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.

4 thoughts on “Playgrounds or Play?

  1. Jay,
    I hear yah, and on a basic level I agree with you.
    However, my view is that you are trying to compare an apple to the whole orchard!
    The world of natural play is huge, as it is a big world out there. For those parents who shelter their children away from fields, streams, rivers, woodlots, etc, etc., shame on you. However do not expect the play industry to be a substitute for that environment or that experience. Should you expect a simple 8×8 sandbox to compete with a lakeside beach. No. However by providing a designed-for and purpose built play item or play “space” you are providing an opportunity that may not be readily available in their neighborhood or backyard.
    Myself, my family, and my children are all very active in the outdoors. And yes the natural environment includes many opportunities for climbing, sliding, rocking, and swinging. However these opportunities are often very sparse and are often very challenging and risky. So much so, they when my children were young, I avoided many of them for fear of failure.
    But not so on the neighborhood park playground! These opportunities are indeed very available, and as you point out, they are made very safe. (re: anticipating failure and learning at a young age) And I (as a parent in this context) certainly appreciate them being there.
    The industry challenge that I see, is that many play companies are now focusing on “natural play”, and are loosing site of “functional play”. Combining the two aspects only weakens each one.


  2. As someone for whom a visit to the Playpark for a go on the swings and slides was a rare treat, maybe two or three times a year, I’m all for equipped play, provided it’s role in play provision for children is properly understood by the people who manage these things. The rest of the year I played in fields, streams and other natural places, so the swings were a special treat for me.

    The problem now of course is that children no longer have access to fields, etc. in the same way I and all others did 40 years ago, and equipped play has come to dominate the daily outdoor play experience in children’s lives (some of the blame has to be laid at the feet of those who constantly scare parents with disproportionate and inaccurate tales of injury, usually to protect an annual income).
    The balance is all wrong. What we need is a world full of opportunities for children to choose where they want to play on a minute by minute basis – the street, the park, the field, the trees, the streams, and yes even the equipped play space, when the whim takes them.
    It’s all about the balance – and we’ve lost it.


    • I hear similar comments from anyone over 30, their best play was in found in unused spaces, not on playgrounds. Consider this. What if we adapted the current (concept of) playgrounds so they began to provide some of the same rich choices that “unoccupied” open space did in the past. I think we have to begin to adapt to a new reality, that vacant lots are either gone or prohibited.

      We can’t just try to make a vacant lot out of a park. But I think we can begin to consider what those spaces provided and come up with ways that similar experiences can occur in a public space. More on this idea in the next post.


      • “We can’t just try to make a vacant lot out of a park.”
        Oh, but there’s so much we CAN do, if only we used the imagination we had as children!
        We know all the vacant lots have gone, so the question is – what can we do to replace those great experiences and opportunities within a managed environment?
        Lets use your lists above to find a solution.
        Why don’t Parks provide the traditional equipped play (with some changes in attitude) and schools provide the messy stuff (also with a change of attitude)?

        All it takes is a strong local play strategy that everyone supports, plus good dialogue between schools and public services to ensure that local children get access to the full range of play experiences one way or another.

        Here’s how it works –
        Schools agree to provide the multitude of messy, loose parts play (natural and man-made) such as the old clothes and other materials, the leaves and twigs, the imaginary playscape (e.g. some mounds with a crown of boulders that in the minds of children becomes a pirate ship one day and a castle the next), the smaller trees for the 5-8 age range to practice climbing, and other play affordances that operate on the intimate (smaller) scale and are a part of learning and growing up.
        Public parks can then provide the big stuff such as; coping with larger numbers of users, providing large scale water and sand play opportunities, lots of swings and slides but set in interesting and varied environments instead of bland flat rubberised spaces, big fallen trees to clamber over, big hills to roll down, den building, fire play, tunnels and other more adventurous features than schools can provide but with the exact same attitude towards play, risk and the basic needs of childhood.
        All that then needs to happen is for all partners to agree the same risk approach, i.e. all play should have an appropriate level of a risky, challenging element within it, all partners are now supporting this approach and all partners recognise that a) children need to play in a way that is freely chosen by them, not dictated by adults, and b) we know play provides children with a huge range of developmental benefits for life that cannot be accessed in any other way.

        Next step- Cultural change
        1. Agree a new play (and risk) policy statewide or nationwide that is based on something similar to what some of us in the UK are doing at the moment.
        2. Rewrite the US equipment standards to address all those completely overboard rules and get some balance back.

        You know that in the UK our Health and Safety overlords are now supporting our way of assessing risk – a proportionate approach, ensuring that there is no likelihood of death or permanent harm but all lesser injuries (scratches, bruises, sprains, even the occasional broken bone) received through free play are now to be considered as a fact of life-lesson for children to experience and hopefully learn from.

        In summary – You cant improve the play environment unless and until you also change the cultural attitudes towards play. Both have to happen or it just wont succeed.


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