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Play and Cognitive Development: Senior Primary School Children

Play Benefits

27 Oct 2020

Designing evidence-based innovative playgrounds

At adventure+, we take play seriously. We do so by producing evidence-based innovative playgrounds for infants through to senior primary school children, grounded in our years of industry experience.

A key influence over the work that we do is pioneering psychologist Jean Piaget, who recognised that play is essential to children’s cognitive development. Cognition being our thinking and memory processes, and cognitive development the long-term changes that result from these processes.

Piaget identified the four stages of childhood cognitive development in relation to playing. Each stage is distinct and governed by a set of rules:

  1. The stages progress in the same order in all children.
  2. No stage is ever skipped.
  3. Each stage is a significant transformation of the stage proceeding it.
  4. Each later stage incorporates the previous stages into itself.

The stages can be thought of as a staircase, with each stage preparing for the next. We have already discussed the first two stages: sensorimotor and preoperational. Now we will look at the two final stages of cognitive development and how they relate to playgrounds. But first, what counts as a meaningful play experience?

Creating Valuable Play Experiences

The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) state that children need at least 30 minutes of instructor or parent-guided play each day, and at least one hour of unobstructed, uncomplicated free playtime. However, this is only the minimum amount of playtime required for children to show progress. Longer periods of time spent at play is key to more meaningful peer socialisation and cognitive development.

The type of play is also important. Types of play include playing indoors or outdoors, playing alone or with others, playing spontaneously and imaginatively, or with rules and games. Truly enriching play is varied, as each type of play has a developmental purpose.

Children require long, uninterrupted periods of play and exploration

Jean Piaget

Concrete Operational Stage – 7 to 12 yrs Old

Occurring approximately from age seven to twelve, the concrete operational stage is marked by greater problem solving, logic and decentration (keeping in mind two ideas at once).

In the concrete, operational stage children can solve problems in a logical fashion, although they are not typically able to think abstractly or hypothetically. However, we now know that children are able to learn through observation and social context at a much younger age than previously thought. Therefore, diverse hands-on and observational activities play an important role in the concrete operational process of learning.

In terms of playgrounds, play equipment that represents a challenge is popular. Ninja courses provide play equipment along a navigable route, filled with challenging equipment and puzzles appropriate to senior primary school learning and physical capabilities.

Formal Operational Stage – 12 yrs Old +

The final stage is the formal operational stage, and begins around the age of twelve and continues into adulthood. As children enter this stage, they gain the ability to think in their heads, or ‘abstractly’, without a physical representation of the problem in question.

Abstract thinking includes doing mathematical equations, thinking creatively, and imagining the consequences of actions in advance. In the formal operational stage, a child no longer needs to draw a picture or use objects to reason.

When it comes to playing, the formal operational stage is represented by the most complex and adventurous playground equipment. Examples include orienteering through a maze, utilising strategic thinking while traversing a commando course, and testing balance and strength when climbing a rope structure.

Our Skyclimber Playground features a rope pyramid, rope ladder, and rock climbing wall, and requires some of the planning, orienteering, and reasoning abilities found in the formal operational stage.

Ready to Take Play Seriously?

Looking for a team of great play designers? Get in touch with the team at adventure+ to get started today!

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