Evidence of Children’s Play

I’ve just run across a wonderful collection of images of the “left behinds” of children’s play at http://preciouschildhood.blogspot.co.uk/2013/06/play-detective.html

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.

4 thoughts on “Evidence of Children’s Play

  1. I hadn’t thought about fear of intimacy, but in our general “culture of fear” that certainly seems feasible. Fear of intimacy….change…liability…etc.


  2. I agree with Jay that ‘intimacy’ is a good word to describe the circumstances that collude to make play like those illustrated possible…and I agree that play activities in these circumstances is in some ways a more ‘real’ play activity than those talking place in the glare of sunlight and under the stare of a supervising adult. It is also true that they do not have the heavy hand of the designer stamped all over them.

    We, as adult, seek that ‘intimacy of place’, and so why should we think that children are different. When an adult chooses a bench to sit on in a park, are we not more likely to choose a quiet area with some shielding vegetation in preference to the bench in an exposed position. We used to call this ‘defensible’ space in urban design contexts and I think the same concept can be successfully applied to the design of play spaces. Supervision can be achieved in more subtle ways than clear sight lines and exposed play environments.


  3. I’ve been doing reading on introverts and came across something that was an “aha” moment for me. Introverts (including children) thrive on having a space and time to retreat into themselves. This is where they process what they encounter in the extrovert world, as well as where their creativity comes out. Introverts need to have those spaces that are just for them, intimate spaces if you will, in order to recharge and grow. I imagine that many children would seek out these spaces wherever they can find them, including playspaces. Beyond taking away every bit of control in their lives, it makes me sad to think we are robbing introverted kids of what they need to thrive, all in the name of safety and fear of things we cannot see.


  4. Thank you for the thoughtful and thought provoking comments! A memorable moment for me was visiting a local playground that was to be renovated. That day, all along the concrete border of the tot lot, children had carefully decanted sand from various shaped buckets and cups all along the curb. It must have taken a long time and most likely many children working together to create so many little shapes of sand. But today, the sand is gone, replaced by rubber. And the inspiration and materials are gone for such an exploration. Whether fear of intimacy or fear of injury applies, many of our public play spaces lack the materials to allow children to create these special “leave behinds”. Yet children are incredibly resilient and creative. Whether they bring their own loose parts or forage afield for twigs, stones and other found objuects, play will go on! Keep looking for the signs and rejoice when you come upon them.


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