletal system and their sense of coordination in very complex ways and has a positive influence on factors such as the ability to assess risk, self-protection skills and self-awareness.
However, what is on offer must have an emotional appeal for the children; in other words, it must be demanding and make borderline experiences possible, otherwise children will soon lose interest in it. “Children need…the opportunity to expose themselves to risk and to overcome their fears,” said Ellen Sandseter, psychologist at the Norwegian Queen Maude University College in an interview with the NYT. “I believe that climbing frames and high slides are ideal,” Sandseter went on to say.

Boring playgrounds, in her view, are bad for children as they can actually inhibit their emotional development. Sandseter asserts that children need to experience the excitement of height and speed to enable them to cope with anxieties later in life. Sandseter and her colleague Leif Kennair of the Norwegian University of Science and Technology in Trondheim explain in the journal Evolutionary Psychology why such children are subsequently better able to deal with heights. This is because during their play, children use the same methods as psychotherapists when treating anxiety patients, in that they gradually, step-by-step, approach increasingly hazardous situations (Fig.). It can be postulated that it is this anti-phobia effect that partly explains why children are apparently so willing to expose themselves to risk. Anyone who has accompanied children to a playground will know what the researchers are talking about. Even the smallest children will climb, with no outward signs of fear, to dizzying heights where they will enthusiastically swing back and forth to the alarm of many parents.


Children must be allowed to experience, learn and cope with the risks of life even in an era dominated by regulations and the excessive fears of parents. There is a basic need driven by curiosity that makes them wish to expose themselves to what are initially unpredictable hazards. “A sense of proficiency and the conviction that they can achieve something through their own efforts are what seem to be the distinctive attributes of these children.” (Göppel 1997) Risk must not be excluded from play. Anyone in a position of responsibility who is worried by this should contact a safety specialist who can evaluate the 'risk and benefit' profile of a play amenity. “If you overprotect children, you rob them of their pleasure in life, their self-awareness and the chance to learn to overcome crises.” (Korczak 2005) It is only because of the prohibitions of those responsible for their education that children become uncertain and awkward and thus more accident-prone.

More information: www.haltungbewegung.de

Images: Corocord Raumnetz GmbH

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