A group of children play on a wooden climbing structure in an outdoor playground surrounded by trees. Some children are climbing ropes and wooden beams, while others are balancing on colorful mushroom-shaped stepping stones. The ground is covered in wood chips.

Playgrounds as educational tools

When we think about play, what image comes to mind? Is it playing freely in open spaces, playing games with new friends made, or playing with toys and equipment? Play settings and the resources available to children are not only important for providing playful opportunities, but they also affect the quality of children’s play.

Published: 9 February 2023, edited: 8 May 2023
Est. reading time 4 minutes

Playgrounds: The Pathway to Holistic Learning

Learning through play happens naturally, allowing children to develop skills they may not otherwise be able to learn in a formal classroom setting. Children develop through play socially, physically, intellectually, and emotionally. Researchers at Swansea University found that when children complete a task in playful environments, they outperformed their peers completing the task in a traditional classroom setting - sat at desks, with teachers telling children what to do. While children are, of course, able to learn in formal education settings, playful environments have been found to elevate their capacity to learn further.

Playgrounds are almost universally beloved by children. In schools, at weekends, with family, and with friends, playgrounds are a central site of play. Studies have found that playgrounds increase not only children’s physical activity but children’s socio-emotional well-being also. When children are happy and healthy, their capacity to learn improves. In contrast, children globally report a majority dislike for traditional classroom learning. By recontextualizing playgrounds as a site that promotes children’s physical and mental well-being and ability to learn, playgrounds become ideal settings for more educational purposes.

Children learning on the Lappset Memo | Lappset Outdoor Classroom

Children learning on the Lappset Memo | Lappset Outdoor Classroom

The school playground in Jyväskylä, Finland

The Valuable Role of Playtime in Education

Recognising the importance of playful spaces for learning through play varies culturally. While some people may designate playtime for playgrounds, Finland, for example, integrates playgrounds as part of children’s school routines. In Finland, children between age 7-13 attend school with a focus on hands-on learning and finish school based on age between 12-2pm. As most parents work full-time, children will go to their local town playground, which is usually in the centre of town, to play until 4pm at pick-up time. Finland is ranked within the top 10 countries for education, learning, and knowledge. Their prioritisation of daily playground use for children of all ages could have something to do with this.

Designing Playgrounds for Educational Purposes

When designing playgrounds, it’s important to have educational apabilities in mind from the start of development. Several academic studies across cultures have found that incorporating components of curriculum-based learning into playground design improves children’s learning of concepts such as geography, mathematics, science, the environment, literacy, imagination and empathy.

Patterns, stepping stones, interesting angles and shapes can be used to teach children maths skills such as geometry, such as a climbing structure in the shape of a dodecahedron or a spiral slide, measurement, counting. Rope climbing areas can teach children about perimeter and area. The Geometry Playground at the National Museum of Mathematics in New York City teaches children about geometry and mathematical concepts through interactive exhibits.

Educators can use different heights, levels, swings and slides to teach about the laws of physics and run experiments. A playground might include interactive exhibits that allow children to experiment with gears, levers, and pulleys, teaching them about how machines work. Water features can be used to learn about energy, different mass states and allow children to observe and experiment with different water flow patterns. Some examples are:

  • The Playmaze at the Children’s Discovery Centre in London teaches children about mathematics, physics and engineering.
  • The Tinkering Studio at the Exploratorium in San Francisco is a playground that teaches children about engineering and design principles.
  • The Science Playground at the California Science Center in Los Angeles is an interactive playground that teaches children about science and technology.

Father playing with his daughters in the Flora Troll Village

Nature conservation areas or trails can teach children about natural environments and the ecosystem. Specific materials used and highlighted in the playground can teach children about sustainability, renewable energy and environmental issues. Some examples are:

  • The Rainbow Playground in Tokyo emphasises learning about energy and renewable resources.
  • The Children’s Nature Park in Beijing teaches children about the environment and conservation through interactive exhibits and hands-on activities.
  • The Nature Playground at the Singapore Science Centre highlights natural phenomena and the environment.
  • The Children’s Discovery Museum in San Jose, California has a playground that teaches about sustainability and renewable energy.
  • The Children’s Discovery Garden at the Dallas Arboretum teaches children about botany and gardening through hands-on activities.

School Playgrounds as an Educational Tool

The use of playgrounds for social studies has even been highlighted by The Playmobil FunPark in Zirndorf, Germany which teaches children about geography and different cultures. Playgrounds can also be used to highlight the history of a community. There are also several opportunities within the humanities to use playgrounds as an educational tool.

Teachers can use playgrounds to teach literacy skills such as reading, writing, and phonics. For example; a teacher might use alphabet blocks to help students learn the letters of the alphabet. Signs or labels can be used to teach children about words and concepts.

Many playgrounds are designed to encourage children to read, usually through incorporating book nooks, reading areas, or storytelling alcoves. Imagine using the space to bring to life children’s favourite stories and incorporate story-related play elements such as a castle from a fairy tale, or even a rocket from a science fiction book to inspire reading and writing. In other instances, a teacher might use a mini-grocery store for children to pretend to shop, helping with math skills such as counting and measuring, or use a small village set up to help students learn about different cultures or historical events. By lifting learning out of books, sitting-down and classrooms, children become hands-on agents, active within their own learning.

Three young children look up and point at constellation diagrams on a dark dome overhead. The constellations are labeled, including Canis Minor, Hydra, and Lepus. The children appear engaged and curious, with trees visible in the background.

Playgrounds are also where children develop essential life skills outside of educational learning. In free play, children are discovering their own limits and learning. It’s where they navigate risk, boundaries with their own bodies and emotional boundaries with others. Playgrounds can be used for team activities, games through chasing, hiding, or even collaborative social play, such as pushing each other on swings. Some are designed to inspire creativity and imagination in children. For example, playgrounds might include elements such as an open-ended sandbox or a playground that allows children to build structures.

Playgrounds are inherently educational tools as they are sites of exploration, learning, and a safe space for children to reap the wonderful benefits of play.

Author Profile | Dr. Amanda Gummer | CEO of the research consultancy Fundamentally Children

Author Profile | Dr. Amanda Gummer | CEO of the research consultancy Fundamentally Children

Amanda is the CEO of the research consultancy Fundamentally Children (www.fundamentallychildren.com) and Dr Gummer’s Good Play Guide (www.goodplayguide.com) - a consumer-facing review site for children’s toys, apps, learning and baby products. She has a PhD in neuropsychology, the Postgraduate Certificate in Higher Education and over 20 years experience working with children and families. Widely considered as the UK’s go to expert on play, parenting and child development, her book ‘Play’ was published in May 2105 and has been translated into different languages with extracts being published in the USA’s Toy Industry Association’s Genius of Play initiative for which she is an expert ambassador. Amanda has an increasing international profile and was commissioned by the Toy Association to create the STEAM toy accreditation framework. She is the UK Chapter chair for Women in Toys - an international networking group within the toy and licensing industries and mentors international startups in the children’s space. Amanda is regularly in the media and continues to take an active role in research, presenting papers at various international conferences. She is often involved in government policy around children’s issues, presenting her Balanced Play Model at the European Parliament in September 2019. She is an NED for Families in Focus CIC - a charity supporting parents of children with additional needs and other mission-driven start ups. She is also a founder member of the Children’s Activities Association.

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