The Cost of COVID on Kids

As we arrive at a full year of the pandemic, we must begin to consider the impact this has had on children and what will be required to mitigate the damage. Sure, there is general acceptance that kids have to get back to school, not only for education but also for social development. Social development is not just what happens in school, but it starts at birth. If we are to be successful in this effort, we must understand the dynamics at a much deeper level than I have seen in the discourse so far. Let’s look at a case in point, executive function.

Developmental psychology and biology have identified stages in a child’s life they call critical periods. These are stages when the nervous system is especially sensitive to environmental stimuli. Examples include vision or language development. Deprivations during these periods mean that the child may never acquire full functionality.

While many such periods have been identified, research shows some are weak, and others are strong depending on how serious the deficiency is to survival. For example, binocular vision is a critical function which develops primarily in the first year and continues to be refined for two more. This is one reason that there is concern about too much screen time in the early years. Indeed a Japanise study cited the overuse of smartphones as a primary cause of declining good vision.

When it comes to a skill that parents greatly cherish, empathy ranks among the top. Studies show that kids tend to be altruistic by nature. For children to build on, rather than lose, innate generosity, they need to learn to be truly empathic from role models. While parents say they want empathic children, they often send the message that they value achievement more.

Another critical issue is the many situations that impact the child’s development of a strong attachment and executive function maturation. Specialists in this area raise the alarm that COVID is exacerbating Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs). I have written about ACEs in a previous blog, Play and Nurture Space. It is now well established that ACEs are a leading cause of Americans’ declining health.

If I haven’t lost you in all of these studies, let’s get to the meat of the issues. The research I have been doing over the past decade shows that kids have innate drives that cause them to seek ways to maximize their development. Kids are not born thrill-seekers. They are born skill seekers, and jumping off the roof provides both. That means when given the right environment and triggers, kids will do what comes naturally, and this is the primary way they develop. If parents had to do all of the teaching, we really would be in trouble. Let’s look at one of the primary way kids develop executive function through the lens of COVID-19.

If you accept the notion that kids have a natural drive to learn, what behaviors can we observe that develop empathy? One very popular play behavior that is actively suppressed in most educational settings is Rough and Tumble play. For really wonderful examples of a preschool that embraces this sort of play, search Teacher Tom’s Blog. For the science behind this, get The Playful Brain: Venturing to the Limits of Neuroscience by Sergio and Vivien Pellis.  If you want a “How to,” look no further than Mike Huber’s Embracing Rough-and Tumble Play.

Ok, Ok! I promised I’d get to the meat of the issue. Rough and tumble play helps kids learn empathy because if they don’t care about other children’s feelings, kids won’t play with them. COVID-19 is depriving kids of social interaction both at home and typically at school. That means few if any, opportunities for close personal contact and the developmental benefits of getting down and dirty during this critical formative period. It looks like these year-long restrictions may continue for another year with a slow return to normal.

The conclusion is that we may have nearly a generation of little egotists that will struggle with fitting into community life. Many will be driven by fear of failure and rejection. We have seen what happens to society when these traits are left without guardrails. Parents, educators, and society must come up with ways to implement help for these kids so they learn to play fair. We can’t pretend that we can go back to the way things have always been done.

The Play Everywhere Revolution

The KABOOM Play Everywhere PlayBook – https://kaboom.org/playbook/fundamentals

I could be accused of using hyperbole by naming the play everywhere movement a revolution, but you read on, and I think you will come to agree that this is no exaggeration.

My interest in this idea started when KABOOM launched its Play Everywhere campaign. Here is their description of the program.

KABOOM! created the Play Everywhere concept to inspire kids to play every day and to incorporate it into their normal routines. Play Everywhere innovations and installations bring play to unexpected, but everyday spaces, making play easy and available for kids and families.

While a playground can provide a joyful oasis for play, play must be available in other places to include play opportunities where kids, and their caregivers, are already spending their limited time. Play Everywhere encourages people to think about spaces that could become PLAYces — a laundromat, grocery store, sidewalk, bus stop — any unexciting situation can turn into a stimulating, creative outlet for play.

I liked the idea a lot because I have been following the placemaking movement, the trend of considering the needs of children in urban planning, and the play streets campaign. My take on their decision to go into this area was twofold. It is a logical extension of their commitment to making play accessible to the underserved. I also suspected, but have not verified, that they came to realize that a focus exclusively on parks only addressed a part of the problem. However, after watching the painfully slow progress by those attempting to change the urban environment to be more kid friendly, I felt that this effort would be frustrating for the KABOOM team as they are so accustomed to doing projects a lot of impact and scale, i.e., 17,000 and counting.

I have written many times in this blog about my own frustration with the limited scope of play provided by public playgrounds. Coming from the early childhood education community in which every aspect of play is supported, the typical park playground seems limited, and to be only about active play. In my research, I have identified 20 distinct play patterns. A typical playground only supports four of these.

In 2018 I started thinking about the opportunity to create better play systems for the backyard. In my post, The Great Backyard Play Disaster, I highlighted some of this industry’s deficiencies. I pointed to an example of a better approach, pioneered by my friend Mike Lanza and detailed in his book Playborhood. Mike clearly understans the need for diverse play opportunities. His approach to the high cost of the existing products was to share his home with his neighbors, turning his yard into a community asset. This approach is, in essence, the same as what I understand of the KABOOM concept.

While I absolutely love the idea of shared community play, I fully understood that this would not become a common solution to addressing the play deficit that modern urban life imposes on children like other urban planning ideas. But what approach could solve the problem?

During this same period, we developed the Gymboree Play and Music System. The challenge of that design was that it had to be modular and be quickly reconfigured without tools. I consider this project to be the apex of my career to date. Still, I remain disappointed that we could not introduce even more loose parts and expand the teacher training and curriculum to allow for more reconfiguration during classes. However, the notion of a system that can be quickly reconfigured has given me insights into how a residential system might address the play everywhere concept. While I am excited by the idea of a modular loose part system like our Gymbo concept, I know I will not be content unless we can expand such a system to address more of the play patterns that have been identified.

As a product for homes and early childhood programs, I think the application of the loose part system envisioned here offers the opportunity to really explore such possibilities in depth. For example, what can we do with fabric? How can the system support pretend play? Can kids make play components that are compatible with the system? What about water play? Or the really big one, how about rough and tumble play?

I’m beginning to see a future that allows for all sorts of play to take place wherever there are kids. This is the power of KABOOM’s concept of play everywhere. The concept of Play Everywhere is the seed for a transformative revolution, and boy, is it exciting!

Lego as a LudenSystem

I’m sure you wonder what the heck is a “LudenSystem?” This term, which I hope will become a meme, is an invention to create a way of playing that becomes something like an ecosystem.

“An ecosystem is a community of living organisms in conjunction with the nonliving components of their environment, interacting as a system.” Wikipedia

The aspect of a system that is particularly relevant in this new term is that ecosystems tend to complexify over time and fill all available niches. I am combining the term system with Luden as it is used in the seminal work Homo Ludens by Johan Huizinga, in which he makes the case that play is the foundation of culture.

To make a case for this new term’s value, we can look at Lego as exemplary. Lego’s history goes back to 1895, but the portion that is relevant to this discussion begins in 1949 when the company began making “Automatic Building Bricks.” The simple bricks, now called Legos, begin to become a system in 1955 with the addition of windows and doors. The coupling system was patented in 1958. In 1966 Lego added a train with an electric motor.

In 1968 Lego expanded the Lego brand into a theme park in Denmark. 1969 sees the introduction of Duplo, which expands the range to younger children. In the early ’70s, theme sets are launch, and dolls, furniture, figurines, and boats are added to the range. By the late ’70s, there are complex lego sets, including Space and Castle themes replete with minifigures with moveable limbs.

In the ’80s, 70% of the Western European children owned Legos. Themes continue to expand. Duplo Baby further extends the age range to younger children, and the Technic series grows to include robots and programming to appeal to older children. In 1986 the Lego Foundation was established.

In the ’90s, Lego goes through a rapid repositioning by dropping may sets and introducing new themes. New theme parks are opened.  Lego launches computer games, Mindstorms with fully programable elements, and Lego Studio, a stop motion video product.

By 2000 Legos themes have become tied with commercial enterprises such as Disney and Lord of the Rings. Two Lego movies and Mixels cartoons are created.

These days even the Maker community plays with Legos, and you can have custom elements created for you or print your own.

3D Printed Personalized Lego

Whew! To think it all started with little plastic bricks and now encompasses nearly every aspect of contemporary culture and education. But this is the power of a LudenSystem.

Now, why can’t a new play system use Lego as its model and not require 75 years to fill all of the available niches? Is there a place for a LudenSystem that has large scale components that can support active physical play? Give me a minute. I think I have an idea.

Learning with Sticks or Shapes?

Followers of this blog know that I have an interest, which borders on obsession, with play patterns, and their triggers. As a designer of play systems, my fascination brings me insights about maximizing the engagement and the learning potential of the systems I create.

Over the past decade, I have been particularly interested in play-based learning facilitated with loose parts. This area of investigation is compelling because, while the subject has a rich history ranging from Montessori to sand tray psychotherapy, from mud kitchens to hollow blocks, there is very little systematic research on the specific triggers for this sort of learning. My current project is a case in point.

Construction toys are extremely popular and beneficial. I got to wondering if these could be scaled up so that kids could build their environments. There are two main types of construction toys in use these days. The more traditional toys are made with struts and hubs such as Straw Builders. Over the past decade, a new system, Magformers, has gained a lot of popularity. These are geometric shapes that link together with magnets.

As a designer, I want to develop useful skills in the widest range of children as possible. As I have observed children using these toys, it has become clear that Magformers are much more accessible to young children. I have watched infants play with Magformers while the strut and hub systems are hazardous for little guys. On the other hand, strut and hub systems can extend all the way to building geodesic domes.

Since there are many large-scale strut and hub construction systems available and none for younger children, the opportunity for a large shape-based construction system is a clear opportunity for development. It turns out this is not easy.

It turns out that those simple-looking Magformers hide some very sophisticated engineering. I should have been prepared for this since the H-Frame system we developed for Gymboree Play and Music required inventing a method of assembly that was patentable. The way Magformers work is that the embedded magnets are not fixed and are free to rotate so as they orient to face the adjacent shape. I know this is hard to visualize, but it becomes immediately clear when you play with them.

As is the case with most development in early childhood, what is learned is not at the conscious level but becomes embedded in the brain’s neurological structures. In this case, when the child goes from playing with Magformers to playing with magnets, they begin to have hands-on knowledge of polarity. When they encounter the classic experiments of magnets creating patterns of metal filings that expose the invisible fields, it opens their minds to scientific inquiry at a profound level. They now know that there are forces that only become visible when look deeper.

One of the things I love about working in the field of early childhood is that most of this this learning flies under the radar. For example, every adult will immediately see that Magformers are OK for infants, but strut and hub toys are not. We get it because we were once infants too, and that experience is deeply embedded, even though rarely consciously considered.

Homage to Tom Lindhardt – Part Two

In a recent blog I posted a reprint an article in which Tom Lindhardt, founder of Kompan, discussed his art and his career. I promised then that I would share my person recollections of Tom. Having overcome a two-week struggle to restore my workstation and data, I’m now ready to proceed.

Having had some time to consider this task, I’d like to make this simple by identifying the two impressions Tom left me with. The characteristic feelings I came to sense with Tom were pride and a certain melancholy.  I think the best way to convey those is with a few examples.

Over the years of our acquaintance, I began to recognize that Tom romanticized America much as I did Denmark. He loved the brashness and authenticity of Americans. I remember getting off a puddle jumper in the tiny airport in Odense wearing a Stetson hat, jeans, a big belt buckle, boots and a shearling jacket. I thought Tom would lose it. I was all I could do not to crack up.

Once when hanging out at his cabin in the woods, he suggested we do some forest management. Together with his son, we inspected the wood lot to identify trees that needed to be thinned. He would stand behind me and point to where he thought the tree should land. He would just shake his head when I dropped them in the exact location. Well, of course we Americans know all about being woodsmen!

After Kompan acquired BigToys, Tom wanted to see the Cascade Mountains. It was an amazing couple of days filled with the beauty of the area, great food, hikes. It was all that Tom had expected of the America and a great memory for both of us.

Tom’s sense of pride was very distinctive as it was free of ego. He could be both proud of his personal success while also being proud of his team. For him these were inseparable. Touring the factory, he would chat with everyone by name and ask questions that demonstrated that he knew them well. When Kompan received a prestigious award, of which there were many, Tom would accept these honors personally, but also for Kompan, which was also him, as well as the whole team that made Kompan function. His pride was well earned and simultaneously shared.

I also came to know his melancholy that was always a whisper in the background. My impression was that he could envision where things were not perfect. When Kompan acquired Speelhout, the playground producer in the Netherlands, we worked closely with the team there to create the 10 Plus range of active play apparatus for teens. In many ways this was a disruptive product that set the stage for the whole category of deck-less play systems that have since become commonplace.

While Tom was excited by the 10 Plus project, his disappointment was also palatable. He bemoaned design by committee, necessitated by the collaboration with Speelhout, made the system overly complex and too expensive. He also recognized that any Kompan product had to come from the whole team, and that he had to accept that he could not extend his leadership so that projects became under top-down control. I believe that this experience was a big motivator in his creation of a separate design team that was free of all of Kompan’s history. This decision resulted in the revolutionary Galaxy metal system that went on to be a huge success and set a very high bar for play functionality.

The last post about Tom got a number of responses from others who knew Tom. I hope this personal reflection will inspire others to share their recollections.

The Art of Play

Photo Playkx

Recently I posted a blog about play designers. When asked what I do, rather than say an artist which is what I consider myself, I often reply that I am a designer of play systems. By eschewing the business of art I am not alone. My inspiration in this comes primarily from Marcel Duchamp and the Dadaist who sought to promote art as a state of mind rather than a product. So, how can I claim to be an artist without being actively involved with the art world? I look at the elements of the system as only a scaffold and the artistic expression actually the resulting play of children.

I think of Penny Wilson as a visual artist who’s graphics are top notch, however, Penny prefers to be known as a playworker. In her work she uses her deep knowledge of child development to create stages with props arranged in such as way as the produce spontaneous play. What I find most intriguing is her use of fabric and the resulting “play happenings” are so much like dancing in the air. Here is how she explains the process that she uses at her adventure play program, Playkx, in England.

Playkx was designed as a play offer in the Kings Cross development area that was not a built play environment. Instead of timber or steel structures there is a team of experienced and skilled Playworkers and a vast collection of loose parts, playthings to be used in any way that children need. There are dressing up clothes, masks, nets, ropes fabrics, blocks, animal creatures, artificial plants and flowers, all of which can be used for dressing up, the construction of a den, sociodramatic playing of the creation of wild and wonderful fantasy worlds. Nothing is fixed. Everything is flexible.

Like most programs for children these days Playkx needs to fundraise. Penny has come up with an ingenious Kickstarter campaign  “Play Things” . The essence of the fundraiser are “Kits” comprised of many of the elements that are used in her program. The kits can be used to transform any static space into play a magical play space

What has really captured my attention is the use of the kit to transform traditional playgrounds. In the Gymboree Play and Music system we use loose parts as an integral part of the play environment. Indeed, most of the play apparatus can be reconfigured spontaneously. The result is that every visit to a Gymbo class is a new and exciting learning opportunity. This vitality is possible because each child is accompanied by a caregiver.  Because park departments can’t be certain of this supervision in public parks, loose part play has never been part of such environments and the result is greatly diminished play complexity and much shorter play episodes.

Enter now the Play Things Kits! Take a look at https://www.instagram.com/p/CIDHv6wHUUM/

As you can see from the video you saw at the link, the paraphernalia in the kit transforms the play structure into a fairy land of adventure. Since these play props are removed when the children leave, there is no reasonable objection to their use.

This is truly a disruptive idea that I hope catches on. I tried to get a similar process started with a range of concrete tables called Finger Parks that kids could use as a venue for match-box toys. It didn’t catch on because the park planners just didn’t get the concept. Penny’s approach will work as it expands a now common practice of bringing sand toys to the park. Well, that was common, but with the increasing loss of sand on playgrounds, it looks like the idea of play kits can make this a popular choice.

The Kickstarter Playkx campaign is specifically limited to their current needs. I hope and expect to see this idea gain traction as the threat of COVID-19 diminishes and the use of parks gets back to normal. Indeed, I fully anticipate outdoor play to become far more popular after the prolonged sheltering in place that kids have had to endure.

For more about Penny go to www.theinternationale.com/pennywilson, Medium.com/@playkx, Instagram.com/pennywilsonspictures or www.asgoodasmeat.com, a veggie sketchbook

Homage to Tom Lindhardt and Kompan

The Jigsaw Became My Destiny

This article can be found here: https://fyens.dk/artikel/stiksaven-blev-min-sk%C3%A6bne

38 years. The workshop in Sødinge, where Kompan had three employees. From the memoir

The designer and artist Tom Lindhardt is the father of five and of many play equipment – but also many paintings. Now he shows 200 of them in his own warehouse at the Port of Odense

Sep 15, 2006 at 07:45

By Marianne Koch

– I have been painting since I was little and continued when I grew up. But it was only when an architect gave me a jigsaw in my hand and asked me to make a wall decoration of 10 meters that I found my form – and my destiny, says multi-artist Tom Lindhardt, 71.

Still, there is no jigsaw for many miles around, as I cycle right into his giant hall at the head of the Finnish Quay at Odense Harbor. Surrounded by water to three sides.

Here sits Tom Lindhardt with his wife and faithful helper Anne-Marie Bagger. In the middle of his own warehouse, comfortably located in some very teddy bear and very untrendy leather furniture, profits from a now sold country house.

On the walls around hang own paintings. In 200s and everywhere.

Large, medium and small.

– And in fact, it is possible not just to cycle in here. You can also drive in here by car. Yes, maybe you could call it a drive-in exhibition, it sounds thoughtful and increasingly enthusiastic from the man, whose life has taken on color and shape and eventually a lot of money, because he has always followed his intuition and worked on the motto that it one does, one must do of desire.

What also the many colorful memory, landscape, debate and writing pictures on the walls are talking about.

The play equipment company Kompan, which Tom Lindhardt created from scratch with boards, jigsaws and spray paint and whose first world hit was the rocking swing Spilophønen, was sold to Lego in 1995. And two years ago, the founder also left the board in his own life’s work.

Now life had to be concentrated on a completely different work of life – namely to stay alive and well and happy.

With the memory intact.

– I got a blood clot in my brain and lost both sight and memory. Fortunately, the sight came back quickly, but it struggled with memory, says Tom Lindhardt.

Therefore, he decided to write his memoirs. And since he is better at painting than at writing, it became the book “66 years in the service of form” – a very different memoir.

Here is a short text about something memorable in each of Tom Lienhardt’s first 66 years. Next to an image illustrating the text.

– First, I wrote the minimal text for each year. Later I painted it. And you can also see all 66 paintings here in the warehouse, says Tom Lindhardt and points to the 66 paintings from the memoir.

25 years: “In the United States, I learned that anything is possible”. from the memoir

Art a necessity

– Yes, but the large paintings on the other walls are actually excerpts from the small ones. Tom paints all the time and every day. I do not have numbers on how many paintings we have. The ones we have now exhibited are only a fraction, says Anne-Marie Bagger, who has composed the exhibition.

For Tom Lindhardt, painting is a way of living well. He does not paint to sell. He does not have to.

– When I was young and poor, I dreamed of one day being able to buy all the paint and all the canvases I wanted. I could not then, but I can now. And I do, because I can not do without painting.

– I lock myself in my studio every day. That is why I also have a studio in all the places we live – here in Odense, on Avernakø or on Mallorca. Painting is a happy state to be in. You are deeply concentrated and forget everything else, says Tom Lindhardt, whose memory painting has also helped to recreate the memory that the blood clot put a stop to.

– What I do not remember myself, Anne-Marie remembers, says Tom Lindhardt with a voice where the self-irony gets a soft edge when he mentions his wife.

Four years and on three wheels from the memoir

A book – a life

If you flip through the 66 pages of the memoir for 66 years, you are led in words and pictures into a long and in every way rich life.

It started in an apartment in the Skibhus district, led to an education as a watchmaker, a scholarship for an epoch-making US stay, the design of Gallery EXI in his and Amdi Petersen’s jointly purchased house on Hunderupvej in Odense, the abandonment of a good position in the Odense company Micro Matic, the invention of Spilophønen, design for and operation of Kompan in Ringe – and the quiet enjoyment of recent years.

“The rest of my life I intend to spend in the future and can therefore with this book for the future let the past rest in the present” as the introductory words to the memoir read – in the characteristic Tom Lindhardt way who loves to play with words and concepts.

Tom Lindhardt calls his gallery on Findlandskaj in Odense Lindhouse A / S. The man behind Kompan is now back as an artist.

The teachings of the United States

A PS reads: “I must for my life true thesis that only reality surpasses the imagination”.

One could also formulate Tom Lindhardt’s life with the words that last week’s culture award recipient, landowner Jørgen Langkilde, Bramstrup, used here in Stiftstidende about the importance of culture:

“Artists are good at finding the breaking point in a society and formulating the future. Therefore, they are helping to create the new forms of solution that we as a nation and as the world cannot be without”.

A Tom Lindhardt had also managed without the jigsaw.

He himself says that today he is a multimillionaire:

– In the United States, I learned that anything is possible. I have no particular nose for where money and art go up in a larger unit. No. That’s luck it all. It’s intuition. It is not the result of a thought process.

Adverse Childhood Experiences, COVID-19, and Play

One year ago this month, California Senator Mike McGuire and State Surgeon General Nadine Burke Harris, M.D., brought the message about Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs) to Mendocino County. Dr. Harris had recently been appointed as California’s first Surgeon General, following her ground-breaking work on ACEs’ impact on children and their health outlooks. Her message made it clear that adverse childhood experiences affect 34.8 million children across socio-economic lines, putting them at higher risk for health, behavioral, and learning problems.

I became aware of Dr. Harris’s work after hearing her NPR interview and reading her book The Deepest Well. She wrote the book based on her experiences at the Center for Youth Wellness that she established in the poorest sector of San Francisco. The impact of learning statistics and the success of her program had on my thinking was profound. To list just one example, the studies on which this program is based identified 10 ACEs. They also found that as little as three ACEs can lead to profound biologic changes, reducing life expectancy by 20 years.

So, what do ACEs have to do with COVID-19?  The pandemic has introduced many changes that exacerbate the impact of ACEs. One of the most profound and least recognized effects has been on normal play interactions by kids. For example, we have written several blogs on the critical role of rough and tumble play on children’s development of executive function, on which social competency is based. It was hard enough to allow for R&T play before the pandemic. Now? Fuhgeddaboudit.

It has become increasingly clear that our society will not be able to transition into a healthy and robust new normal until the issue of COVID safe childcare is addressed. The fact that children are asymptomatic vectors for the disease presents a huge challenge. Just the current practice of isolation of children from their grandparents alone is a daunting problem. The economic impact on daycare providers to reduce capacity and increased teacher ratios make the current situation unsustainable.

Tom Hobson has written extensively in his blog and books about early childhood’s essential physical intimacy on healthy development. The Play First Summit that Tom helped organize occurred over four days in July and reached more than 75,000 early childhood practitioners and experts. The outpouring of interest in COVID during the summit is evidence that there is real energy on this issue. It is past time that Tom and other child development thought leaders are brought into the discussion on solutions for the impact on COVID-19.

What is needed now is to combine the event that Mike and Dr. Harris held with the support of First Five California and the Play First Summit attendees. Such a gathering will bring both the expertise and scale to begin to develop and execute new protocols and programming with the potential to mitigate the impact of COVID-19. Such a COVID Safe Play Summit will also help spread the awareness of ACEs in general to the places where parents, children, and teachers can effect change.

Play Systems Designers – Part 2

A play product deconstructed into a system – Photo True Play Foundation

I’ve gotten some interesting feedback on the last post that helps me see that I’ve not been clear about what differentiates a play product from a play system. Let’s look at why I chose the four candidates in the last blog. I will also include my work in this discussion as it is germane.

Here are the criteria I used in my definition:

  • Child-directed learning through play
  • Appropriate materials
  • Advocacy
  • Attention to detail
  • Innovative path to distribution
Tom and Me at a BigToys new product launch

Tom Lindhart qualifies as a system designer because of his singular vision about the role of art in urban communities. He was appalled by the sterility of the public housing Denmark erected in the early ’70s. In his work, he drew deeply on the Danish sensibility for elegant simplicity and love of wood. Over the years, he took his passion and insight to create a full range of truly innovative pieces. His attention to his products’ details and every aspect of the enterprise from the factory floor to office décor was always in evidence. Over the years, he employed pedagogues and consultants with cutting edge knowledge of play. He made it something of a crusade to transfer this store of knowledge to his employees. He created one of the first and most extensive worldwide distribution systems of which I was a member. I was also a consultant with Kompan, during which we developed the 10 Plus system for older children, which set the stage for many subsequent developments. Kompan representatives were renowned for the knowledge of play that they shared with customers. Under Tom’s direction, Kompan established its own preschool and directly connected the design process with teachers and children.  

My development of Schoolyard BigToys and PlayBoosters occurred during this time frame. As a consultant to small companies, I did not have the control that Tom enjoyed as an owner. However, I did manage to create these two very successful systems. In both systems, we paid a lot of attention to the distribution chain and provided them with pedagogical information. I went so far as to develop a curriculum for BigToys that allowed the kids to place game activities on the structures. Rather than the sublime qualities of Kompan, my aesthetic at this period of my work was much more rough-and-tumble.

Since the last post, I’ve gotten some pushback from readers on including Maria Montessori as a play systems designer. This criticism is fair since The Montessori system does not include active play. However, her approach was as a systems designer is bolstered by the fact that today the Montessori community has gone on to fill this gap with a plethora of active play products. Also, think about what she accomplished and how she fits the criteria. She invented a whole new approach to education. Her core insight was to trust child-directed learning through play and used hands-on learning instead of didactic instruction. The devices she invented are sublime and still growing in preschool practice. Rather than creating a distribution system, she used founding schools and teacher training as the primary way of getting her inventions into children’s hands.

Cheng Xueqin is another example of this education-first approach. Ms. Cheng came to both her pedagogy and play apparatus solutions by devilling into recollections of her childhood. What did she learn through play? What gave her joy as a child? From this seemingly simple starting point, she has created a revolutionary approach to early childhood education. The AnjiPlay environments, especially outdoors, are unique. The AnjiPlay approach is now available throughout China and is beginning to branch out to several other countries.

Ms Cheng and Cas Holman – Photo True Play Foundation

It is not surprising that Ms. Cheng and Cas Holman have become collaborators. I’ve included Cas as a systems designer for her work with AnjiPlay and her creation of Rigamajig. A case could be made that Rigamajig is just a construction toy. While it certainly doesn’t have the reach or scale of the other examples cited here, it is still in its infancy, and it has lots of room to grow. In the short time that it has been available, it has already evolved significantly. This growth has come about due to Cas’s commitment to its use as an educational tool. One need only watch a video of Cas talking about the meticulous attention to detail she has given the system from inception to distribution to see how she goes far beyond what most designers would invest in a product. Because Cas is conducting her approach to play products as systems, I fully expect Cas to go on to far bigger things in the near future.

Finally, I’d like to talk a bit about developing the Gymboree Play and Music systems. I did their first system 20 years ago, and it is still in use worldwide. Four years ago, I was invited to create a new system. Together with my collaborators, Hap Parker and Dawn Sagorski, we created the only instantly reconfigurable play system for young children. We thought that this new system would replace the original, but it turned out that the two are quite complementary. Deployed in forty countries and nearly 700 sites, the systems provide a unique environment for child development and parent-child interaction. The Play and Music educational team constantly refines the curriculum and expands the teacher’s educational use of the apparatus. I am citing these products because they represent an important aspect of a successful design that meets today’s needs and expectations. The Play and Music system shares with Montessori, AnjiPlay, and Rigamajig support for play-based learning and the capacity for dynamic reconfiguration by users. As an approach to play systems design, these examples fit between playground apparatus and toys and represent a distinct discipline worthy of recognition. I contend that such user control of the environmental elements will become increasingly embraced by educators and parents alike as the value of play-based learning is further supported by research and educational outcomes.

I hope this expanded explanation helps the reader better understand the difference between designing a play product and a comprehensive play system that includes the whole ecosystem in which it is embedded. As we increasingly understand the role of play in child development, especially as we incorporate the new findings in neuroscience and evolutionary biology, we will develop a better definition of Play Systems Design and its practice. Only then will we be able to ensure the best learning environments for all children.

Where are the Play Systems Designers?

There are play systems in nearly every park and schoolyard. All children in the developed world use these systems throughout their early years. They are ubiquitous because it is universally accepted that the experiences playgrounds provide are critical to healthy development.

Given the importance we place on children’s development and their play, isn’t it odd that so little is invested in creating the optimal play environments? Of course, there are bright spots, but the vast majority of playscapes are very low in developmental challenges or features that support long duration play episodes. Pick any playground equipment catalog, and you will find essentially the same experience packaged in various colors with a few flourishes to add brand recognition. This is how we, for the most part, select cars. We distinguish them by color, how many doors, and the grill.

I have nothing bad to say about the talented and dedicated industrial designers who have created these products to be clear. They bring a wealth of skills and creativity to their work. In the end, however, they end up simply creating products. That’s not a bad thing. It’s simply old-school and just not enough for our children.

What do I mean by “old-school”? Compare Tesla with all the other automakers. The industry makes cars, sure. For Tesla, the car is just the first part of an enterprise that includes battery production, disruptive sales techniques, and software development, all wraped in an integrated system. What if this concept is applied to play?

Play Systems Designers

Fortunately, we have some examples to look to. Here’s my list:

Before we get into wresting about who should be added to this list, let me outline my selection criteria. Remember, I’m not talking here about the products. The core criterion is that these folks created play systems. Such a system should include these elements

  • Child-directed learning through play
  • Appropriate materials
  • Advocacy
  • Attention to detail
  • Innovative path for distribution

I won’t go into details about the why and how each of these innovators came to the result of creating play systems and will leave that exploration to you, dear reader. My goal in this post is very simple. I want to elevate our idea of playgrounds, think more deeply into today’s children’s needs and our worldwide highly integrated society.

Children’s playspaces for this century must be ecologies. They should not be static but evolve at the same pace as children grow. These environments need to be informed by the latest findings in neuroscience and evolutionary biology. Above all, places to play need to be controlled, created, and changed by their communities and children through play.

Fantasy? If I told you ten years ago that your next car would be powered by electricity that you generate from your rooftop and that it would be self-driving, you would say I’m totally mad. But rather than being a pipedream, it is inevitable if humans are to remain viable on this planet.

The same can be said for the future of play systems.