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.”

9 thoughts on “Play Attendant

  1. You are describing something similar to the profession of playwork that is widespread in the UK, but suggesting that this work could be done on the cheap tends to undervalue the subtlety of the skills involved.. The ‘Pop-Up’ concept is actually heavily derived from playwork. For anyone interested in this concept there are several excellent books available. Rather than promote my own books, why not go to the Books section of Amazon and enter the word playwork. Alternatively for a fairly brief explanation, click on this link:


    • Hey, this comment was caught up as spam so its a late post. I certainly don’t mean to trivialize the skills required to be a playworker. As a student at Pacific Oaks I came to appreciate the skill it takes to do “just enough” to keep play vibrant. Many was the time that i saw a fellow student teacher step in at just the wrong moment. We have much to learn from the decades of experience the adventure playground movement has to offer. Right now my main concern is finding a compelling argument that officialdom will accept so we can get staff hired. Then we can train.


  2. Great thought! People certainly understand the role of the lifeguard. While true playworkers are trained to stay in the background, but assist play as necessary, the desire for children’s supervision really warrants this idea of recreation workers allowing children to get dirty and have fun!


  3. I like the idea Jay, but the funding for these positions will be the sticking point; especially during these tough economic times. The funding for lifeguards is justified because it proves the municipality is doing due diligence to provide a safe environment thereby warding off costly lawsuits.

    The municipalities are resistant to paying for recreation supervisors or play workers preferring instead to shift the responsibility to the parents or caregivers. It all comes down to money.


    • Since I was in high school the lament has always been not enough money. I think that it is really about priorities. My sense is that our society in general is beginning to recognize that the loss of free, children directed, play is a big deal. Without a 3rd good place the kids are going to Facebook etc. Then there is the health issue, etc. etc. From your priorities creating neighborhood good places to play would mean a whole lot more inclusiveness than anywhere else. So let’s try one in your neck of the woods and measure the interactions. I’ll bet you a bottle of the wine country’s finest that we will see, 1) more language use, 2) more positive touching, and 3) longer duration play periods that include kids of all abilities than in any other environment.


  4. I think using the term ” lifeguard “. To describe what playworkers should be doing a lot of the time is very helpful.


  5. Hi Jay, I just learned about your latest super idea for enhancing children’s play. Good to know that your passion for play has endured since before we challenged our colleagues in Denmark to implement some of our ideas. The big surprise was their taking us to a remarkable functioning playground village the next day – designed, built, and operated by children with sensible assistance from playworkers. Congratulations and best wishes for many more creative years for children’s play!


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s