Where Have All the Swing Sets Gone?

As I visit preschools and observe children playing outside I am continually reminded that the swing set that was once a staple on every playground is now absent. Swing sets seem to be disappearing like dinosaurs of an era long gone—they are becoming extinct!

I’ve heard the reasons. Children can pinch their fingers while grasping the chain; other children can run in front of a child swinging and get hurt; swings present a safety hazard on the playground. Strict federal guidelines, state licensing and the insurance costs make it impossible to keep swings where they once were. The U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission Handbook for Public Playground Safety requires that swings be set apart from any other structure, with a clearance both in front and back equal to twice the height of the swings, and six feet of clearance on either side. That’s sometimes most of the space in a typical preschool playground! And the standards also call for costly new playground surfacing beneath swings to cushion falls. There are certainly unsafe swing sets out there but to totally eliminate them has created some unexpected developmental delays for many children. Swing sets are being torn down but nothing is being erected in their place that offers the same contributions to a child’s physical, cognitive and social development.

When a child is swinging, both the vestibular system and proprioceptive system are being activated. The vestibular system is comprised of several structures in the inner ear. When the head tilts in any direction fluid moves small hairs within the structures and their movement lets us know our position in relation to the earth’s gravity. This is how we know when we are in motion. The proprioceptive system gathers information from the muscles and joints to tell us our body position and posture. Swinging naturally helps children to develop balance and coordination. The visual connection between vestibular and proprioceptive systems is also developed through swinging, as swingers use visual cues to adjust their balance and movement. The influence of these systems plays a major role in the developmental milestones of sensory processing and gross motor skills for children. And let’s not forget the relationship between swinging and social development. Whoever thinks that swings don’t promote cooperation never heard best friends say, “I’ll push you, if you push me.”

Do the benefits of swings outweigh the risks?