Analysis of Preschool Children's Equipment Choices and Play Behaviors in Outdoor Environments
By Hyung-Jeong Ihn

Pinocchio went to Playland with the bad boys and not to school, eventually grew a long nose and donkey ears, and was made to wear a dunce cap, among other indignities. His tale reflects a long-standing belief that in certain fundamental ways play and school are worlds apart (Johnson, 1996). Teachers, administrators, and others generally consider playgrounds and the activities that occur there less important than indoor spaces in the lives of young children.

The Benefits of Outdoor Play
Playgrounds and outdoor play experiences have been viewed primarily as an opportunity to develop physical skills through vigorous exercise and play (Frost & Wortham, 1988). Despite this long-held attitude, educators are becoming more aware that outdoor play can be much more valuable than previously assumed. Clearly, outdoor play can stimulate physical-motor development (Myers, 1985; Pellegrini, 1991). In addition, however, playgrounds are a positive setting for enhancing social interaction (Kraft, 1989; Pellegrini & Perlmutter, 1988). Further evidence indicates that well-equipped playgrounds can stimulate a variety of play types, including dramatic play (Shin & Frost, 1995).

Outdoor play can be as effective as indoor play in promoting young children's development. Frost & Wortham (1988) suggest that "the outdoor play environment should enhance every aspect of child development-motor, cognitive, social, emotional-and their correlates-creativity, problem-solving, and just plain fun" (pp. 24–25).

Outdoor play and playground environments allow children to become familiar with nature (Rivkin, 1990) and the world around them. Outdoor play provides children daily opportunities to use and develop their large-muscle skills as well as the opportunity to express themselves freely and "loudly" (Bredekamp, 1987). The National Association for the Education of Young Children (NAEYC) asserts that outdoor play is an integral part of the curriculum for young children's physical, cognitive, and emotional development (Bredekamp, 1987).

However, many reports indicate that playgrounds are hazardous, developmentally sterile, and the most neglected components of preschool and school programs (Frost, 1992a; Morris, 1990). As Frost (1992a) points out, most playgrounds are still designed as though children's play needs are limited to simply running and swinging-as though children cannot think, symbolize, construct, or create.

Since the child's social and cognitive development during the preschool years is so dependent upon play activities (Bruner, 1972; Kohlberg, 1968), the importance of environmental factors influencing preschool children's play cannot be underestimated. Historically, the majority of studies involving play have been associated with the social and/or cognitive aspect of behaviors in indoor classroom settings (Parten, 1932; Rubin, Maioni, & Hornung, 1976; Smilansky, 1968, cited in Hart & Sheehan, 1986, p. 668).

Play and Non-Play Definitions


Cognitive Play


Functional: Simple repetitive muscle movements with or without objects.
Dramatic: Substitution of an imaginary situation or object in a pretend play situation.
Constructive: Manipulation of objects to construct or create something.
Games with rules: Acceptance of prearranged rules and adjustments to them in organized play.


Social Play

: Child plays alone and independently.
Parallel: Child plays beside rather than with other children.
Group: Child plays with another child or group of children striving to attain a common goal.



: Child seeks sensory information or stimuli.
Rough & Tumble: Play fighting or playful physical activity.
Chase Games: One or more children planning to chase or actually chasing another child or children.
Aggression: Real fighting-with intent to hurt or defend.



: Child is not playing. Watching anything of momentary interest.
Onlooker: Watching other children play. May converse with players but does not participate.
Transition: Preparing for or moving from one activity to another.


The Study
Early childhood educators have known for quite some time that the outdoor play environment is an important extension of indoor classroom learning and that varying types of outdoor environments and available equipment influence the behavior of children in different ways (Campbell & Frost, 1985; Hart & Sheehan, 1986). Because of the lack of empirical studies involving outdoor play settings in early childhood education research, this study was undertaken to identify preschoolers' social, cognitive, other, and non-play behaviors in outdoor environments. The purpose of this study was to examine the free play behavior of preschool children on a newly constructed playground. The research focused on the following questions:

1.       What social play behaviors do preschool children engage in?

2.       What cognitive play behaviors do preschool children engage in?

3.       What other play and non-play behaviors do preschool children engage in?

4.       What components of the playground equipment do preschool children prefer?

5.       What are the safety problems?

6.       How do play behaviors differ between girls and boys?

The data collected in this study will help early childhood educators understand the value of outdoor play and create better outdoor play environments rich in experience and choices for children. Johnson (1996) concludes, "What the teacher learns through careful observation of the children playing during free times could prove invaluable for curriculum enrichment and give teachers insight into children's socio-emotional and psychological needs" (p.85). The subjects for this study were preschoolers-six boys and six girls-enrolled at a private school in Austin, Texas. The setting was a newly constructed playground designed by Little Tikes, Inc. It included a superstructure, teeter-totter, blue and purple dinosaurs, loose surfacing (sand), rubber surfacing, loose parts, open space, sand and water table, swings, sand digger, sand box, wheeled vehicle path, playhouse, etc.

Operational Definitions Equipment: All apparatus either permanently affixed or too heavy to be moved by the children. Examples of equipment are playhouse, superstructure, swings, etc.


Loose materials: Those items that are portable or movable, or play material that can be moved by either an individual child or a group of children. Examples of loose materials include small items like pails, scoops, hats, tires, etc.

Based on observation, the most common play behavior of preschoolers was functional play (33 percent). These repetitive muscle movements are valuable in developing motor skills and in developing feelings of success and self-worth for certain children (Henniger, 1985).

The outdoor environment also stimulated dramatic play (21 percent), followed by exploration (11 percent), construction (seven percent), games with rules (six percent), and other (five percent). Smilansky and Shefatya (1990) indicate that growth in dramatic play leads to gains in cognitive and social development as well as school-related skills. According to Vygotsky ([1930] 1990), the pretending of early childhood serves as vital preparation for the development of abstract thought, in which symbols are manipulated and propositions evaluated without referring to the real world.

1.What social play behaviors do preschool children engage in?
Social play was divided into three categories: solitary, parallel, and group play. The most frequent social play behavior was group play (57 percent) followed by parallel (27 percent), and solitary play (16 percent).

2. What cognitive play behaviors do preschool children engage in?
Cognitive play was divided into four categories: functional, dramatic, constructive, and games with rules. The most frequent cognitive play behavior was functional (48 percent). The second most frequent play behavior was dramatic play (32 percent), followed by constructive play (11 percent), and games with rules (nine percent).

3. What "other play" and "non-play" behaviors do preschool children engage in?
"Other play" was divided into four categories: exploration, chase, rough and tumble (R &T), and aggression. Exploration was the leading category, representing 58 percent of the other play behavior. The second most frequent play types were chase and R & T (17 percent each), followed by aggression (eight percent). The percentages of non-play were unoccupied (31 percent), onlooker (six percent), transition (25 percent), and other (38 percent).

4. What components of the playground equipment do preschool children seem to prefer?
Loose parts 29%
Sand Surfacing 13%
Super Structure 11%
Open Space 10%
Sand & Water Table 7%
Swing 6%
Teeter-Totter 4%
Play House 3%
Sand Box 3%
Rubber Surfacing 3 ½%
Talk Tube 3%
Panel 1%

5. What are the safety problems?
No serious injuries or safety problems were observed except a few children throwing sand. Teachers interrupted these behaviors immediately.

6. How do play behaviors differ between girls and boys?
Some boy-girl play behavior differences were found. Over all, girls engaged in more functional play (40 percent) than boys (26 percent), and less exploration (eight percent) than boys (15 percent). In social play categories, boys engaged in more solitary play (20 percent) than girls (13 percent), and less parallel play (14 percent) than girls (38 percent). In cognitive play categories, girls engaged in more functional play (53 percent) than boys (45 percent), and less dramatic play (29 percent) and games with rules (seven percent) than boys (36 percent and 11 percent respectively). In "other" play categories, boys engaged in more chase (20 percent) and R & T (20 percent) than girls (11 percent and 11 percent respectively).

Boys chose "loose parts" most frequently (28 percent), followed by superstructure (14 percent), open space (13 percent), sand surfacing (10 percent), and teeter-totter (seven percent). Girls also chose "loose parts" most frequently (31 percent) followed by sand surfacing (14 percent), open space (nine percent), and superstructure (seven percent).

The results of this study are consistent with that of Frost & Strickland's (1978). Children prefer equipment that does something (is movable) and/or that is complex (offers several play options). Further, it appears that children prefer play equipment that can be adapted to their play schemes (movable and complex equipment, such as the loose parts, sand surfacing, superstructure, and swing in this playground) rather than stationary play structures (e.g., the slide, blue and purple dinosaurs, and fence panels in this playground) which require children to adapt themselves to the limitations of the equipment.

"An essential element of learning in the early childhood years is the opportunity to affect the environment" (Henniger, 1993/94, p. 88). In addition, Kamii & DeVries (1978) emphasize that children learn a great deal by manipulating the materials and equipment in their world. Nearly all indoor play materials-puzzles, blocks, art materials, musical instruments, and dramatic play props-can be manipulated by children. On the playground, however, this diversity is rare.

Children deserve the same diversity and richness in their outdoor play environment as they have indoors (Henniger, 1993/94). "Loose parts" (Nicholson, 1971) are the major content for young children's play; the most valuable, creative materials are those that children can make an impact on. They can move them, build with them, stack, arrange, tear down, and rearrange them, use them as props for imaginative play, create structures for gross motor activity, and even incorporate them into games with rules (Frost, 1992b). In short, every major form of play uses loose parts. Indeed, an abundance of loose or transportable materials seems to be the nucleus of a good playground because these items offer flexibility, diversity, novelty, and challenge and are readily adaptable to use in conjunction with fluid materials, such as sand and water, as well as with fixed structures (Frost & Strickland, 1978; Frost & Klein 1979).

In the outdoor environment of this study, children chose "loose parts" most frequently in conjunction with sand surfacing (e.g., shovels, rakes, buckets, screens, etc.), open space (balls and Frisbee), and sand and water table (soap bubbles, cups, bottles, shells, etc.).

The playhouse was not a popular place for the children (only four percent of total percentage of equipment choices) because it didn't offer enough loose parts such as a table, housekeeping toys and equipment, and other home-related accessories to stimulate more social/dramatic play. Fence panels were also seldom chosen due to their lack of flexibility, diversity, and challenge. Adding more movable parts to these panels (e.g., magnetic animal toys to the jungle panel; magnetic alphabet letters to the letter panel, movable parts to the maze panel) would make a big difference. By carefully analyzing the playground setting and determining what is missing, teachers can provide a greater variety of play materials and opportunities to manipulate materials and nurture all kinds of play.

Children chose "under the ship deck area" as a private gathering, resting, and even dramatic play area. This area was chosen most frequently within the superstructure. Children used plastic timbers under the tree as a resting area, and for drinking water and talking each other. Most unoccupied behaviors occurred in this area.

Most play, overall, remained gender-segregated in this playground. Boys most often played fantasy themes (e.g., Power Rangers, T-Rex, and monsters) and girls played out real-life themes (e.g., playing house, making food, and having a birthday party). Teachers may need to model, guide, or scaffold children's play to encourage cross-gender play.

Frost (1992a) asserts that the nature and richness of play, and indeed the quality of play, are heavily influenced by the type and variety of materials and equipment available. If teachers believe that more dramatic play, constructive play, etc., is desirable or if more involvement of boys or girls in a particular form of play is desirable, these aims can be achieved by deliberate choices of materials and equipment, coupled with sensitive teacher involvement in planning for play.

"Play offers the child the opportunity to make sense out of the world by using available tools. Understanding is created by doing, by doing with others, and by being completely involved in that doing. Through play, the child comes to understand the world and the adult comes to understand the child" (Chaille & Silvern, 1996, p. 277). The outdoor play environment should not be considered as a type of gross-motor activity that children need to "blow off steam." It should be viewed as a vehicle for children's physical, social, emotional, cognitive, psychological, and language development-development of the "whole" child.

Hyung-Jeong Ihn is a doctoral student of early childhood education at the University of Texas at Austin.

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