July 07, 2009

Scientists on the playground

When children participate in play-oriented activities on the playground, they are learning about their physical environment, shaping the neural structure of their brain, and preparing them for future problem-solving in an unstable outdoor environment. They do this through a type of scientific process.

Picture a child who sees a climbing apparatus on the playground. This child makes a sensory observation, which may be as simple as: “I see a climber.” The child then forms a hypothesis regarding his initial sensory observation of that climber: “I want to climb that climber.” He then designs an experiment to test that hypothesis. This experiment will involve him mentally and physically experimenting with his ability to climb the climber.

The experiment may involve the brain telling the right hand and the left foot to move together and the left hand and the right foot to move together. This experiment not only tests the original hypothesis, but begins to build neural and muscular pathways in the brain that teach the muscles and brain to work together and to use both sides of the body at the same time. As he tests his original hypothesis of “I want to climb” through the climbing experiment, he will either succeed or fail to climb the climber. This experiment will help him form a conclusion regarding his original hypothesis and thereby strengthen his cognitive neural process in relationship to his external environment.

Dr. Medina writes that the brain is “designed to solve problems, related to survival, in an unstable outdoor environment, and to do so in nearly constant motion.” (4-5). The early childhood brain solves these problems through play-orientated research projects and then learns though the conclusions of the work. Whether that child succeeds or fails in climbing the climber is not relevant; he still learns valuable information about his environment that will help him survive.

His next experiments may very well involve him altering his right or left side dominance or may involve something as simple as the way he grips the climber rungs. The experiments will ultimately help him to master his climbing skills on not only this climber, but on future varied climbers. This hypothesis-testing is the way children gather information and draw conclusions about their external environment.

The optimal learning laboratory is designed to challenge the brain and prepare it for the uncertainty of the external environment it resides in. Properly designed playgrounds provide children with varied forms of external cognitive and physical stimulation that may not be available any place else in today’s modern urban settings. But if playgrounds are play-orientated learning laboratories then truly children are scientist on the playground.

Want to learn more? J.C. Boushh will be presenting a webinar on "Designing Early Childhood Play Environments" July 14!
Register today!


Marano, Hara E., “A Nation of Wimps,” Psychology Today, November/December 2004

Medina, John (2008). Brain Rules. Seattle: Pear Press

Readdick, Christine A., Park, Jennifer J.(1998) Achieving Great Heights: The Climbing Child. Young Children v53 n6 p14-19.

J.C. Boushh is a recognized expert in the field of play, recess, playground, and the outdoor classroom as it applies to brain development and brain-compatible design. He has lectured worldwide as well as authored numerous articles on play and the outdoor environment.

jc boushh, research, studies