As I continue to muse on the direction this blog should take I keep running into the same question, “What can we do to design better play settings for today’s kids and communities?” To explore this let’s start with some basic propositions to see if these factors are part of the equation.
- The quality of play is generally inversely proportional to the dollar investment made in the physical environment intended to support it.
Typically the researchers measure the “quality” of a play episode by its duration, frequency and length of utterance and complexity of physical behaviors. Compare the play that occurs at a creek side, a playground and a theme park and you will see a spectrum of the quality going from very high to near zero play. Why does this occur? The basic difference in these environments is that the locus of action moves from the child to the environment. At the creek the child is the center of their world and they initiate and control all of the activity. The theme park is really not designed to be a place for play, rather the child is a passive consumer of an experience, as Martin Buber would say an “I-It” interaction, and virtually without any control over their experience. Playgrounds are a middle ground where the child has choices such as which play event to use; yet many of the core experiences are still largely preprogramed. I believe that some parents intuitively sense the value of allowing children more control and they often become advocates for “natural playgrounds” as a result. The playground industry sees natural play as a market opportunity and has developed faux naturalistic elements. While these have their appeal a better solution is to use natural materials wherever possible even if these are modified to be more durable with heavy use.
- The quality of play is significantly enhanced when accompanied by facilitators.
The research done by Dr. Karthryn Hirsh-Pasek demonstrates that children play with greater engagement and learning when an adult acts as a non-invasive facilitator. When I was studying child development at Pacific Oaks College I saw this phenomena demonstrated time and again. When props were set out, and the teachers stood back, the play patterns where typically of long duration with intense use of language. When teachers stepped in to referee a conflict or otherwise interrupt the activity, the play would often dissolve. The wonderful work done by play leaders on Adventure Playgrounds is another clear example of the proper role of adults in children’s play. In my work with Gymboree Play and Music I have also seen how powerfully a play leader can influence play for the better. In the US the typical playground is designed to minimize play facilitation; the equipment is static and the environment is designed to require little or no maintenance.
- Play is often confused with entertainment.
Video games are a billion dollar industry. They have achieved this success by essentially co-opting natural play behavior. As Jane McGonigal so cogently points out, the video game industry has learned to structure their products to provide the key elements of play: graduated challenge, social interaction, and emotional rewards. The result is that kids derive benefits from these games, but even with this evidence of benefits, our intuition tells us that something is still not quite right about kids spending as much as 20% of their time staring at a screen. I suggest that video games are to play as fast food is to nutrition. Remember the Lay’s potato chip slogan? “Betcha can’t eat just one.” The food manufacturers have invested billions to develop products that perfectly target the desire to consume while also preventing the feeling of satisfaction that comes from eating organically. In a similar way the entertainment industry, and to some extent play equipment producers, has invested heavily in providing high levels of stimulation without the emotional grounding that comes from true play. The result is a generation of kids who are always poised on the edge of boredom and parent’s are on a constant treadmill of providing more and more stimulation. Those parents with wealth will substitute “enrichment” activities like organized sports to fill this demand. Those without the resources acquiesce to kid’s demands and let the video games do the job.
- Playgrounds are as much about controlling kids as they are about providing play.
In Joe Frost’s recent book you can see that historically playgrounds were built to get kids off the streets as much as for promoting citizenship. Currently urban planners are realizing that efficient movement of cars is not as important as a “livable” environment. Moving kid’s play off the street and neighborhood into park playgrounds turns out to be really bad news on many of levels. Mike Lanza touches on this in depth with his Playborhood project. Consider this idea; what if our communities where designed for, and populated with citizens who supported the notion that kids should be able to play everywhere.
- Playgrounds are more about public image than kid’s play
My personal experience is that a core driver of many playground designs is more about how each community wants to be perceived than with the quality of play presented. Let’s face it; play is almost always a messy proposition yet mess is the last thing allowed in public play spaces. Putting giant structures with lots of high excitement events on playgrounds is more about wanting to be seen as providing for kid’s play than it is about actually delivering it. In your option, how much does the desire to create a monument influence playground design?
The most recent estimate that I have seen for the number of playgrounds in the USA is 355,000. I think that it is safe to assume that many of these could be upgraded to provide higher quality play experiences. But it is also clear that following the current model of tear-out-and-replace with new is too expensive and time consuming to address the current needs of kids and communities. Instead of renovation what could be accomplished with a budget of $5,000 to $10,000 per site?
I have purposely thrown all of these subjects on the table at the same time, as I believe that they are inter-related and discussing them somewhat simultaneously will be beneficial. I’d like your thoughts on how playgrounds can be transformed to better match the needs of today’s kids and families.