Of all the tools at our disposal for realizing the aspirations of success and happiness we have for our children in this age of educational innovation, the humble playground seems to be little more than a curio from a simpler time — an old-school monument to… well, old schools. Viewed against the modern array of electronic smart boards, networked personal devices, and other springboards into a brimming ocean of information, playground equipment can look like nostalgic relics of downtime, which is anathema to the modern young family, right? Newtown, wisely, is betting that is wrong.
On Monday this week, the new sprawling 1.5-acre playground, FunSpace II, opened at Dickinson Park, a couple weeks after its slightly premature dedication July 26. While it is still not 100 percent complete, it is now open for good, and not a moment too soon for the small army of kids who got to try it out at the dedication last month. The $800,000 project incorporated natural elements of the surrounding park, climbing stones, built-in musical instruments, a zip line, and ADA accessibility into the design. It still relies on many of the traditional wooden “playscape” features families will remember from the first iteration of FunSpace, which was razed last year after nearly 25 years of service.
Jungle gyms have been around for nearly a century (the first recreational “climbing structure” was patented by a lawyer, Sebastian Hinton, in Chicago in 1920), but recent research on the benefits of play for developing minds makes playgrounds sound cutting edge. It has been long recognized that physical exercise has plenty of cognitive benefits, but too much structured recreation with adult-imposed rules can short-circuit some of the more creative lessons found in the unfettered imaginings that occur in very young minds at the top of a slide or deep in the sand box.
At a 2005 conference at Yale University, researchers from Yale, the University of Delaware, and Temple University worried about “the pressures on young children not to play but to learn disembodied facts, even in the crib. We lament our culture’s increasing emphasis on drill and practice at the expense of play.” These experts found in their research that the kind of undirected play that takes place at playgrounds like the one in Dickinson Park actually enhances the development of creativity, abstract thinking, problem-solving, social cognition, self-confidence and esteem, anxiety reduction, concentration, and communication skills. Not a bad result from a little downtime.
So for those Newtown parents with young children and a packed schedule, we encourage an unscheduled trip to Dickinson Park to FunScape II before the summer ends. If you introduce your kids to the novel concept of unstructured, self-entertainment in the company of other children with nothing on the agenda but pure fun, who knows? They may just realize that elusive extra developmental advantage that escaped them when they weren’t doing nothing in particular. The genius of play, it turns out, resides inside a paradox.