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updated: 9/5/2012 6:31 AM

Fall playtime sneaks in life lessons

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By Sherry Manschot

Fall is my absolute favorite season. It combines warm sunny days with cool breezes that make being active outside so pleasant. A perfect fall day is being outside with my family and doing just about anything that gets us moving and laughing together.

As a serial multi-tasker, I am a big fan of learning while you play. When my children were young, I always found ways to sneak life lessons into our playtime. After all, the playground can be a great classroom for children of all ages.

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When children look at a playground they see swings, slides, room to run, and other kids with whom they can play. They see fun and excitement.

A parent might see an opportunity for independent play and imagination to develop. Children can learn to look at their options, make choices and then test those choices. They can choose to feel the rush of the wind and speed coming down the slide. Or they may choose the sandbox to create a masterpiece from a blank canvas of cool sand.

They can also choose to play independently or engage peers. A world of learning can take place with this one decision. When children engage in play with peers, either with special needs or typical peers, the lessons tend to be more social and emotional. It can impact their self-esteem, teach good communication skills or reinforce the concepts of sympathy and empathy.

Sometimes children with special needs are reluctant to choose more physical activities. We all know that it is important to keep active at any age, but the obesity rate for children has increased to an all-time high. For children with special needs, this is of particular concern.

A playground is the absolute best way to sneak in a healthy calorie-burning workout without them knowing it. If you walk or ride a bike to the playground you get a head start on the workout. Kids run, jump, swing and just generally enjoy moving when playing outside. So while they are doing what comes naturally they are burning calories. In addition, they are working on coordination and balance, improving both gross and fine motor skills, and generally building muscle strength. Most importantly, they are building a foundation for an active lifestyle.

If your child has a physical limitation, a traditional playground can cause some distress. While there is no formal list of accessible playgrounds, some are using special surfaces designed specifically for wheelchair access and some are adapting traditional equipment. Playgrounds are constantly being refreshed and updated. Contact your local parks and recreation departments to find out which are accessible for your particular needs.

More and more organizations, including park districts, are being responsive to the need for accessibility. As of right now there is an initiative in DuPage County for a sensory garden/playground to create an environment where all children can feel comfortable. The plan calls for it to be completely accessible. You can learn more at wheatonparkdistrict.com/sgpi.

It seems though, that unplugging from all the technological gadgets and choosing to head outside may not always be the first thing on our minds. While technology provides some marvelous connections for the development of our children, let's not forget that free play is also essential to the overall development of children. Studies have shown the connection between recreational play and one's overall well-being.

So with school in full swing, time may be at a premium for both parents and children. Remember, learning takes place both in and out of the classroom. So unplug from the computer, shut off the cellphone, and take advantage of the beauty of fall by getting outside with your kids and sneak in some extra learning.

Join the conversation at our blog at wdsra.com. Parents are encouraged to speak directly to other parents, share thoughts, offer personal stories, and educate each other on topics that affect them in their everyday life.

• Sherry Manschot is the marketing/public relations manager at Western DuPage Special Recreation Association. She leads a parent network of special needs families at WDSRA. Manschot can be contacted at sherrym@wdsra.com. More information about WDSRA can be found at wdsra.com.

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