This Week’s Reading

To help flesh out the discussion we’ve been having I’d like to give you some links to articles that I’ve come across that bear on this whole idea of child-centered play.

Children 'penned in' outdoors

My point in promoting the concept of “play attendant” is that the venues for kid’s generated play activity has, for all intents and purposes, disappeared from contemporary society.  This article No Freedom to Play or Explore Outside for Children from the Guardian updates studies that go back now over a decade that substantiate this claim.

We all agree that play is important but often the way this is presented is pretty dense … just try reading Piaget!  Recently Peter Grey was interviewed the the Journal of Play and the following article Play as Preparation for Learning and Life is the result.

Laura Grace Walton writes a great blog to promote “Free Range Learning” and her recent pots list 55 summertime activities that are just wonderful, inventive and fun. While these activities often require some adult participation they do epitomize the kind of role and the sort of learning that the “play attendant” idea is meant to promote.


My friend and associate Mike Lanza conducts a “summer camp” from his home every year.  This year his Huntopoly featured treasure boxes with built in GPS that were used to augment the game.  These proved to be a huge success illustrating that child-centered play for today’s kids will not be just about trees and dirt but will also include technology play.

Risky kid on bike

I’ve previously mentioned the wonderful blog that Angie Six produces.  In her most recent post Life is Full of Bumps and Bruises she explains why she lets her kids try risky things.

I came across a rant in the Newman Time-Herald by John Winters, Let Kid’s Play that he wrote after seeing a warning sign on his neighborhood playground.  He goes on to suggest his own sign which I agree with except the No Technology admonition which I think kids will, and should, ignore.

1.13 cs08 man - people on bench

Finally, there is this: Create a Commons in Your Front Yard.  This is what Mike has done and it bears on what I am promoting with the Play Attendant idea, that is, we need to find mechanisms through which neighborhoods can band together to use undeveloped properties within walking distances for free play and to use these on an informal basis for child centered play.

Play Attendant


Photo –

A funny thing happened on my way to finding a good place to play for the kids in my neighborhood.  I talked with the Recreation Director and mentioned the unused open space along the Russian River that forms one side of that triangle that encloses our homes.  I suggested that all we really need to make it work is someone to open the gate and “sit” with the kids.  Oh, and it wouldn’t hurt if they adopted some or all of the techniques that the wonderful folks at Pop Up Adventure Play have developed.  Knowing her I wasn’t too surprised that she liked the idea and was enthusiastic about Pop Up too.

Pop Up

Photo: Pop Up Play

As we talked it became increasingly clear to me that we have a model for somebody who just sits and watches kids play that is well over 100 years old and exists in virtually every corner of our society – the Lifeguard! In fact just across the river from our intended new good place to play is a county park that runs along the water’s edge.  While the weekends are packed more than half the time the guards are on duty there are few, if any, swimmers yet nobody complains this is a waste of money.

Well. I say that if we can afford to have somebody watch kids play in the water then we can afford to have them watch kids play in the dirt!.  I suspect that such Play Attendants would be lower cost than guards since they won’t have to be safety certified, just typical recreation staff.  I’m leaning towards a lifeguard model rather than asking parents to do a co-op for several reasons but primarily the kind of play I hope to foster will not be easy to do with parents running the show.  I mean the only thing that lifeguards do is blow a whistle when you run on the sidewalk.

I think this idea has the potential to really get some traction.  It will appeal to those who long to provide the the kind of memorable play experiences we’ve been talking about.  It will appeal to those in the urban planning community who want to provide open space for unstructured play.  I’ve already discovered that at least some recreation professionals can embrace the idea.

My next step is to look into how to fund this project and stick my finger into the hornet’s nest of getting the Fish and Game folks to let us use the space.  Stay tuned!

If you want to really dig into this subject I recommend a recent interview of Peter Gray published in the American Journal of Play.

“Peter Gray is known best for his widely assigned university-level textbook Psychology, now in its sixth edition. HisPsychology Today blog—“Freedom to Learn: Play and Curiosity as Foundations for Learning”—has earned a large following while drawing eclectically from recent scholarship in history, anthropology, sociology, and economics. Gray has long appreciated how spontaneous, unsupervised play aids self-directed learning and self-assurance in children, and he explores this natural process and its societal implications at length in his latest book, Free to Learn: Why Unleashing the Instinct to Play Will Make Children Happier, More Self-Reliant, and Better Students for Life. In this interview, Gray talks about the lifelong social, physical, and moral value of play, and he identifies and traces the consequences of factors that in recent decades have eroded opportunities to play.”

A Third Place To Be


A couple of months ago Mike Lanza, of Playborhood fame, introduced me to the concept of a third place to be.  I’ve copied the Wikipedia intro as it is a great summary of the idea:

The third place (also known as third space) is a term used in the concept of community building to refer to social surroundings separate from the two usual social environments of home and the workplace. In his influential book The Great Good PlaceRay Oldenburg (1989, 1991) argues that third places are important for civil societydemocracycivic engagement, and establishing feelings of a sense of place.

Oldenburg calls one’s “first place” the home and those that one lives with. The “second place” is the workplace — where people may actually spend most of their time. Third places, then, are “anchors” of community life and facilitate and foster broader, more creative interaction. All societies already have informal meeting places; what is new in modern times is the intentionality of seeking them out as vital to current societal needs. Oldenburg suggests the following hallmarks of a true “third place”:

  • Free or inexpensive
  • Food and drink, while not essential, are important
  • Highly accessible: proximate for many (walking distance)
  • Involve regulars – those who habitually congregate there
  • Welcoming and comfortable
  • Both new friends and old should be found there

What strikes me abou this idea is that when you talk to adults about their most memorable play experiences they almost always occur in just such a “third place”.  I think this is exactly what is missing for today’s kids.  If you can’t leave your yard or your block, where is your third place?  The local playground isn’t a third place because you can’t be there on your own.  To make this idea more relevant to its applications to children we have to replace “work” with “school” or other adult led education, i.e. sports. Second, we have to add, you can “change stuff”.  This ability to dig a hole, dam a stream, pluck a flower, build a hide-out are also the most frequent cherished play moments.

I think this is the formulae for what I have been seeking with the pattern language idea.  There is no amount of innovation that will make the existing model of playgrounds into such a third place.  No matter how great the backyard it is extremely rare that the qualities we, and kids, seek will be found there.  This idea is very powerful and I’m going to have to mull it over more and I’d love to hear your thoughts.