Neighborhood Playscapes

Let kids play new header

I don’t know how I’ve missed this but have just run across a wonderful blog called Let the Children Play.  I’ve begun to dig into it and hope you will too but the abundance of great design ideas shown makes it very clear that there really are wonderful solutions to providing better play experiences that traditional playgrounds.

Given that we know what and how to make better and more natural play spaces, and that there are a lot of people who would like to see these come into being, what is preventing this from happening?  I think that most would say that main problem is lack of insurance for designers, builders and play followers (I don’t like the idea of “play leader”).  I’ve dealt with play related risk management and insurance issues most of my carrer and I sincerely believe that this is a solvable problem.

No, I think that the main problem is that, unlike community gardens which are “natural playgrounds” for and by adults, the primary constituency for natural play are parents who are only concerned with this issue while their kids are young.  A quick drive to some nature spot fills the need well enough that, with all the other pressures in their lives, devoting the time and energy to creating a longterm nature spot in their neighborhood is just too much for them.  However, as KaBOOM, Boundless, Shane’s Inspiration, and other community based groups have shown so clearly, when there is an organization that provides insurance and support many amazing play spaces can be built.

Starting a “Neighborhood Natural Playscapes”  organization from scratch is a huge undertaking that would make even the most devoted advocate quail.  So here’s my question to you; is there an existing group who might be able to expand their mission and organization to jump start this idea?

Playground Pattern Language

Following up on my notion that we need to develop a “pattern language” for play settings I am making a list of blogs that can make contributions to that end.  This is my first installment and they represent the sites that are “top of mind” for me.  Where possible I have provided a link to a specific post in each blog that seems relevant.  These are in no particular order and are not meant to be a review of the entire blog.

One of my gripes about playground designs is that they are almost totally devoted to active play.  The Playground Pattern Language should list all the recognized types and put forward the idea that they should all be included.

Types of play

Here’s a great list: Types of Play

I’ve previously mentioned Paige Johnson’s blog Playscapes.  She is a strong advocate of using pathways for play rather than separators.

Paige pathway

Design with Pathways

When playgrounds fail to engage kids, parents are forced to take matters into their own hands.  I’m a big fan of Angie Six’s blog The Risky Kids. Here’s a post about the value of climbing trees:

Angie Six

Climbing Trees

One way to “publish” the Playground Pattern Language is as a Pinterest.  Here’s a wonderful example of a company doing “natural” playscapes:

Pinterest blog

Earth Wrights

Intimate vs. Formal

I have a list of about ten blogs about play that I follow on a regular basis.  I’ll list those with comments in a future post.  I am humbled by these author’s insights and commitments.  Their good reporting and writing causes me to ask what can I say that will add to this pool of knowledge.  What I think I can offer you is my experience in environmental design and creation.  I have had the unique opportunity to make spaces and apparatus that I thought would appeal to children and then observe how children actually play on my assumptions.  In addition I have also been able to see how these systems have been used by the playground industry and play space designers.  I have been largely disappointed that the play that is potential in these designs goes largely unrealized.  What good this long life I have been blessed with if not to be able to ferret out at least some of the reasons that the play systems that are now universally produced fail to realize all of their benefits?

In my last post I highlighted the wonderful photo collection of Niki Buchan of the traces of play and their simple poignant statement about the intimate nature of the play that they bear witness to.  Following that notion further I have been considering the contrast between the typical clean and tidy playground with the joy found on the faces of kids doing something like Mud Day.

Annual+Mud+Day+Celebration+Lets+Kids+Get+Dirty+rOS7KBcnzkelPhoto – Alyssa Braun

In the design world we often set up the polarity of “formal” vs “informal.”  But if you look at what designers mean, and create, when they say their space is “informal” its just another regimented vocabulary of shapes, colors and spaces.  As I think back on the many examples that Paige Johnson as so throughly documented on her Playscapes blog, the playgrounds created by designers that are generally categorize as informal, may be beautiful and creative but they lack the quality that we see in Niki’s photos.

What I want to propose to you is that we, who advocate for children’s play, should adopt the language of “intimate” vs “formal” when talking about the provision of play spaces.  This change will establish a different meme from the current mindset that looks at every aspect of the play space as being created and controlled by adults.  The closest I have seen to this sort of approach is the inclusion of “pickable” landscape materials. On the last post Jerry Cooper commented that landscape architects use the notion of “defensible space” when talking about the sheltered places within a landscape.  I like the term “sense of enclosure” which means that supervision is still possible but the space still feels defined and protected.

What I am suggesting is that it would be very useful to have something akin to Christopher Alexander’s Pattern Language at our disposal that provides a resource of design solutions that supports truly intimate play.  My afore mentioned list of blogs can be a start on that so I will make assembling that list a priority.  If you have suggestions please send them along.

Evidence of Children’s Play

I’ve just run across a wonderful collection of images of the “left behinds” of children’s play at

FAiry garden

I’ve always found these traces very poignant and sometimes very sad.  That is particularly the case when I visit schools.  I make it a rule to walk all around the campus to find out where the children have been playing.  There is always some tiny corner, some hidden spot, where the kids scratch out a meager opportunity to have the kind of intimacy that comes from such true play. I’ve devoted my life to making great play apparatus that has some value for kids and I’m OK with that legacy.  But if I had been really true to my heart I would have tried to find a way to expand these tiny play oasis wherever there are children.

When I was first doing play sculptures in schools around San Francisco, Robin Moore was doing the Washington Environmental Yard across the Bay in Berkeley.  Robin, and the principal Herb Wong, created a wonderland out of the former asphalt desert that has been a model every since.  Robin had a better sense of what was needed and has devoted his career to promoting the concept.  His partners at MIG have done wonderful work and I could not have done better than he and Susan Goltsman have, and yet with all of their skill and dedication humanizing the environments in which our society “houses” children is still not a mainstream idea.  Heck its not even on the radar.

I wonder if the lack of opportunity for this sort of play is really based on our society’s fear of intimacy.  Our culture has so confused intimacy with sex that we must avoid any opportunity for children to have access to places that are “secret”.  Adults supervising children are only comfortable when they can see every child at all times.  I don’t disagree with this requirement, but as a designer I know there are many ways to provide a sense of enclosure without sacrificing good supervision.  It is too bad that we don’t value the deep connectedness that can be found through play sufficiently to devote time and effort to its protection.

My hope is that, with the help of social media, enough information and resources will be gathered together to support more playful places for kids.

Getting Real with Natural Playgrounds

Very early in my carrer I did some projects at the San Francisco Zoo.  There was a stretch of cages that the keepers called “death row” because so many animals, mainly primates, died in them.  There we basically 12x12x12-ft chain link boxes with a little concrete closet for shelter.  They were baren except for a roost and a basin for water and another for food.  The animals were either lethargic or paced constantly.  Volunteers and I added tree branches, hung ties and barrels and generally tried to introduce some variety and “naturalness” to these bleak environments. Although we never felt we had done enough, the little we were able to do meant a lot to the animals which began to behave normally and even reproduce.

I’m sharing this story because I know for this and many other related experiences what introducing natural features into play areas can do to stimulate and support play.  What I also learned is that natural features tend to break down with heavy use.  Here’s good example.  It is wonderful to be with a group of kids the first time they turn over a rock and discover all the creepy crawly thing that live there.  I think such an experience is emblematic of what we look for in a natural playground.

Here’s the rub, depending on a bunch of factors like moisture, season, etc. it will take a week to a month for that rock to become repopulated with the same critters.   If the rock is turned over every day the life therein disappears.  This is the challenge for those of us who would provide more naturalistic settings, the closer we get to being really natural the harder it is to maintain  from the constant use.  Any children’s museum that allows for touching living things will tell you that they have to work very hard to manage the exhibitions.  Even National Parks have to put traffic restrictions in place to reduce human impact.

David Verbeck, who’s company is Grassroots Playgrounds ( have talked about this dilema at considerable length.  One notion we kicked around is the idea that in order to have as much nature as possible there needs to be a lot of space so the nature is spread out and has a chance to recover from the constant explorations.  Over time certain areas will become more heavily used, like the edges between soil and water, and those areas can be give special care so they endure.

Gregory Gavin at Riveropolis ( does an amazing job with his programs where growing their own “forest” is part of his curriculum.  This gives the kids responsibility for the life of their nature which seems like part of the solution.


Here is a link ( to an interesting Pinterest collection assembled by Tara Shepherd Dawson that is chocked full of good idea.  I’ll follow this post with links to other similar collections and sources.

bird's nest

Do want to share your ideas or favorite pictures?

Loose Parts

OK, I’m going out on a limb here.

I really don’t think a playground has much real “play” unless it has loose parts.  And yes, sand, especially wet sand, counts as loose parts and makes for a much better play space than any that don’t feature loose parts or wet sand.

As I’m sure you know Imagination Playgrounds have come up with a wonderful solution for loose parts.  They have hit on exactly the right combination of price, complexity and durability.  I love this stuff.  If you agree then let me ask you this.

Look, the Imagination stuff is “soft” enough that you could almost get away with putting it in the fall zone o a play structure, no?  If so, then what shapes would you suggest that could be used in and around existing play structures????  Maybe the standard ones work OK but then I’d like to play with this technology some before I gave up on shapes that could enhance the play structure.

There are something like 350,000 existing playgrounds in the USA alone.  Most of which are less than optimal.  Set aside for the moment the issues of securing and storing the parts; we’ll come back to that in later posts.  But I’m getting excited by the vision of all this stuff in COMBINATION with a play structure.  And don’t get me started on how this could greatly enhance inclusive play.

What do you think?

Imagination image 1

Playgrounds or Play?

As I’ve been doing this soul searching I got to thinking about what is the underlying source of my discontent with today’s playgrounds.  Often when I’m trying to sort though a problem I make up a list of the issues.  Here’s what I came up with when thinking about how playgrounds and play are so different.



Fixed Moving
Neat Messy
Exciting Engaging
Play on Play in
Expensive Free
Park or schoolyard Anywhere
Safe Challenging
Created by adults Created by players
Drive to Here and now
Manufactured Emergent
Age appropriate Inappropriate

Gosh, its no wonder we have questions about the value of playgrounds.  The world of play and the playground industry couldn’t be further apart.  As a designer and inventor I know that this dichotomy is an artificial construction based on a whole set of assumptions.  Assumptions about what kids want, what society needs, and most of all, what won’t work.  As we pursue this discussion I think we can look at any of the basic assumptions that are made about what playground are and should and should be.