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Matching Children and Play Equipment: A Developmental Approach
By Donna Thompson, Ph.D., Susan Hudson, Ph.D., and Mick G. Mack, Ph.D.

Children vary physically, socially-emotionally, and intellectually due to their chronological age, physical development, and experiences. Although much has been written about developmentally appropriate practices applied to indoor environments for children, very little has been done to consider the description of children at various age levels and the kinds of resources that should be provided in outdoor play settings. This article will attempt to provide this information. Specifically, the material will cover the developmental characteristics of children at ages zero to two, two to three, four to five, and six to seven and the implications of these characteristics in the selection of play equipment.

What Are Children Like?
Children are whole beings. However, it is easier for adults to divide their characteristics into parts for better understanding and for providing appropriate equipment and methods. Based on this mentality, information about children in this article will be described by ages of development. We have chosen to look at children in three ways regarding their development: physical, social-emotional, and intellectual. After describing what children are like in each category, the implications for play equipment will be given.

Children and Play Equipment: Ages Zero to Two
Recent emphases on windows of opportunity for early brain and motor development suggest that basic gross motor activities and sensory motor experiences should occur before age two (Gabbard, 1998). This means that as children grow from infants to toddlers, the importance of play activity is much greater than previously thought. Much growth is very general in nature, but it progresses from general to specific and head to toe as children begin to control their environment from near to far. These principles govern children's ability to develop in an orderly fashion.

Children in this age category continue their quest to move. They have practiced moving internally. Now they are free to move as much as their environment will allow. Thus, we can expect children to stretch, contract, pull, push, roll, grip, and grasp.

During this stage, children are in the process of changing the movement of their whole bodies to moving various parts of their bodies in different directions, but in concert with other body parts. This is commonly called gross motor and fine motor activity. There appear to be stages of development or progression of movement for gross motor activity (Gallahue, 1989; Roberton & Halverson, 1984; Wickstrom, 1977; NRPA, 1995). As one watches children in the early stages of crawling, the body moves as a whole unit as the arms provide the locomotion and the legs move as a single piece. This activity precedes creeping. Hannaford (1995) explains that creeping cannot occur until a child's eyes, ears, hands, and feet are being used equally, and the mechanism in the brain (corpus callosum) coordinating these processes between the two hemispheres becomes more fully developed. Because both hemispheres and all four lobes are activated, cognitive function is heightened and ease of learning increases. Here is another example of where the physical and the intellectual part of the body are coordinated.

It is also critical at this stage that children be given opportunities to move and be encouraged to advance into the next stage of development. According to Corso (1993), the lack of gross motor instruction may be especially devastating to children who are predominantly movement (kinesthetic) learners. Such an omission may also mean that remedial physical movement will be necessary in kindergarten.

Children also begin the rudimentary actions for climbing at this stage. According to Readick and Park (1998) these first attempts are called clambering. The infant holds onto the surface to be ascended with arms, and swings one stiff or slightly bent leg up over the surface and primarily with the strength of arms (cephlocaudal development) pulls the body up onto the surface. Readick and Park (1998) further state that children may experience the actual initial stage of climbing after mastering clambering. Initial climbing is marked by tentativeness and visual monitoring of the next point of ascent. During this stage, a child holds onto a level with both hands, pulls up with one foot or knee, brings the second foot or knee up to the same level as the first, and if necessary, because the destination is not yet reached, repeats the efforts.

Socially, infants are dependent upon adults. Although infants are busy satisfying their own needs and not concerned about relating to others, it is important that the adults who are involved with them are as positive as possible regarding their exploratory behavior. At the same time, children from ages zero to two will meet their emotional needs by attempting to bond with adults. They are especially dependent on adult approval of their attempts to move and express themselves. These children are egocentric and perform to satisfy their own needs as well as explore the world about them. They seek approval of their actions and encouragement to find out what they can do to find out what their universe might be like.

Infants are alert to their environment; they are busy watching, listening, and exploring. They are moving to find out how far they can reach. They are trying to get to an object they see. They are wondering what an object is and what it feels like and associating individuals with various textures, sounds, and smells. Because children are curious, they continue to look for signs which encourage them to fulfill their intellectual interests.

Implications for Play
The play and playground implications for infants are many. These children need an area that is separate from toddlers who may overpower them. They need opportunities to move freely so that they can roll, push, pull, and move small objects with various textures. In addition, they need soft surfaces on which to move and many soft objects to manipulate, objects such as blocks of various sizes and shapes. Since they are not able to comprehend the concept of cause and effect, early childhood professionals should wait to furnish objects and experiences that provide these opportunities until the children are older. There would appear to be very little of the "standard" playground equipment that would be appropriate. However, Table 1 further describes developmental characteristics and implications for playground equipment.

Physical, Social-Emotional, and Intellectual Characteristics Ages Zero to Two  
Characteristic Developmental Implications Implications for Equipment
Makes jerky movements. Needs opportunities to move Needs    unemcumbered  space to move
Swipes at dangling objects Needs opportunities to swipe at objects Needs objects to strike
Begins to creep, crawl, and walk Needs space without tripping hazards Unencumbered space
Begins to grip and grasp objects Needs opportunities to grip and grasp Needs objects to grip and grasp
Egocentric Plays alone Soft objects to play with
Plays alone but with support of adults Opportunities to explore Equipment that encourages exploration
Likes to explore and discover Opportunities to explore Equipment that allows exploration
Begins to coordinate movements Opportunities to coordinate actions with stimuli Various sensory equipment

Children and Equipment: Ages Two to Three
Children ages two to five are typically called toddlers, but it seems more useful to subdivide this group one more time since it deals with four years of development. Therefore, we will look at ages two to three and four to five separately.

Children who are two to three years old explore the environment beyond themselves. They have begun to develop locomotor actions that take them places they have been watching for a long time, and they can finally satisfy their intellectual curiosity about things they see and hear.

Two- and three-year-olds have begun to walk. Thus, they need opportunities to walk on various types of surfaces in order to find ways to deal with their equilibrium and footing. These surfaces might include mats, rugs with various depths, linoleum, wood, grass, sand, gravel, wood products, and rubber products. In terms of simple to complex progression, the early childhood professional should provide surfaces which are predictable in nature for evenness, since a toddler will not always pick up his or her feet. As the child develops, one can then choose surfaces which require more clearance but provide a forgiving quality when the toddler falls. In addition, consider surfaces that slant a few degrees so that the child can practice a higher degree of equilibrium. The slant may require children to adjust their movements in an upward, downward, and/or sideward direction. Support by an adult might be appropriate before allowing a child to try the activity by him- or herself.

Climbing is another activity which begins to occupy toddlers. Since it has been established that most young children have begun climbing stairs by their second birthday (Frankenburg & Dobbs, 1967), it is appropriate to provide opportunities for children to climb. The height of the steps and the railing that accompany the steps is provided in the Standard Consumer Safety Performance Specification for Playground Equipment for Public Use (ASTM 1487–98). Other challenges may include increasing the number of steps, changing the configurations from straight to circular, moving from giving assistance to allowing children to ascend by themselves, and helping children descend backwards and then frontwards. Readick and Park (1998) indicate that the reason children do not ascend frontwards earlier is because they are incapable of reversing operations or retracing earlier steps up to help come back down.

This may also be the time that the transitional phase of climbing occurs. This is marked by a child holding to a level with both hands and bringing the feet up in a mixed pattern by sometimes bringing a foot up to the same level and sometimes placing one foot above the other (Readick and Park, 1998, p. 16).

Toddlers will also begin to jump by jumping down with both feet or jumping off the floor with both feet (Gallahue, 1976). Later, they will begin to jump for distance and height.

Children still need support of adults even though they reside in the egocentric stage of development. They need adults to lend assistance, when needed, while allowing them to be independent. Therefore, adults should observe children carefully and intervene only when needed.

Two- and three-year-olds also like to be near other children, but may be oblivious of their actions. They are still fulfilling their own needs and not capable of sharing with others and putting others' needs ahead of their own.

Because toddlers are at the sensorimotor stage of development, they learn through their sensory impression and motor activities and the interactions of the two. It is clear from the example in the section about climbing that there is a connection between intellectual and physical development. The fact that children cannot reverse operations means that they are not capable of climbing back down stairs. Since they are still in the pre-operational period, they need to be given opportunities that challenge them to discover more about themselves and their environment.

Implications for Play
The implications for resources for children ages two to three on the playground include providing space for children to walk and changing the environment so that various surfaces and inclinations can be arranged. In addition, various climbing arrangements need to be made available. Finally, children need opportunities to increase their ability to jump. This will include ways to increase height as well as the provision of soft landing areas. Table 2 (Thompson, 1997) further describes developmental characteristics and implications for equipment.

Table 2: Physical, Social-Emotional, and Intellectual Characteristics Ages Two to Three  
Characteristic Developmental Implications Implications for Equipment
Walks and talks Needs opportunities to walk on equipment Equipment to walk on
Jumps Needs opportunities to develop jumping actions Equipment to jump from, on, down
Climbs and Creeps Needs opportunities to creep Equipment to creep up and on
Very egocentric. Plays alone, but near others. Opportunities for parallel play Equipment that encourages parallel play
Understands short directions Give small amount of informations to children Equipment that is self-explanatory

Children and Equipment: Ages Four to Five
Four- and five-year-olds are able to process information a little bit better than toddlers. Although they are not able to think logically, they can think in images and symbols and form mental representations of objects and events. They are also more independent than three-year-olds.

Children in this age category are in the process of continuing the development of their fundamental movement actions. They need opportunities to walk, run, jump, hop, gallop, skip, slide, and leap. At this point, children also need opportunities to continue into the transitional phase of climbing (Readick & Park, 1998). A child will hold to a level with both hands at this stage and bring one foot up to the next level. Taking the opposing hand, he or she will reach for and grasp the next level and place the alternating foot above the first. The pattern is repeated. Finally, a child becomes a mature climber; he or she climbs fluidly and consistently alternates feet and hands to move upward to higher levels.

Parallel play and learning to share with others are the developmental milestones children master at this stage. Thus, they need encouragement to share and approval for trying that activity. It is important for early childhood professionals to give children encouragement to increase the practice of the skills being developed. Repetition will increase both competence and confidence.

Four- and five-year-olds are eager to learn and generally lack fear. Since that is the case, they can be encouraged to try new challenges. However, it is important for the teacher to provide safe environments since children are likely to seek challenges without regard to safety. In addition to this lack of fear, five-year-olds are intellectually ready to make and understand rules. Castle (1998) has noted that primary children do differentiate between procedural rules related to game making and conduct rules that regulate sociomoral behavior, and that they incorporate both types into games.

Implications for Play
Play areas should include opportunities for the development of fundamental motor actions along with intellectual challenges to make choices of activities. If children are not given opportunities to choose environmental conditions which will enhance their development, they will assume that there is only one way to use the environment or equipment. In another setting, Hubbard (1998) indicated that the key to increasing a classroom where children can think is to provide access to a range of work space, materials, other children, and adults. This concept should also be applied to the play environment. For example, children should be given opportunities to choose among various opportunities to increase arm strength on equipment such as climbers that may have various lengths, distances, curves, and slants of climbing components.

Lest the reader think that the preschool teacher is not an important person in regard to stimulating movement, research has shown that encouragement from teachers decreased when children moved from preschool to elementary school (McKenzie, et al., 1997). In addition, recess periods in this study were an average of 26 minutes in preschool and only 14 minutes in kindergarten. Preschool teachers have the wonderful opportunity to increase the movement of children at a critical time in their lives. With a teacher's help and guidance, children can become more coordinated, increase intellectual prowess, and reduce their chances for obesity.

See Table 3 (Thompson, 1997) for other descriptions of physical, social-emotional, and intellectual characteristics of children as well as implications for play equipment.

Table 3: Physical, Social-Emotional, and Intellectual Characteristics Ages Four to Five  
Characteristic Developmental Implications Implications for Equipment
Needs vigorous activity Needs movement to improve growth and development Equipment that promotes movement
Growth rate is decreasing General movement abilities are improving Items that will increase body awareness
Percentage of muscle mass is increasing, body fat is decreasing Children are stronger, more agile, and very flexible Items to promote agility and flexibility
Lacks muscular endurance Children tire easily and may require momentary rest Items to promote intense activity alternated with less strenuous activity
Center of gravity high, sometimes difficult to balance Developing sense of equilibrium Items to promote good equilibrium
Developing locomoter actions Needs to spend time on locomotor activities Items that use locomoter activities
Descends ladder with alternate feet Provide opportunities to descend ladders Provide ladders and climbers
Egocentric and impatient Working alone may be best Equipment that can be used alone
Needs approval and and praise Provide experiences to challenge, yet foster success Climbing pieces
Enjoys repetition Provide routines to repeat Slides, climbing devices, horizontal ladders
Learning to share Provide opportunities to share Provide equipment that must be shared to work
Transition between individual and group play Provide times to play alone and with one or two others Provide equipment to use alone or with others
Eager to learn Enjoys problem solving Provide opportunities to solve problems
General lack of fear Encourage children to work within their abilities Provide opportunities to work with body, force, and relationships
Sorting out differences between real and make believe Provide dramatic play opportunities Provide equipment for dramatic play

Children and Equipment: Ages Six to Seven
Although some five-year-olds attend preschool and others go to elementary school, our school-age discussion will focus upon children from ages six to seven.

Six- and seven-year-olds need vigorous activity to develop their coordination and strength. As they increase in height and weight, their coordination will continue to develop as their bodies change in size.

Socially, children at this age continue to increase their abilities to engage in group play. As five-year-olds were learning to play with one other person, six- and seven-year-olds need opportunities to play with two to three others and with children of the opposite sex. As they participate in group play, they begin to recognize that children have differing skills. Emotionally, school-agers are in awe of adults. Teachers must be careful to encourage children to perform well. They become discouraged easily so adults must give praise for activities performed and milestones achieved.

These children have increased reasoning powers as evidenced by the fact that they have entered the concrete operations stage of development. They can now deal with cause and effect. Concepts of space, force, time, and flow are also developing.

Implications for Play
In terms of implications for equipment, six- and seven-year-olds need equipment such as composite structures on which they can choose to use pieces which are going up and down, left and right, over or under, circular or straight, and slanted or flat in orientation. Equipment such as climbing pieces and overhead ladders may provide for their developmental needs.

Table 4 (Thompson, 1997) further describes developmental characteristics and implications for equipment.

Table 4: Physical, Social-Emotional, and Intellectual Characteristics Ages Six to Seven  
Characteristic Developmental Implications Implications for Equipment
Steady gains in height and weight Children are stronger and more physically adept Horizontal ladders, chinning bars, and climbers
Legs short in relation to trunk Children may appear awkward Needs equipment that enhances control of body
Center of gravity near adult location Activities requiring balance are important Balance beams
 Improved ability to focus eyes and track objects Manipulation of objects Equipment with distances
Skill and control are developing in gross motor activities Repeat known activities, practice new activities Equipment to travel on, create direction, pathways directions
Abilities of males and females are not different Differences in ability not apparent in relation to activity Different equipment not necessary
In awe of adults Adults need to be aware of this responsibility Encourage children to perform well
Discourages easily Needs praise Equipment on which success is possible
Transition between individual and group play Plays alone, with one another, occasionally with three or four Equipment that fosters cooperation
Recognizes that some children are more skilled than others Provide for individual differences Equipment for differeing skill levels
Attention span is still short Activities should be short and varied Equipment with short distances
Has improved reasoning powers Can challenge with problems Equipment with choices
Imaginative, enjoys drama Activities that encourage creativity Equipment that can foster imagination
Memory is improving Activities to promote continuity Equipment that promotes problem solving
Purposeful in work habits Desire to learn new skills and master others Equipment that promotes mastery
Concepts of space, force, and time developing Include work on space, force and time Equipment that can foster work in space, force and time

Future Study and Observation
Everybody has a responsibility to make playgrounds and play environments safe for children. One of the ways to increase safety is to place resources for children in the play environment that is age appropriate. Very little study has been done regarding how children use the current playground equipment. While Frost (1992b) and Hyung-Jeong Ihn (1998) have described choices of playground equipment that children have made and shown some ways that children play, the descriptions are very general. Even less has been done to describe children's needs and then recommend playground equipment that will enhance children's development. Such research would increase the information upon which to make better judgments about the appropriateness of equipment compared to the needs of children.

It is clear that the play area or the playground environment should be a learning environment. Like no other learning environment, the playground offers children opportunities to move, receive emotional impression, interact with themselves and/or others, and receive intellectual stimulation. While some have indicated that a school is not a playground, we would like to remind child care professionals that a playground is a learning environment. Frost (1992a) and Wortham (1990) concur 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 to children. It is important that the area be made as rich as possible with appropriate resources for children to experience the input that will increase their developmentally appropriate opportunities to grow and develop.

Donna Thompson, Ph.D., project director; Susan Hudson, Ph.D., project associate; and Mick Mack, Ph.D., project coordinator, are staff members with the National Program for Playground Safety, a national information clearinghouse located at the University of Northern Iowa and funded through a grant from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Atlanta, GA. For further information, contact the program office at 800-554-PLAY (7529).  

American Society for Testing and Materials (1998). Standard consumer safety performance specification for playground equipment for public use. F 1487-1998. West Conshohocken, PA: American Society for Testing and Materials.

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Frost, J.L. (1992a). Reflections on research and practice in outdoor play environments. Dimensions of Early Childhood, 20 (4), 6–10.

Frost, J.L (1992b). Play and playscapes. Albany, NY: Delmar.

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