young girl holding onto monkey bars

Kids Learn Perseverance at the Playground

  • Perseverance Prompts:
    Remember when you had a hard time learning to ride your bike? You kept falling off. But you picked yourself up and tried again, and today, it’s easy for you. The monkey bars are the same thing!

    Provide a marker for success:
    Last week you were only able to hang for a few seconds. Today, you hung on for a minute, and you almost reached the second bar! I can see you improving!

    Praise perseverance directly:
    It’s not how fast you learn to do the monkey bars, it’s that you keep on trying. That’s what will help you succeed. Who do you admire most in the world? I bet that person had to keep on trying before they succeeded!

Many municipalities are re-opening playgrounds, with social distancing and personal protective gear requirements. Parents are wondering – is it worth it to put on a mask, just to play on some playground equipment? I say – YES! As a clinical psychologist and toy hacker, when I see kids having fun, I think “How can we hack this into an educational experience?”

Sure, playgrounds are fun! Sure, it’s healthy to run around in the sun, get some exercise and some screen-free play, but that’s not the biggest benefit kids can have from playgrounds. On the playground, kids learn how to try and keep on trying.

Think about obstacles like monkey bars, rock-climbing walls, shaky bridges, and fireman poles. All these obstacles have a learning curve – no one was born able to traverse monkey bars. There’s the gross motor skill, the grip strength, and the core strength involved in getting from bar to bar, and there’s the social competence of perseverance – trying again, until you succeed.

Psychologist Angela Duckworth studies the social competencies kids need to succeed in school, and she found that “grit, aka perseverance, is what separates the successful students from those who don’t live up to their potential. In some cases, grit is even more influential than IQ. In other words, it’s not how smart you are, it’s how hard you are willing to try.

Grit includes two components: self-control and effort. A child needs willpower to keep on trying, despite frustration. The child also needs to expend the effort to keep learning. Monkey bars provide the perfect learning curve, because as the child develops skill and muscle strength, the obstacle becomes more and more manageable. Soon, the child can go from one bar to the second. When that becomes easier, we might try for a third. Eventually, the entire set of monkey bars have been conquered.

Nothing fosters grit as well as play structures like monkey bars, climbing walls, or the fireman’s pole. For many children, the first time they realize that the playing field isn’t even and can’t be artificially made even, is literally when they are on the playing field! Before competitive sports, there’s the playground. Some children can climb up ladders, race across a monkey bar, or slide down a pole easily. Other children have to work on it. Maybe they’re overcoming fear. Maybe it’s their grip strength or core stability that needs work.

At the playground, children are confronted with challenges that requires perseverance, frustration tolerance, and a significant learning curve. Perseverance may be something we have to help kids learn. (See the sidebar for things parents can say to help them develop grit.) The passion is innate as it is there simply because kids want to join their friends. It’s fun. On the playground, it’s the equipment that provides the tools for encouragement.

Playgrounds are also fantastic places to work on overcoming fear. It’s normal to be feel afraid to walk across the shaky bridge or look down from a fireman pole and see the steep drop. We have to teach our children to feel the fear but do it anyway. Scaffolding activities, such as holding a child’s legs as he uses his arms to slide down the pole, stepstools that help a child reach the monkey bar, or guide-ropes on climbing walls are all tools designed to help make a challenge a little more manageable. Parents sometimes worry that providing a child with “too much” support will slow their learning, making them dependent on their parents.

Generally, it’s just the opposite. Having an appropriate level of support is what allows children to gently stretch out of their comfort zones. If a naturally cautious child is confronted by too big an obstacle, she might just give up entirely. That will be far more disabling than scaffolding her will be. After all, once the child learns the obstacle with the supports, they’re generally the first one to ask their parents to “let go.” Once that happens, we can use that experience as a “bridge to competence” (see sidebar) for the next challenge and the next opportunity to move out of our comfort zones!

Some people might look at a playground and see a fun day with kids. Others will see screen free play, the opportunity to strengthen fine-and gross-motor skills, and the opportunity to move. I see the playground as a social and emotional training ground. I see the opportunity for kids to learn how to be uncomfortable in service of their goal, how to keep persevering despite frustration, and how to celebrate even incremental progress. I see the opportunity to stretch cautious children outside of their comfort zones, the opportunity to directly learn how to “try, try again” and the opportunity to talk to kids about their self-control muscles.

 

  • Perseverance Prompts:
    Remember when you had a hard time learning to ride your bike? You kept falling off. But you picked yourself up and tried again, and today, it’s easy for you. The monkey bars are the same thing!

    Provide a marker for success:
    Last week you were only able to hang for a few seconds. Today, you hung on for a minute, and you almost reached the second bar! I can see you improving!

    Praise perseverance directly:
    It’s not how fast you learn to do the monkey bars, it’s that you keep on trying. That’s what will help you succeed. Who do you admire most in the world? I bet that person had to keep on trying before they succeeded!

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