by Amy Wagenfeld, Affil. ASLA, PhD, OTR/L, SCEM, FAOTA
I have been thinking about swings lately, weighing the risk factors now associated with their installation in playspaces with the benefits they provide to motor and sensory development. I have also been wondering what others think about them. As a Professional Practice Network (PPN), we reached out to readers via ASLA, the Therapeutic Landscapes Network, the American Occupational Therapy Association’s social media sites, and to friends to gather some insights.
What about swings? They can provide therapeutic benefit for some children (and adults). The sensory systems most activated when swinging, gliding, or rocking include the vestibular, proprioceptive, and to a lesser extent the tactile. Here is how they contribute to overall sensory enrichment:
Vestibular: refers to the balance system. Located in the middle ear, the vestibular system responds to the position of the head in relation to gravity and movement and helps keep us from becoming dizzy. Our vestibular systems get a work out with the varied planes of movement a swing make take- front and back, side to side, circular, or up and down.
Proprioception/Kinesthesia: located in the muscles and joints, the proprioceptive system provides awareness of where our bodies are in space. When swinging, proprioception and kinesthesia help us understand the relationship of our bodies to the seat, sides, and back of the swing, and to know where to sit or lay on the swing without falling off.
Tactile: refers to the sense of touch. We make contact with and touch swings by potentially using all body parts, depending on whether sitting or lying down.
There is even more that happens when swinging. Activating a swing and keeping it moving in a rhythmic pattern and then stopping it requires and enhances strength, range of motion, balance, coordination, and motor planning, the ability to do a new movement task with little or no difficulty. Despite looking easy, swinging IS a complex activity!
Several people generously shared their memories and thoughts about swings. The most common thread from the stories was all about taking risks and feeling free to soar high enough to touch the sky. After reading these stories, perhaps they will spark some memories and encourage you to think about how they might fit into your projects.
When I was in elementary school, swings were the HOT item. At recess, it was a race to see who could get to them first. We liked to swing really high and then jump. Sometimes the landing was not so successful, and we got the wind knocked out of ourselves. Despite it feeling strange, we couldn’t wait until it was our turn again.
[Growing up], we found the typical swings really boring unless we were jumping out of them to see who could launch the furthest. We had two other types in Charlotte in the 1960s/70s. One was a “Maypole” kind of thing. These were extraordinarily fun and you had to wait for an open swing—sometimes too long and we would leave disappointed. I’ve heard stories of kids getting hurt, but we never experienced or witnessed any injuries. The other kind of swing was one in which you sat in a cage and pumped two bars with your hands. Boring! I can’t even find a picture of them on the Internet.
We mostly spent time on rope swings in backyards or in the “woods” near the neighborhood. These were never tire swings but were either a “t-seat” made of wood with the rope passing through a hole in the middle of the board. You’d startle the board with the rope between your legs, holding on to the rope with two hands. We wound ourselves around the big oak tree truck and spun out in an arc away from the tree and then returned to wrap around the truck the other way. You could do “tricks”—spinning fast or slowly depending on how you extended or tucked your legs.
Clayton Beaudoin, ASLA:
At Site Workshop, we have been designing playgrounds with “disc swings” for the last eight years or so and find them to be a huge step above the traditional swing. These disc swings are much more social; I once saw 8, 10-year-old boys on one, taking turns leaping from the edge, and they work for kids (or adults) of all ages and abilities.
Barbara Brem, ASLA:
The swing that I fondly remember was at my sixth grade campus: Cunningham Elementary School in Austin, Texas. It no longer exists there because it was the “dangerous,” giant steel structure kind with the pea gravel landing surface. They were great because you could get super-high and if you were brave enough, you could jump off while you were in the “upswing.” I think that swings are fun and are often omitted without fully remembering back to when you were a kid. And yes, I taught my son how to jump off swings during the “upswing.” And yes, I have seen youth (upper teens to young 20s) not only jump off swings but also do flips off the seat during the “upswing.” It’s a lot harder to do with the swings that are manufactured now…and no, I have never told youth not to do it when I see them doing it.
Brenna Castro Carlson, ASLA:
I was fortunate in that the neighborhood in Maryland where I grew up was intertwined with a forested trail system. The trails were dotted with tot lots composed of a few simple play elements, like a wooden platform with a slide, or a couple swings. We had a swing set in our backyard, too, but traveling through the forest and the feeling of swinging amidst the trees was a far better adventure.
Not so long ago, my sister and I were at Lake Michigan, feeling like kids. We promised ourselves that we would make more time for play in our day after that trip. Can’t help but smile as I remember that experience and how the “pumping” to go higher came back to us quickly—but we opted to NOT jump off and land like gymnasts like we did as kids!
We used to live in a rather broken down, but charming, Mission-style bungalow just north of Chicago. What sold us on the house was its expansive, covered front porch, complete with a suspended bench swing. Because the porch was covered, we spent many hours outside during rain storms, gently swaying back and forth. It was a magical, peaceful, and calming time, especially when my husband, our then-young son, and tiny puppy, and I were all snuggled up together on the swing.
And finally, seeing that for many of us it is wintertime and while we usually associate swinging with balmy weather, swinging amidst the snowy landscape can be pretty terrific. Please feel free to share your thoughts and memories of swings via the ASLA Children’s Outdoor Environments Professional Practice Network (PPN)’s LinkedIn group.
Amy Wagenfeld, Affil. ASLA, PhD, OTR/L, SCEM, FAOTA, is Co-Communications Director for the ASLA Children’s Outdoor Environments Professional Practice Network (PPN).