The social and emotional power of parks

When you’re the parent of young children, the park can become the center of your universe. It’s your outing for the day, your escape from the inevitable mess of your home, where you’re still figuring out how to keep all the new kid-induced laundry clean and toys out from underfoot. It’s a chance for social interaction with other parents and a pocket of time to just sit and breathe in the fresh air, or maybe push your son on the swing or climb on the monkey bars with your daughter.

And those are just the benefits for the adults.

Parks offer numerous benefits to children, the people for whom they are essentially created.

“The Developmental Benefits of Playgrounds,” a 2004 book based on 35 years of research, focuses on the importance of playgrounds for kids’ development and cites numerous benefits of unstructured outdoor play. First are the obvious physical benefits: improved strength, flexibility and coordination. But play helps with social and academic development too. According to the research, play helps children learn to make decisions and work within a community of others, try out ideas and explore their environment. Pretend play, which happens in full force on playgrounds, is also key to development, improving kids’ critical thinking not just in the moment but also in their future. The emotional benefits include happier kids who are less likely to be hostile or depressed.

In Orange County, parks are everywhere, and they range from old-fashioned swings and a patch of grass to ornate, new-fangled play structures designed to look like pirate ships or lighthouses.

When my kids were little, we lived in Madison, Wis., and the three of us — my son, my daughter and I — spent so many hours at a little park across the street and up the hill that it began to feel like a third home. When it was too cold or rainy to walk to that park, we suffered. Sure, there was a lot of fun to be had at home, but that daily escape to swing, or slide and climb and create stories and games enlivened all three of us.

I still can recall the view from the spot where I pushed my daughter on the swing for what felt like hours, down the sloping green hill to a gully that sometimes was filled with water and sometimes dry. The larger hill across the way was where we sledded in winter. I could see people playing Frisbee golf on the adjoining land and an old school house near the road that was first a coffee shop called Toad Hill (my favorite incarnation of the space), and later a Montessori preschool (too late for my own kids to attend).

I would inevitably tire of pushing my daughter before she wanted to stop, and she taught herself to swing alone before she was 3, before even her older brother learned, just because she loved it so much. (Developmental benefit No. 1!)

We visited other parks in the city as well — one built like a castle, another with an adjoining skate park and one further out of town that featured a hill surrounded by a moat, a play train structure and ducks to feed. Those spots were fun too, but my allegiance remained to the park down the street, mainly because of its easy proximity and sweeping view.

I didn’t take my kids to these parks because it was helping them with emotional, social and academic development, though surely it was. I took them because I worked part-time from home and needed to get out of the house, entertain them and possibly myself at the same time. I needed to see other parents and separate myself from the stresses of the house. We all three needed replenishment, and we found it most of the time at our favorite parks.

After moving to California, we spent time at the parks here, but we also had the beach — an even greater lure — and as the kids got older, the idea of a park outing lost its luster. Sometimes I miss those days of endless swing pushing and hours of time spent doing nothing, really, but playing, but I know there is a new wave of parents enjoying these green spaces even though we’ve moved on, and I hope there always will be nearby parks where kids can play and parents can unwind.


Heather Skyler is a columnist for Saturday’s Life/Family section in the Orange County Register and editor of OC Family magazine. She enjoys exploring the whole glorious and terrifying scope of parenthood, sharing its most interesting, funny, rewarding and challenging aspects from her experience as a mother of two. She is also a published novelist (“The Perfect Age”). When Skyler is not writing, she enjoys poolside reading, gin and tonics, and ping pong. Contact Skyler at or through Twitter: @HeatherSkyler

Contact the writer: Twitter: @heatherskyler

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