How Design Relates to Play

How Design Relates to Play

10 Plus Playground courtesy of KOMPAN

Throughout my nearly five decades of designing play apparatus and spaces I have been really gratified to see kids play on the results of my efforts. These days, however, I have begun to consider that perhaps design and play are antithetical to each other. I now suspect that I was seduced by the whole process of bringing an idea into reality and having it accepted in the marketplace.

Even at the start of my work I knew that kids played better in a natural setting than anything I could create. My justification for focusing on creating play apparatus was that kids spent much of their time at school and needed something that was fun and safe to play on. I also felt that it was possible to create experiences that were rarely available in natural settings. The first schoolyard structures were such a hit that I never looked back. The early wood structures I created gave way to metal and then plastic and then accessible features and the rest is history.

While I was instigating lots of volunteer built play structures in San Francisco and the Bay Area, Robin Moore was developing the Washington Environmental Yard. I loved the changes that he was able to accomplish there. The natural features that he was able to introduce and the level of participation and enthusiasm of the teachers and parents were phenomenal. I felt that the combination of active play apparatus, natural features, garden, and game spaces made for the perfect environment for kids in school settings. Indeed, an active play structure was added to the Washington yard to set a model that I was sure would be replicated everywhere.

Looking back over the last 40 years it is clear that we knew then what made for the perfect schoolyard, but that model never gained ascendancy. In hindsight it may be that there was insufficient value given to including nature in children’s spaces that we now have come to appreciate. Perhaps with the burgeoning interest in natural play the time has come to revisit the comprehensive model that Robin created.

The latest Apple phoneBut what about my contention that design, at least as the idea is typically construed, is antithetical to play? The primary role of a design is to create the form that follows the intended function. But what if the “function” is play? A child can turn an apple into a hot rod by just saying “Brrrumm” and pushing it around or calling mommy to say “I love you, Mommy!” on his apple phone. In the literature this is called “counterfactual” thinking; the apple is not a car. If I design a play car, then it is a car, and this essential creative process by the child can be thwarted.

My friend Tom Lindhart Wils, who founded and directed KOMPAN, used his considerable design talents to create abstract play forms based on the notion that these would not be too literal and would allow children to more easily imagine that a spring toy was a horse or a unicorn or a motorcycle.

The thrust of this Danish Modern design approach, if you will, is to simplify forms down to their essence. The question I have with abstract play forms is that there is no evidence that children respond to them more creatively than literal forms. We do know that children have longer and more complex play episodes in natural settings than in typical playgrounds, and nothing is less abstract than nature. I suspect that when it comes to play settings, rather than simplification, the more complexity the better.

Play Area Design

Good design is all about asking the right questions. When it comes to play and playground design, we tend not to be honest about the first and most important question to be asked: “Who is the client?”

In my earliest work I can honestly say that the client was the children. As time progressed, however, the client became the manufacturer, then the park director, the risk manager, and finally the maintenance crew. Needless to say, the answer of what is a good playground design is VERY different depending on which one of these constituents is the real client. I feel the weakness of most playground projects is the idea that it is possible to satisfy this wildly varied collection of constituents, and by trying to please everyone, we end up with the cookie cutter blandness that is all too common on today’s playgrounds.

I’d like to suggest a new approach to play space design and look at the reality of how playgrounds are used today.

In the last couple of decades we’ve learned a lot about how communities use recreational spaces, so we must ask who will come and how will they use the play space?

  • Kids don’t come to the park on their own, they are driven there, so playgrounds are predominately a family activity.
  • Isolated parks tend to be vandalized, so we want to encourage multi-generational and multi-functional design. For example, the City of New York Department of Parks & Recreation now put community gardens adjacent to some of their playgrounds with great results.
  • Toddlers using play structures designed for older childrenDespite the efforts of playground regulators, toddlers will use play structures designed for older children, often with adult assistance.
  • Tweens will hang out on play structures.
  • Lawns are increasingly valuable as they disappear from neighborhoods.
  • People will bring bikes, strollers, toys, balls, and dogs.
  • Play spaces without bathrooms are used far less than those that provide for human comfort. Parks with grills and tables get more use and for longer periods than those without.

We also know that creating a sense of place is essential for a successful and popular facility, and we should look for ways to preserve or create unique place identifiers.

  • What elements exist or can be added that give the play space a sense of place?
  • How is this space connected to the people who will use it?
  • What is the “message” the play space gives to people? Is it warm, inviting, hip, cool, exciting, calming? How does it make you feel?
  • How does the play space connect to its neighborhood and community? What are the existing circulation patterns? Are there schools nearby and will they use the space?
  • What community groups are involved with the design process and how are they empowered to remain engaged?
  • How will the play space evolve over time; for example, is there a post installation review and retrofit process?
  • Are there places that provide a sense of enclosure where small groups of kids can just hang out?

These are just a few of the observations and questions I share with my clients before we even start the play space design process. My goal is to have those participating in the design process to begin to think “outside the box” that is, to not design with the shapes drawn on a plan and drop in equipment from catalogs but to visualize the play space as a four-dimensional living entity. These days with the ease of using 3-D rendering tools it is possible to provide excellent images of any proposed project.

The specific questions are not as important as the intent of the process. The best play spaces are those that people care about and that have been clearly created with attention to details that reflect respect for the users. The process of play space design is far more important than any other consideration. When the design process is inclusive, and dare I say loving, the opportunities for creative innovation and for creating enduring and endearing spaces blossoms.

Site Rendering Courtesy of UPC Parks

Play Structure Design

Let’s get one thing straight: a play structure does not make a play space. Indeed I often advise my clients who are creating preschool play spaces not to install a play structure at all as these products tend to take up too much space and budget for what they deliver in benefits. There are three main consideration when implementing a design for children 6 years and younger.

  • Sizes and abilities will be all over the map so variety is a key requirement.
  • Adults generally accompany little kids and designs should consider how the parent/child dyad will use the space.
  • Details matter. A play structure that is composed solely of plastic and powder coated metal just doesn’t cut it.

Designing play structures for older kids is an entirely different matter. We all know the basics, play structures should be heavy on physical challenge and linkage, but beyond that we tend to be less clear.

Here are some of my suggestions:

  • Graduated challenge is important. For example, one type of overhead event is very limiting. When adding upper body apparatus, there should be some that are simple monkey bars and others that require more complex movements. And don’t forget turning and chinning bars. These cost very little, have big motor development benefits, and are perennial favorites with kids.
  • Climbing is a huge draw, but here the playground industry has let us down a bit. Many years ago I was collaborating with Dr. Larry Bruya and he taught me that there are “climbing gaits.” I was familiar with walking and running gaits but hadn’t thought about using that idea in regards to climbing. In walking and running the feet face forward and the arms and hands are at the sides. As any mountain climber will tell you, real climbing requires all sorts of movements and positions. Unfortunately, almost all playground climbers that are not rock walls or boulders are designed for this sort or movement.
  • Balance activities are one of the most important pieces of apparatus on any playground. Children’s bodies are changing proportions very rapidly, and they need constant opportunities to adjust their balance system to match their current body shape.
  • Consider the paths of travel. I’ve seen designs with four slides down and only one way up. If a play structure has four ways down, it needs at least four ways up. More is even better, since going down takes far less time than climbing up and it’s the climbing that provides motor development and the slides that provide the motivation.

ADA Design

It’s been 24 years since the ADA law was passed, and I find it hard to believe that many people think that ADA compliance is still a separate part of the design process. Throughout my participation in the citizen advisory process, consultations with manufacturers, and discussions with clients, I have been steadfast in my contention that we have gone about this in the wrong way. While I think that the goal of the ADA was and is noble, both the process and outcome are flawed.

To me the whole ADA process got started on the wrong path. In my experience the reason that the whole issue became so contentious and the resultant product so unsatisfying is that there were, and are, two points of view that have to this day been unresolved.

On one side of the argument there is the parent, let’s call her the “access” advocate, who wants to take her child to the playground only to find that she and her child can’t use the wonderful play setting that her tax dollars have been used to create. Her position is very simple: if you provide a service, it should be available for all, and by golly, if you have a slide in the park, then her child has the legal right to access it.

On the other side are those who we can refer to as the “inclusive” advocates, who do not have a specific child in mind that they want to accommodate but rather have the goal of insuring that all kids have the chance to play together.

As this drama played out, the process was driven predominately by access advocates. Logically they looked at existing legal standards for structures, we are after all talking about play structures, and basically applied the architectural standards with very minor adjustments. The results of the standards so created are heavily ramped monstrosities that ended up appealing to no one. For me the saddest sight in the world is a child who uses a wheelchair on the playground without anyone to play with.

More and more people are beginning to accept that the legalistic approach to design required by the current ADA regulations doesn’t produce an appealing play space. Fortunately, progressive designers are beginning to find ways to both comply with the standards and provide universal appeal.

Perhaps the most important innovation that addresses this issue is the development of ground level play structures. Perhaps a little background is needed here.

Rock ClimberHistorically all of the old freestanding monkey bars, jungle gyms, and cube climbers were ground level play apparatus; the only event that required elevation was the slide. When the notion of linkage was introduce, all that really happened was that those activities were attached to decks. While this innovation made for much greater appeal and benefits for kids, it created barriers for some.

The new ground level designs, to a large extent, overcome this problem. To my knowledge the 10 Plus product range that I worked on with KOMPAN was the first example of the ground level play idea. This was followed by KOMPAN’s Galaxy range brilliantly executed by the design team lead by Michael Laris. In short order, Landscape Structures and others brought out other versions of the concept.

While the ground level systems remove most barriers, they can’t solve the access issues for slides. The workaround that most producers have adopted are apparatus designs that kids can kinda-sorta slide on but they aren’t called slides.

Another play apparatus that helps us move toward universal design is the climbing net tower. The initial designs were based on pyramid shapes supported by masts. More recently we’ve seen many beautiful and complex shapes introduced. While a climbing net is not as challenging as real rock climbing, it is better than the typical walking-movement style climber. Best of all, nets are flexible and move with the players, which is fun. Or at least they were formerly. Many of the ones I’ve looked at recently are so stiff they might be made out of iron. What’s up with that?


I’ve made a number of perhaps controversial statements and asked some provocative questions and I’d close with some more questions that may be the most important:

  • What elements on your playground design introduce a sense of whimsy?
  • Where will giggles happen?
  • Will children discover hidden treasures?
  • Will everyone in the community feel welcomed and included?
  • Are you having fun?

Considering Sports from a Developmental Prospective

This article was first published in the Summer 2014 issue of Playground Magazine

Wonder League

To fully understand the role of youth sports in the lives of kids we need to consider natural course of child development. Growing up is rarely smooth and kids can show both very mature and infantile behaviors at the same time, however it is possible to speak in broad terms of developmental stages. The literature in the field generally recognizes these stages; discovery, play, games and sports.


In one sense the discovery stage couldn’t be more obvious, it’s the child’s first encounter with something. The discovery process is so commonplace that we often fail to see its real significance. To understand the impact of discovery in development of children we need to look at the number of novel things that are available and the manner in which the child seeks to explore them. On the one hand the more new things there are available the greater the child’s opportunities to learn.

If the goal is to realize the child’s full potential this insight suggests that exposing children to as many types of sports as possible is important. It is also important that the child’s developmental stage is consistent with the situations and environments in which they are exploring.



While the discovery phase allows the child to find out “what is this” – the play phase involves “what can I do with it.” Allowing children the maximum time possible to play has been shown to strongly correlate with functional intelligence, creativity and psychological robustness.

To maximize play two conditions should be considered. The first is choice. As with the discovery phase the more variety of play opportunities the better. But equally important, the ability of the child to choose what they want to play with and how they want to play is equally important. In my work with early child programs we found that conflicts between children where reduced to zero when there were at least 3 play options for every two children.

The second consideration for maximizing is safety. This is a bit tricky since there is a tendency to make things “safe” by removing anything that might be “dangerous.” There are two problems with this approach. The first is that this safety-by-subtraction tends to reduce the play choices kids can make. The second is that adults can imagine millions of ways that kids could possibly be hurt and tend to go way overboard.

A better approach is to reduce the frequency and severity of accidents by removing hazards. A hazard is something the child can’t be expected to see, i.e. hypodermic needles buried in a sand box or an attack by a bully. This balance between functional and perceived safety is beautifully illustrated by adventure playgrounds which appear to adults to be full of danger but, because all of those challenges are early visible to kids, these playgrounds have been shown to have fewer accidents than traditional playgrounds. In summary then the role of adults in maximizing play is insuring the most diverse environment possible while using their experience to identify and manage the hidden “mousetraps”.


For purposes of this discussion I’m going to suggest that games can be defined as play behaviors that occur between two or more players. The child can discover and play alone but can only play a game with others (or an external device that functions as an “other”). That is to say that the main difference between play and games is that games are social.

Games appear very early in a child’s life. As soon as a child discovers that a behavior such as making a certain sound elicits a positive response from their caregiver that vocalization will be repeated in a game-like fashion. From very simple interactions such as this the child soon learns that various behaviors will initiate various responses. It does not take long for the child to begin to understand that there are underlying rules to these interactions. At a surprisingly early age they can begin to create “meta-games” where they begin to play with the rules of the games. For example, when playing peekaboo instead of just covering their eyes they will drop out of sight, which they find hilarious.

The importance of this phase cannot be over empathized. Allowing the players to spontaneously evolve the rules of their playful games is the basis for learning fundamental social interaction. Children’s subtlety, creativity and speed of rule generation and behavioral interaction is breathtaking. The more time children are allowed to play these spontaneous games the more socially adroit, confident and successful they will be.


The primary difference between sports and games is that the rules of sports are external, whereas in play the “rules” come from the children/players. Back in the early ‘70s when I first started doing Build Your Own Playground in San Francisco a study was conducted at one of the schools where we had organized a volunteer-built play structure. This happened around the end of the Vietnam War which brought an influx of Vietnamese students to San Francisco and the School District wanted to learn how well they were integrating. The study looked primarily at girls and the dominant game they played was jump rope. Initially the study showed that the new students were playing well with other kids. Within a few weeks however the Vietnamese students were playing by themselves. Looking for the cause for this breakdown the researchers found that the Vietnamese girls would not play with the existing street-wise students because those girls kept changing the rules to the game. The local students were playing a meta-game and the newcomers were engaged in a fixed rule sport.

Cultural anthropologists often analyze the main sports a civilization plays to understand the values that civilization holds to be most important. For example, many culture’s popular sports were highly competitive demonstrations of combat readiness. Within this category we find some cultures that valued honorable play very highly where others respected ruthlessness and success.

Some societies feel very strongly that its citizen’s should all closely follow the social norms while other communities are far more open. In regimented communities parents and other adults may feel pressured by their society to insure that the children in their care have incorporated the values that their culture prizes and thus can become quite assertive as they guide children into sports so they can learn the “rules”.

The Play Spectrum

To summarize the forgoing we can see that in the process of discovery and early play children learn about themselves as an internal process. At the next level children learn through games about interpersonal relationships, which are between people so they are external to the child. In sports children learn about the values of their society and culture and is a public process.

Another way we can explain this arch of developmental growth from simple discovery to sports is to put the process in the form of a story. Since many sports involve some sort of ball let’s make Mr. Ball the protagonist of our story. In the first chapter Mr. Ball meets baby Bobby whose first interaction is to taste Mr. Ball, followed by picking him up and shaking. As soon as Bobby can sit up he will have Mr. Ball rolling all about the house and not long after that, Mr. ball will go flying across the room. While Bobby finds its fun to chase down Mr. Ball and roll him again, it is even more fun to have Mom roll it back and thus the games begin. Bobby soon learns that Mr. Ball can not only be thrown but also can be caught and hit. The final chapter finds Bob and Ball at the stadium playing against another team.

Too Young for Sports?

This description of the developmental sequence of play, while painted with an admittedly broad brush, gives us a basis to consider what is the appropriate age to introduce kids to sports.

The proposition advanced here is that discovery, play, and games establish the self-knowledge and interpersonal relations that provide the context for understanding cultural and societal values. This notion suggests, therefore, that it makes sense to wait to expose kids to sports around the same time as we formally introduce them to other cultural norms. This sort of citizenship instruction includes learning about political participation, religious teachings as well as economic and reproductive responsibilities, etc. Of course these subjects are routinely make up the grist of children’s stories and so are not news to kids when they encounter them as part of their coming of age instruction, which generally begins around 9 to 11 years of age. By this age kids are generally expected to be able to demonstrate practical and behavioral integration of these norms.

The reason we don’t ask children to fully integrate societal values earlier is that they do not have the experience to give them the appropriate context. A strong case can be made that formal instruction in sports before adolescence is premature for the same reason. What I am suggesting is that for younger children ball games should remain games, that is, that the rules are flexible and player controlled and the games are played for fun rather than winning. Such playful games are about learning skills rather than achieving some performance criteria. Another way of saying this is that we should seriously consider whether it is appropriate for children below the age of 9 to have a coach, whether that trainer is instructing in religion, politics or sports.


Why do we love sports so much? We root for our team, sometimes for decades, even when we know they have little chance of winning a championship. While success is important to our engagement with our home team, failure can be even more important. We don’t just cheer for the team; we also closely follow the performance of particular players. We become familiar with their challenges, how they got into the game, how they deal with long stretches of poor performance, etc. The player’s stories merge with the saga of the team and we identify with the character that emerges as they face adversity in a very public way.

What this illustrates is that unlike most other cultural phenomena sports has a very unique quality – it is exceptionally public. This exposure creates a fertile environment for shame when expectations are not met. While some young children have the internal resources to deal with shame many do not. Some families can provide support for kids who experience shame but many do not.

There are millions of kids who dream of being the next Buster Posie but the chances of their achieving such a lofty position is vanishingly small. Kids can clearly see that the predominant way we evaluate the quality of play is all about performance. We measure success in sports in wins and splash hits and kids are coached and drilled to emulate the same perfection we expect of professional players. Of course good coaches and parents emphasize sportsmanship and focus on getting the best from each child rather than just winning, but when we are honest with ourselves and take a critical look at the totality that is the sports world the predominate message is winning and yet we know that the vast majority of players will not make that grade and so are set up for failure and hence shame.

Because we tend to view sports as a wholly beneficial activity it is easy to under appreciate the impact on those who cannot, or choose not, to play. Yes, sports do build relationships and friendships. But non-participation can stigmatize and marginalize. This phenomenon only becomes a problem when sports participation comes to dominate the recreational options available to children.

Recognizing this issue some youth sports programs try to insure that “every kid is a winner”. These programs can be effective but often the kids find them insufficient to compensate for their less than great performance on the field.

To reduce failure and shame youth sports should emphasize fun and camaraderie. With a bit of ingenuity it is entirely feasible to change the emphasis from winning to having fun. How would that look in actual practice? My Rotary Club has a program called the Wonder League. This is a series of weekend games that pairs kids with special needs with members of the community such as the local high school and semi-pro baseball clubs. The program really promotes inclusion of special needs kids in the schools by allowing the athletes, who are often role models for other teens, to become comfortable with socializing with kids with special needs, and vice versa.The rules to Wonder League games are simple, every kid gets to hit and get on base; everybody scores. Everybody is engaged and everyone benefits.

My concern is that all too often parents, coaches and recreation professionals tend to think that when they provide good sports facilities and programs that their job is done. We leave making time for play up to the kids, but in today’s high structured childhood there often is no time available for play. Parents hear “Mom, I’m bored” and quickly fill the void with “enriching” activities at best or passive entertainment at worse. It is hard to remember that kids have to get bored, and stay bored long enough to begin to create real play for themselves.

As we push sports to younger and younger children we run the risk of creating a generation who don’t know how to play. This phenomenon was first flagged twenty-five years ago by David Elkind in his pioneering book The Hurried Child. A mounting number of studies have verified and further expanded on this theme and most child development specialists now acknowledge that many children suffer from a Play Deficit Disorder.

Balancing Sport and Play

In a recent article in the N.Y. Times the case was made that Kids Need More Structured Play, Not Less. As you would expect there were strong reactions on both sides of this argument. I think this sort of decision is best left up to children’s caregivers but I also know that the days of free play in alleys and vacant lots is largely a thing of the past. For today’s children there is a sense of urgency that they succeed on one hand and the fear of something bad happening on the other. These two concerns, largely unsupported by any actual facts, tend to combine to produce the over structured and highly supervised lives of today’s kids. We can’t return to the days of just letting kids be kids and have to make some conscious efforts to adjust to the new realities.

There are many ways we can enhance the benefits of, and access to, play while maintaining plenty of engagement with sports. When communities make investments in sports facilities and programing they should also make sure that there are provisions for unstructured time and spaces where kids can play. For example, one way to do this is to put a challenging bouldering type of climbing wall next to a baseball field where the kids can get a demanding full body workout before or after their games. Even some small elements like a slack walk rope, or chinning bars will be used to good effect.

In the home parents can provide unstructured loose parts like cardboard boxes, tape and shears for some adventuresome play. This gives kids a starting point for self-directed play while also sending the message that such play, and the mess it may generate, are OK.

Making sure our children have plenty of time for play and not just sports is crucial. When we make creating a balance of play and sports for kids a priority there are tons of ways that we can make that happen in our homes and in our communities.

Those of us who love sports and want our children to learn and enjoy sports have a responsibility that our passion does not rob children of their childhood.

Healdsburg Tech-Play Camp – Where do we go from here?

Once we found out that we couldn’t do a lot of the tech we wanted just on iPads and that we needed high end computers we concluded that the camps will not be sustainable as currently configured in that the resources required will add too much cost for typical camp participants. Recognizing this we are beginning to think about shorter camps that don’t require so much computer overhead.

We learned that a 3 week camp too long as the campers quickly consumed all the materials we had and that in turn required going to program content that was outside our set of goals, and so we propose running the next camps for just one week each with fairly narrow subject matter. We also discovered that with a 3 three week camp 3 hours per day was too long and the campers needed other diversions. Again requiring adding support like snacks that were not in the original plan. However we think that with shorter one week “intensive” camps, 3 hrs per day will work, at least for campers 12 and up.

We learned that there is all kinds of tech out there and that we can really open up to new ideas, tools and toys.  Again, shorter, more focused camps will allow this to happen.

While looking at other types of tech we have found that some of these ideas, like rockets and robots can be found in our local schools so we want to be sure to bring additional interest to these that make them as fun as possible. Here’s the current list of ideas.

Proposed 2015 Tech-Play Camps

Rockets Rockets

Tiny Door  Make a Tiny Door and find by GPS

QR Trail  Creating a Nature Trail

Robots  Robots

games  Invent Your Own Game

Aerial Aerial Photography

Cannons  Cannons

3d  3D Printing & Graphics