sensory play

Playgrounds & Their Role in Child Development

By | NESCA Notes 2021

By: Madelyn (Maddie) Girardi, OTD, OTR/L
Occupational Therapist, NESCA

Growing up, I remember spending hours and hours at playgrounds with friends and family. Running around, scraping our knees, and swinging from one structure to the next. While we all know that playgrounds can be loads of fun, the therapeutic benefit children can gain from these unique environments is often overlooked. Playgrounds allow children to explore the environment around them, develop important social/emotional skills, and build the necessary motor abilities to be successful in life.

Think of your average playground and consider the range of equipment that is present. Each type of equipment offers its own benefits in helping a child to build skills in different areas. Some common examples of playground equipment include:

  • Slides
  • Swings
  • Spinning equipment (e.g., tire swing, Sit N’ Spin, merry go round)
  • See-saw
  • Zipline, Static trapeze
  • Climbing structures
    • Ladders, monkey bars, stepping stones, vertical/fireman’s pole, coil climber, rock wall, rope structures
  • Imaginative play/Sensory-based equipment
    • Sandboxes, ball pits, splash pads, water tables, playhouse/kitchen set-ups

Gross Motor Skills

Playgrounds are great places for children to gain exposure and practice using gross motor skills. Some of the gross motor skills that can be targeted include upper and lower extremity strength, core strength and postural control, balance, shoulder/elbow/wrist stability, and bilateral coordination. Gross motor skills are important because they allow us to perform everyday functions, navigate and interact with our environment, and engage in leisure activities like sports! They also lay the foundation for our body to develop more refined motor skills in the hands. In other words, the child must have proximal stability before achieving distal mobility (Miss Jamie O.T, 2021). As our bodies develop these gross motor skills, this sets the groundwork for fine motor control. The more opportunities we give children to practice and explore, the better!

Image Credit: (Miss Jamie O.T, 2021)

Fine Motor Skills

Traditionally, we think of seated activities, such as coloring, writing, puzzles, or beads, as targeting our fine motor –  or hand –  skills. While this may be true, engagement in playground activities is also a great way to build hand strength, dexterity, grasp patterns, upper extremity coordination, and more. Think of a child climbing on a ladder, up a slide, or across a monkey bar structure. Our hands play a vital role in these activities. While engaging with playground environment, a child has ample opportunity to develop and use what is known as the “power grasp.” This is the grip needed to stabilize an object with the pinky side of the hand, while the thumb side of the hand wraps around the object (Miss Jamie O.T, 2021). This grasp is used in everyday life, such as when holding a cup, turning a doorknob, or opening a jar. Many skills established in this environment can then be transferred to the functional tasks performed in our daily routines. The playground is the perfect place to learn them!

Sensory Processing and Integration

In addition to motor skill practice, a playground environment can provide children with a plethora of sensory experiences that benefit overall regulation. When we think of playgrounds, many times swinging, spinning, and sliding activities come to mind. These activities provide a child with important vestibular information that allow for understanding of head/body position in space. This input can be crucial for regulation, social interaction, and successful navigation of the environment. Additionally, playground activities give our bodies ample proprioceptive, tactile, and visual input. Consider a child swinging on the monkey bars. While suspended, a child receives pulling/pushing input to the joints, which allows for increased body awareness and accurate grading of movements through space. Furthermore, a child is interacting with his or her environment, constantly taking in tactile, auditory, and visual information. For many children, exposure to these sensory-rich experiences can positively impact regulation, arousal, and social and emotional development.

Social/Emotional, Play Skills

Playground environments also provide abundant social interaction for children as they are often shared, public spaces utilized by mixed ages, genders, and abilities. We know that many children are highly motivated by peers and benefit from the opportunity to observe and learn from the actions of others. Consider the different components of a playground; each promotes different patterns of play, and therefore, reinforces different developmental skills. For example, overhead structures, such as monkey bars, tend to attract older children and facilitate independent, gross motor play. This kind of activity promotes problem-solving and persistence. See-saws and swings tend to promote collaboration between children, as they require turn-taking skills, communication, and teamwork. An area such as a sandbox or water table may facilitate imagination skills, as children use their creativity and explore tool use. While we know a playground allows for progression of development in various areas, the actual type of equipment being used may influence which specific skills are being targeted (Landscape Structures Incorporated, 2021).


  1. Landscape Structures Incorporated. (2021). Developmental Benefits of Playground Equipment. Benefits of Playground Equipment. https://www.playlsi.com/en/playground-planning-tools/education/playground-equipment-benefits/#:~:text=Stimulate%20Development%20through%20Playground%20Equipment&text=The%20movements%20children%20perform%20on,and%20develops%20better%20body%20awareness.
  2. Miss Jaime O.T. (2021). Promoting Fine Motor Skills on the Playground. Developing Fine Motor Skills at the Playground. https://www.missjaimeot.com/promoting-fine-motor-skills-playground/


About the Author
Madelyn (Maddie) Girardi is a Licensed Occupational Therapist in Massachusetts with experience in both school-based and outpatient pediatric settings. Maddie received her undergraduate degree in Exercise Science/Kinesiology at The College of Charleston in South Carolina and  earned her Doctorate degree in Occupational Therapy from The MGH Institute of Health Professions in Boston.

Maddie is a passionate therapist with professional interest in working with young children with neurodevelopmental disorders, fine and gross motor delays and Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD).

To book an appointment or to learn more about NESCA’s Occupational Therapy Services, please fill out our online Intake Form, email info@nesca-newton.com or call 617-658-9800.


Neuropsychology & Education Services for Children & Adolescents (NESCA) is a pediatric neuropsychology practice and integrative treatment center with offices in Newton, Massachusetts, Plainville, Massachusetts, and Londonderry, New Hampshire, serving clients from preschool through young adulthood and their families. For more information, please email info@nesca-newton.com or call 617-658-9800.


Why Kids Need to Outdoor Free Play

By | NESCA Notes 2020

By: Angela Currie, Ph.D.
Pediatric Neuropsychologist, NESCA
Director of Training and New Hampshire Operations

One of the best ways to make the most of your summer is to get outside and engage in lots of outdoor play. We live in a society where we tend to over-schedule ourselves and our children. Particularly during the school year, this makes it very difficult for children to get the amount of free play that they require. With this, I’m going to tell you five great reasons why you should throw away your schedule, put down the tablet, and get outside.

The first reason is probably the most obvious. Outdoor play provides great benefits to physical development. It improves motor coordination, strength, and balance, and it puts kids in an overall healthier position.

The next reason to play outside is that there are benefits for internal regulation. Not only does it make kids sleep better at night, but there is research to show that it aids attentional control and stress reduction. Being outdoors also provides kids with different sensory experiences – such as feeling the texture of sand and mud, or feeling the wind blow on your face – which will help to build children’s sensory tolerance.

The next reason to get outside is to improve cognitive development. Being outdoors provides a lot of opportunities to make observations, draw conclusions about things, see cause and effect, and be imaginative.

Next, playing outside aids emotional development. When we are over-scheduled, children do not have the opportunity to feel confident in their ability to step outside of their comfort zone or take risks. Experimenting and taking risks during outdoor play can help children understand that they have some control over what they can do within their environment, as well as begin to recognize boundaries.

Finally, the last reason to get outside is that it really bolsters social development. When there is no structure or there are no rules to follow, kids have to learn how to initiate their interactions, engage in conversation with each other, communicate, problem solve, and find ways to along, even when others have different ideas.

With all of the above benefits, outdoor free play is one of the best things you can give to your child. So as the weather is getting nicer and summer is fast approaching, if you are looking for something to do, sometimes it is best to just put down your schedule, get outside, and get dirty.


About the Author

Dr. Angela Currie is a pediatric neuropsychologist at NESCA. She conducts neuropsychological and psychological evaluations out of our Londonderry, NH office. She specializes in the evaluation of anxious children and teens, working to tease apart the various factors lending to their stress, such as underlying learning, attentional, or emotional challenges. She particularly enjoys working with the seemingly “unmotivated” child, as well as children who have “flown under the radar” for years due to their desire to succeed.


To book an evaluation with Dr. Currie or one of our many other expert neuropsychologists, complete NESCA’s online intake form. Indicate whether you are seeking an “evaluation” or “consultation” and your preferred clinician in the referral line.


Neuropsychology & Education Services for Children & Adolescents (NESCA) is a pediatric neuropsychology practice and integrative treatment center with offices in Londonderry, NH, Plainville, MA, and Newton, MA serving clients from preschool through young adulthood and their families. For more information, please email info@nesca-newton.com or call (603) 818-8526.