Questions for My Readers

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?

  • Legacy Playgrounds

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.

3 thoughts on “Questions for My Readers

  1. Mr. Jay, So great to get your keen insights and collaborations back again after too long. You know I have been a fan for many decades. Thanks for starting this and I look forward to discussions this blog can stimulate. I find we are doing more retrofits then wholesale replacements of playgrounds with our company, due to the protracted financial squeeze that institutions have been experiencing.
    The demand for “natural play” is now frequently requested from our clients, so I see the challenge to be how to steer that solution away from “plastic rocks and trees” and cookie cutter designs and provide some context for authentic play for children.
    I do agree that the manufactures are not the bad guys, I see very high quality and innovative equipment created by sincere efforts to market the very best products by many companies, but the incentive to profit from remolded polyethylene is very powerful. Does just about every play equipment catalog look the same? Pretty much.
    And there is a place for these products in parks and schools no doubt. But how do you get the kids away from the electronics (which are also now on the playgrounds with hi-tech games) and the highly programed and scheduled life and have the potential for natural self created play. The list of summer activities you listed were the ones I had, those days before giant water slides and video games.

    Please keep me in the loop, Curt Wear, Community Playgrounds Inc.


  2. Jay, it is so great to read your blog and digest your wealth of knowledge and experience. And as a special bonus to see Mr. Wear contribute as well – many thanks to both of you for helping me on my path early on.

    Curt hits on a point that has nagged me about the contemporary playground for years – and that is context. Although the current paradigm of post and deck structures on rubber matting is probably an improvement over the old jungle gyms in a sea of asphalt, I’m still left thinking it’s all a bit cold. Particularly in urban environments where I’m not sure a child engaging steal, plastic and engineered wood fiber is all that meaningful.

    For some reason I’m convinced much of this begins and ends with the need to delineate a particular space as the “playground”. Sometimes deconstructing further into age ranges, active/passive, etc. It’s all very defined, neat and orderly, when to me it seems like it should be messy and fuzzy…even chaotic.

    Taking this to the extreme I will never forget watching a group of children joyfully playing in the rubble of a collapsed church in Port-au-Prince, Haiti. It was the classic adventure playground on steroids. It was an experience on the nature of play that was enlightening to say the least.

    Tim Daugherty,


    • Tim, I like what you said about the need for “messy and fuzzy” boundaries between the different age ranges. I don’t know if you meant including adults too, but whenever I accompany children to playgrounds I feel pressure to stay on my side of the play boundaries. It seems like the group consciousness of our culture is telling me “Rigel, playing is for children.” I would be interested in seeing how playgrounds could not only incorporate the adult age range into the structure design, but also diffuse the culture of adult vs. child in those places.

      Maybe somehow bring elements of the playground into the the adult realm (where the picknick tables and benches are)…just spitballin’ here.


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