Playing with Emotions

The Tiny Door Project - Keebler

This article first appeared on the Play and Playground News Center 12-10-13 at

Looking at Play From the Outside

As a designer of play apparatus and spaces I try to insure my projects will be of high value to children by including attributes that I have learned are required to create a great play setting. For example, does the environment link activities and allow the play to flow? Does it support social interaction? Are there various degrees of challenges? etc. If you create or buy playgrounds, I’m sure you use similar criteria.

Lately I have begun to see that this way of evaluating a play space is looking at play as a product rather than an experience. To begin to create truly innovative projects, I needed to find a new way of thinking about designing based on a deeper sense of play rather than just focus on the physical objects.

As I reflected on this question, I remembered the work of Jimi Jolley, who was one of the most inspirational and original thinkers I have encountered in the field of play design. He was often dismissed as being too far out and experimental but that was not my experience of him. Rather, I saw that he had a tremendous heart for kids and play. Thinking back on his work and message I realized that for the most part I have neglected the emotional experience of play, that is, focusing on the developmental benefits of a play space misses how it feels to play.

Fearsome Play

Over the past year or so I’ve been trying to come up with a way of integrating and supporting the emotions that children feel during play and to use those understandings in my design process. Here’s an example of how this new perspective can change how we design play spaces.

In these days of cookie cutter playgrounds there is a lot of pushback by parents, educators, and kids that playgrounds are no longer challenging. This observation is no doubt true, but to some extent it misses the point. The impulse to make playgrounds more challenging generally starts off by making them higher. The next common solution is to increase the strength, or coordination, or motor planning required by the environment.

While all of these functional ideas do increase the challenge, and thus the “fear” factor, they tend to compartmentalize challenge to just the physical aspects of play. They do not go to the core experience, which is vulnerability. As Brené Brown so elegantly and profoundly explores in her books and Ted Talk, vulnerability is a learned skill. Yes, you feel vulnerable when you are on a high perch, but you also feel vulnerable when you are making a new friend, exploring a spooky space, or just about any new challenge.

By reframing “challenge” into “vulnerability” we alter the discussion and design task from adding risk to creating an atmosphere of support where it is less threatening for the child to go beyond their comfort zone. By making a paradigm shift to begin to intentionally create play spaces that are safe places to be vulnerable rather than just risky opens the door to innovation and unanticipated solutions.

Connected Play – The Eyes Have It!

On an emotional basis there are few more touching moments than when we gaze into each other’s eyes. There is a “language” to eye contact. An infant gazes at you without any other agenda than simply “seeing” you. They look for subtle clues about your emotional state and do so without expectations. As children mature they learn to put a value on what they see: are you angry, are you glad to see them? Over time they learn to maintain long periods of “connected play” by periodically “checking in” as just a glance will suffice to let them know that they are still joined with their playmate. Another way eye contact creates connection in play is when we hear “watch-me!” or “look-it!” as the players perform for us. As designers watching for eye contact and the messages contained by these glances give us a way to know if the spaces we create “work” to support connected play.

Connected play creates emotional bonds. The longer we remain connected, the greater our capacity for trust in the other, and more importantly, trust in ourselves. The ability to remain emotionally attached during times of conflict is yet another skill that can only be gained through practice and the best and “safest” place to gain this skill is during play.

I can think of several ways that eye contact between players, and thus connected play, can be supported by sensitive environmental design. Reframing the play experience to include the notion of fostering connectedness can be another powerful tool for innovation.

Emergent Play – Its Magic

We all say that childhood is a magical time but what do we mean by this? Don’t we mean that, for kids, reality is a pretty fluid notion? During play many things magically emerge, disappear, or are transformed; a piece of string becomes a snake only to be transformed moments later into an accessory for a dance. In games like peek-a-boo, hide and go seek, and throwing things out the car window or flushing them down the toilet, making things “all gone!” ¾ children are playing with what is “real,” what is tangible and constant.

For kids there is no reason that things can’t just magically be transformed or emerge from nothing. There is a distinct emotional quality to this emergent play and the words “awe” and “wonder” hint at that feeling. My sense is that none of us are on as firm a footing, reality-wise, as we would like to think. We tend to believe that reality is concrete and immutable. But as any good magician, or physicist, can quickly prove, things are not as real as we think they are. For the child, reality is like play, an emergent quality. In games of peek-a-boo they may be closer to “reality” than we adults who think we are the ones who live in the real world.

The Tiny Door Project - Keebler

How does this notion of magical play get expressed in physical play areas? There is an interesting project called Tiny Doors that is a great example of how magic can be added to play settings. Kids love the notion of elves and fairies. These mythical creatures also play with the notion of a very small world, which by implication also invokes the huge world of giants. Just ask yourself, when was the last time you saw something magical on a playground? There are examples, like the work of Jimi Jolley, but they are like fairies and elves, quite rare.

Joyful Fun

Not all play is joyful, but joy is always playful. While many equate joy with pleasure or with happiness, it is really fundamentally different from either of these. When we look at the feelings of fun and joy, we can see that are two sides of the same coin. Unlike pleasure and happiness, which can be experienced by an individual, joyful fun emerges between people, and play is where this is most often experienced.

One of our goals in designing and creating play spaces should be to rigorously support children so that they can have joyful fun as often and for as long as possible. To accomplish this we cannot ignore the child’s emotional experience. Indeed, using feelings as the starting point is the only way this goal can be realized.

An Emotional Barometer

What I am proposing is to begin to look at play spaces in a new way. Rather than counting the swings, slides, and climbers on a playground or the number and kinds of toys in the playroom, I suggest we try to access how it feels to be in these spaces with others.

As parents, rather than making sure our child plays on all the equipment, I suggest we insure that we join our kids by making a strong emotional connection and that we notice and respect the feelings that emerge between us as we play. We should watch for and celebrate moments of vulnerability that emerge, so that we can support the play process without disrupting its flow.

As designers, we must add to our skill-set the ability to “feel” into the spaces we create and the activities we enable. Gaining such skills will indeed be a challenge. It will require that we open places in our hearts that have seldom been called upon in our normal practice. Sharing our insights with our clients will be even more challenging, since we don’t really have language for this conversation ¾ at least not yet.

NOTE: My thanks to David Verbeck for his review of, and comments on, the draft of this article.

Top Photo: (Photo: Jolene Ketzenberger, The Indianapolis Star)