“How do you like to go up in a swing… up in the air so blue?” (Robert Lewis Stevenson)
I couldn’t even imagine a park without swings as a child. They were my absolute favorite and the first place I’d run when we got to the playground. I can remember back when, as a toddler, I would be so excited to get into those wood frame “baby swings". Mom or Dad would push from the front and I can still see their smiling faces moving away and then coming closer.
But now, swings are methodically disappearing from parks, playgrounds, school yards, and child care centers. The reasons are nonsensical. Many maintain that swings have no value to children’s development and are hazardous. I would imagine Robert Lewis Stevenson is rolling over.
My good friend is a physical therapist and for years, she has been a swings advocate. I remember when our children were in third grade, the school was planning a new playground. She attended every planning meeting to talk about the value of swings and we ultimately got them.
My son is an occupational therapist and his wife, a physical therapist. I ran this topic by them last weekend and both were adamant about the benefits of swinging for children.
So, what are these benefits? Well, for those nay-sayers and skeptics, I guess it would be important to lay it all out.
Research demonstrates that swings are beneficial for physical, social, and cognitive development. They promote spacial awareness, perceptual and movement skills, good health, mental representation, social interaction, and sensory integration… which includes vestibular (balance) development.
When children are around 4, they learn to pump the swing to gain height and momentum. This works the abdominal muscles, involves control over the legs and trunk, and requires timing. My daughter-in-law says she prefers platform over strap swings, because they provide a more solid base for better posture when swinging. “But,” she was quick to add, “the strap swings also have benefits.” She educated me about the Golgi tendon organs. These are receptors located in the joints, that respond to pull on muscles and relay information about our body position- otherwise known as proprioceptive awareness. Strap swings, that hug the sides of the legs and hips, are valuable for this. The pressure can awaken those receptors and transmit the information more quickly.
Ever wonder why we almost automatically rock a crying baby in our arms? It’s because it works! Swinging is a natural de-stressing, calming experience. It can also raise endorphin levels and even-out or change mood. I don’t think I’ve ever seen a child get off a swing cranky, unless it was because it was time to go home! I remember when, as a preschooler, my middle son (the one I always politely refer to as “busy”), seemed to be unable to settle down, find something to do, or leave his little brother alone. I’d send him out to the backyard to swing. After about 5 minutes, he’d come back in and be able to engage in an activity without many of the former issues. It was like he was a different kid!
Swinging can stimulate the sense of motion in the inner ear or vestibular system. We are not always in an upright position and swinging can help us understand the world and our space from different perspectives.
Research says this system is the one most affected by swinging. It relates us to gravity and is closely integrated with the entire physiology of the body. The vestibular system enables our ability to walk, adjust to different levels, and maintain our balance. It affects all of our other sensory inputs. For example, when our head or body tilts in one direction, a reflex is triggered so the eyes move in the opposite direction. This stabilizes our vision by keeping the image centered.
Remember when we used to twist the swing chains and then let them go, so they untwisted crazy-fast? This was not only fun, but also had some really good benefits. According to my son, who works with children with Autism, the spinning stimulates different parts of the child’s brain at the same time, which supports the development of interconnected pathways.
So, what's NOT to like about swings? Oh… the safety issue? The safety of swings has been greatly improved by using flexible, lightweight seats and low impact surfacing materials. When I was a child, we had wooden plank seats and I suppose most of us, at least once, got clipped by one- despite being warned not to run in front of the swings. But, I remember being more careful the next time, after that natural consequence of being careless. My own sons were also fortunate enough to enjoy those traditional swings- you know... the ones you could stand on- until they fell prey to overprotective paranoia.
I fully realize that those swings are probably not coming back to a playground any time soon, but any swings will do. No child should be deprived of the sheer joy of swinging- not to mention all the rest that comes with it.
“Oh, I do think it the pleasantest thing ever a child can do!” (RLS)