iKids on the Playground

This post first appeared in Playground Professionals, January 19, 2015

A new baby seat that comes with an iPad mount has some parents and experts worried that children that age are far too young to be getting screen time.

Over the past year there have been many articles written about the impact of screen time on children. Such concerns are nothing new. In the ’50s, many of the same dire predictions where rampant over the impact of TV. Interestingly, some of those predictions, such as kids becoming more sedentary on one hand and more informed on the other, turn out to be correct.

The debate raging these days is an order of magnitude more complex. Part of the difficulty in sorting the issue out is that many of the arguments use studies that relate to TV rather than smart devices and so fail to take into account the interactive aspect they provide.

Basically the core issues for reducing screen time are:

  • Can damage normal brain development
  • Reduces the amount of “normal” play and hence normal development
  • Reduces socialization and emotional development
  • Exposes children to harmful values and ideas
  • Interrupts sleep

On the other hand we hear that:

  • Proper management of screen time is a parenting issue
  • Video games can be used educationally
  • When kids have cellphones, they increase communication with parents, build trust, and increase safety
  • Access to the Internet provides unprecedented learning opportunities

Regardless of where one stands on this issue smart devices are an inevitable part of children’s lives in our media-rich society. What does all this mean for play and playgrounds and for those who create spaces for play?

Connecting to the Internet is rapidly becoming “embedded” in nearly all everyday products.

Connecting to the Internet is rapidly becoming “embedded” in nearly all everyday products. We already have smart brakes on our cars, smart ovens, etc. This intelligence will become smaller and in the near future they will be completely linked together. Our environment will be “encrusted” with information and we will swim in its web much as today’s children swim in the world of multimedia. For them, this new “Internet of Things” (IoT) age will be totally natural. For those of us who still live in the industrial age, it will be a weird world…one which we do not understand and which is largely invisible to us.

“The Web Dream is what smart kids across America – smart kids across the world – are dreaming. They might not trust in God or Family and they sure as hell don’t believe in Country; they believe in Themselves, and in the power of their cleverly customizable, infinitely scaleable, robust and ubiquitous, interactive, pull-down-menu Dreams.” Josh Quittner, Web Dreams, Wired Nov. ‘96

So what does a playground for the iKid look like? Well, it does NOT look like a big computer. We have to look deeper into how the “wired” experience changes the worldview, and even the brain structures in the minds of today’s children.

Due to the iKid’s immersion in digital media, there are some conceptual characteristics that are “natural” and that the wired child has come to expect from their environment.

1.   Layered and Linked – The computer games kids play have hidden levels and the whole Internet is structured so that nearly every page has layers beneath it. Not only are there layers but there are also links where one connection leads to another.

Surfing the internet

2.   Non-linear – The web experience is often called “surfing” and a good mental image of this process is the child exploring information like a dog wandering down the beach following his nose and skipping from interest to interest.

3.   Configurable – Kids expect to be able to change their experience on their devices, for example, by creating whole worlds or designing their own avatar. In the virtual world of the Internet, physical constraints and consequences disappear and kids experience a universe of unlimited behaviors. This leads them to expect a very high level of flexibility from their physical environment.

4.   Virtual – Adults think that virtual” means intangible and thus not significant. But for the iKid, their online existence and persona can be every bit as real as their physical world. That’s one reason that online bullying can be so devastating, which most adults can fully appreciate.

Playing Wii

5.   Interactive – The online experience isinteractive in several ways. Kids can interact with each other both virtually, as with Skype, or physically as with such virtual reality games as those on the Nintendo Wii. The capacity to program smart devices is also a type of interactivity as the child creates commands that the computer or robot enacts.

6.   Recordable – The sense of time begins to change when iKids can record their favorite shows for later replay. Today’s kids are also the first generation to see hundreds of photos of themselves from infancy on. They carry smart devices that can record and save much of their experience. These memories become a form of currency and content within the childhood culture, which are used in many ways.

7.   Embedded – As we enter the age of the Internet of Everything, the web itself will be embedded in the environment bringing all of the characteristics discussed here into the child’s immediate environment. The big change is that until now “information” was static, for example, all of the stories and memories packed into the McDonald’s arches or Nike swoosh logos. In the near future those logos will communicate directly with the child through IoT to their devices.

8.   Real-time – Google owes much of its success to a fanatical dedication to speed. It is not unusual to get thousands of responses to a search in fractions of a second. This means that waiting will increasingly become “a drag.” Studies show that boredom is often the wellspring of creativity, and today’s kids have very little tolerance for waiting and boredom.

GoPro cameras for kids' activities

9.   High tech, high touch – We are already seeing that today’s kids not only lead rich virtual lives, but many are also extremely physical. Consider how common it is to see kids doing all sorts of wild activities with GoPro cameras recording every second.

Now that we have identified the major experiential differences that characterize the typical iKid’s life, we can ask, what do these insights tell us that can be used to make playspaces more attuned to, and engaging for, the iKids of today and tomorrow?

1.   Layered and Linked – The physical challenges of playgrounds should only be a small part of the total play experience. Within the playgrounds obvious functions such as climbing and swinging, there should be additional elements that are discoverable with in-depth use. Most importantly, there should be elements in the playground that connect to the virtual world of information, and this will become a natural extension of IoT.

2.   Non-linear – Current playgrounds are very linear, they present activities in a sequence of things to do, i.e. go up the climber and go down the slide. A more interesting and engaging approach is to make the juxtaposition of elements seemingly random or chaotic.

3.   Configurable – The playspace should allow for changing as many aspects of the interaction as possible. Loose part systems like theImagination Playground are ideal.

Virtual play with smart phones

4.   Virtual – There are obvious applications of electronic games, but there are also some less obvious things that can be done. The smart devices that iKids carry with them provide so many functions that they should be thought of as a combination of a general purposes computer merged with an entertainment center. The devices can provide music and other sounds. They can be used to create augmented reality, so that the iKid can “look though” the camera and see an overlaid dynamic image that can be a theme such as Angry Birds replete with interactive characters. Today, themed playgrounds cost much more than undecorated structures. In the future, the iKid will be able to select their play theme at will, so that every time they visit the playground, the theme can be different.

5.   Interactive – Play is intrinsically interactive, but the difference for the iKid is that tying these ideas together can become, if you will, hyper-interactive. The capacity to video chat alone brings a whole new dimension to play. In the very near future we will see many Apps designed specifically to enhance children’s play. The most exciting aspect of this is that many of these Apps will be created by the iKids themselves.

6.   Recordable – The emerging discipline of gamification has clearly demonstrated that being able to keep score greatly increases engagement. As with old school pinball machines, with smart devices in play on playgrounds iKids compete for best scores of historical players. They can adjust the score keeping, giving players of various skill levels handicaps as is done in golf for example.

Tiny Doors

7.   Embedded – Future-proof playscapes must be thick with ways to link, both physically and virtually to stories. These stories can be provided by Apps or made up by children. An example could be to provide a physical “Tiny Door” in the playspace as well as an App that generates a programmable elf so the parent can customize the elf’s behavior for their child. Using augmented reality, the elf can appear and interact quite wonderfully with the children. Such interactivity will be best when it is largely kid controlled, and when that it available, it will allow myth making to return to the child culture.

8.   Real-time – It is true that the responsiveness of modern smart devices can breed impatience. The beauty of bringing tech to playspaces is that the addition physical activity and challenges change the pace of play back to a human level. The key is to insure that the inclusion of technology is used to facilitate the child’s own play and not to provide entertainment.

9.   High tech, high touch – In the near future we are sure to see a bunch of tech hanging off metal and plastic play structures, but my sense is that smart devices will be most powerful when combined with naturalistic playspaces. My reason for asserting this is that the ability of smart devices to project virtual reality allows for the kind of elf-play mentioned above which will be difficult to integrate on typical play apparatus.

In conclusion, we should not be afraid of the “wired” world and the iKids who inhabit it. Instead of being overly concerned, we should try to understand this inevitable change and prepare ourselves, our children, and our playspaces to embrace to it.

Naturalistic Playscapes

Naturalistic Playscapes

Jay Beckwith 12/24/14

Water ropes

Image courtesy Roel Crul of Vorm en Ruimte, the Netherlands


My recent article for Playground Magazine dealt with the materials technology of playgrounds. One of the materials I mentioned was the trend toward using more natural elements such as logs, plants and rocks, etc. I needed a good image of a playscape to illustrate this and reached out to a Linkedin group I belong to, Natural Playgrounds. In addition to a lot of images a whole discussion ensued that was very interesting.

Buckminster Fuller taught that words are the key to thinking and that to get to original thoughts one had to take great care to use the right words. Often he would have to invent a word, like synergy, to actually express his ideas. I suggest that the term “Natural Playgrounds” is wrong and should not be used by advocates of this concept.

In fact the spaces that are being called “natural” are anything but. They are carefully crafted, lovingly built and sustained by human intervention. A better term is “naturalistic” which connotes that they are inspired by nature but created by people.

When we use the tern “playground” all sorts of preconceived notions cannot be avoided, i.e., manufactured apparatus, safety regulations, low maintenance, etc. A better term for these projects is “playscape” in that it alines with landscape and hardscape and evokes swath of natural terrain.

Paige Johnson has been blogging for years as Playscapes and has almost single-handedly popularized the term. Here is a link to her Pinterest page on natural playscapes. As you peruse the pins I think you will agree that most of these examples are “natural” only in so far as the materials are predominately wood, stone and plants with few manufactured elements.

Svane Frode has an amazing collection of play images and studies. He forwarded this example of Valby Park in Copenhagen, to us. I highly recommend following both Paige’s and Svane’s Facebook page.

I would also like to point to the long history of Rusty Keeler in this area. Rusty has held to this vision through thick and thin and is now getting the recognition that is long overdue. Another long time advocate is Robin Moore with the Natural Learning Initiative. Here’s his latest work.

Nature Play PDF

Playable Landscapes

There is another concept that needs definition. I propose that it would be useful to add “playable landscape” to our vernacular. These spaces would be comprised entirely of plant and mineral materials selected for their suitability for children and play.

The quintessential playable landscapes are the ubiquitous turf fields in parks. While universally accepted the surrounding edges of these fields are rarely considered as venues for play. As our urban spaces become increasingly hostile to wildlife such marginal areas are the last bastions of nature in many areas. This is a precious resource that deserves serious and professional attention.

A key issue with such marginal spaces is that are they not only sought out by animals, insects and kids but also by the homeless. Thus intentionally making these spaces appealing will necessitate coordinated and long-term management.

Between a Rock and a Hard Place

In the discussion a major bone of contention was issue of the application of ASTM standards to such places. While the problem of living of a litigious society is uniquely American our colleagues around the world have also voiced such concerns so it bears addressing. It does little good to point out the ASTM standards themselves limit their applicability exclusively to public playgrounds. In my view this was a cop-out by the committee who had to be aware of “standards creep” and that the best available information could be and would be applied wherever children are invited to play. This problem is further complicated by the advent of the ADA, which mandates access to public recreation facilities.

In a society that, in the face of all logic, puts the rights of the individual above the benefits to the community, this becomes a difficult issue to overcome. But it has been done and this example can guide our thinking and efforts. There are many examples of skateparks adjacent to playgrounds where they serve many of the same children. Whereas on the playground no child can play above a hard surface, on the skatepark it is not uncommon to see kids get 6-ft of “air” above concrete. Yes it took a couple of decades for skateparks to be broadly accepted and for the doom and gloom predictions to be proven groundless, but it has happened.

This same transformation can occur for playable landscapes and naturalistic playspaces. This change will likely follow the same pattern as skateparks where pioneers and advocates create workable examples, which get replicated into more and more communities. It is not unreasonable to expect that these new play spaces will become commonplace over the next decade.

So, dear colleagues, let us henceforth forsake the words “natural playgrounds” and speak rather of “naturalistic playscapes.” Let us also look at the entire space we create for public use and identify areas where nature can be supported in “playable landscapes” and so doing accurately conjure in the minds of the public the realities we seek to bring about.


Here are some of the images I received interspersed with excerpts of the ideas and comments from the conversation on the Natural Playgrounds Linkedin group.

Good School Guide

Image and PDF courtesy of Russell Tod, Grounds for Learning


Rolf Huber – EVERPLAY International

Are natural playgrounds exempt from the formal requirements of playgrounds in the same way “Mother Nature” is?


Image courtesy of Helle Nebelong, LA, Sansehaver, DK


Curt Wear – Community Playgrounds

We have been getting requests and have been providing “Natural” play areas for many years, the ‘new wave’ has been cresting for a while. Rolf, you raise a good question, what are the safety standards for many of the so called ‘natural’ features, such as use zones and specifications for boulders, logs, stumps, berms, etc. Even zip lines and climbing nets are now combined with nature areas.


Image courtesy of Roel Crul of Vorm en Ruimte, the Netherlands


Jerry Cooper – PlayScapes unLtd

Is the ‘Natural’ playground solution verses ‘Traditional Manufactured Play Products’ a helpful debate? Are they not just different approaches towards providing a variety of fulfilling play opportunities and it may be that a combination of both approaches works in some contexts and not in others. It shouldn’t be one camp verses the other? 


Image courtesy of David Verbeck


David Verbeck – Grassroots Playscapes

We’re (sic) now on the verge of accepting a new direction, the same dependence on play brokers is happening. The best playgrounds that I see are a result of a community of people who come together with leadership committed to make good for kids. 


Courtesy Fiona Robbé  AILA, Fiona Robbé Landscape Architects, NSW


Curt Wear

I believe playground companies maximize play value, and the market decides what will go forward successfully, their designers and engineers are earnest in these pursuits. Are there allot of cookie cutter play yards & steel jungle gym climbers, sure, they won’t be going away. Putting natural play opportunities along with made equipment would be, should be the goal. I see such a tremendous variety of choices currently available, with regard to playground design, it’s exciting.


Image courtesy of Courtesy Dennis Smiddle, FANS of Play


Bob Melhus I do not see any way that the “Natural Play Movement “ could ever develop an excepted form of Safety or even building Standards like the CSPC or ASTM. ,too many variables and interpretations “Too Organic”. My humble two cents on all this, drop the word playground, rename it the “The Good School Nature Area Guide”. Keep the two camps separated, their cross overs are really not that great. Children need to be active and they need to experience nature. Why are we insisting these two simple concepts should or need to be combined? For the Nature movement, it would be a much easier concept to sell, especially to large scale entities like schools and public parks, if you focused on promoting and developing greater opportunities to experience and learn from natural areas like gardens, hills, trees and creeks. The “play” component will be a natural occurrence/outgrowth, no need to draw so much attention or focus on it. Insisting on combining the two, along with so many, enthusiastic consumers and professionals, jumping on this new movement not really knowing what they are doing, getting into or the long term viability of these types of projects, could ultimately lead to the eventual failure of an important movement. A better and more lasting approach might be to leave the climbing, swinging and sliding to others. 


Image courtesy of Anita Van Asperdt,  LandCurrent Natural Playgrounds




Jay Beckwith – Beaconeering

Calling a natural space a “playground” is an issue. The death of the “Adventure Playground” movement was calling it a playground. Had we called them “neighborhood camp programs” people would have understood that it needed staffing and loose parts. I also agree that the liability issue is real. However, now that we have certified inspectors, many of them quite good, these professionals can sign off on most environments and provide as effective protection as IPEMA.

Image by Jay Beckwith