Where Playspaces Went Wrong

Back in the 60’s I was doing community-built playgrounds on school yards in San Francisco and other parts of the Bay Area. Across the Bay, Robin Moore was improving the play yard at Washington School. We shared similar concerns about the need for students to have better outdoor experiences while at school. Because I was an artist and sculptor and Robin was a landscape architect we took very different tactics and life directions.

The Washington Environmental Yard was a success because it is an ecology, not just ball fields and a play structure

Robin’s path was to green the schoolyard which included ripping out asphalt, planting trees and shrubs, adding raised beds and a stream. All these years later the

Screen Shot 2018-06-02 at 9.12.59 AM

Washington Environmental Yard is exemplary and has spawned a movement that is currently seeing a resurgence. I, on the other hand, created play sculptures that were meant to replace the metal pipe jungle gyms that had proven to be somewhat hazardous.

Both Robin and I faced similar challenges. For example, the maintenance of the playground was, and still is, a huge concern. Robin’s solution was community organizing and engagement. Robin’s career has followed this same path unerringly and has eventuated in NC State College of Design Natural Learning Initiative that is the best source for information on using natural resources in educational setting.

My trajectory was to make play structures that provided the most diverse physical challenges and required as little maintenance as possible. Over the following decade that evolved into my creating the modular metal/plastic, post and deck, system that has become the world-wide standard.

Jay on 1st Build Your Own copy 2
The first school creative play sculpture. That’s me in the middle.

While I am pleased that my invention has become popular, it distresses me that it has become the primary way that play is provided. This is a huge mistake.

Here’s the first modular play structure. I’m the guy in the cherry picker holding the camera.

As Robin, and most of those with a background in early childhood development will confirm, gross motor play is but a small part of a child’s play or educational needs. A far better solution is an outdoor educational ecology as the drawing of the Washington Yard illustrates. Only a few school playgrounds have implemented Robin’s vision but recently the movement is gaining traction.

As the old saying goes, “No good deed goes unpunished.” In the case of my invention I have been horrified to see it be so misused.

Let me explain.

What schools need is a play structure that provides a wide variety of motor challenges, climbing, balance and upper body challenges. These events should be connected by diverse routes of travel such as slides, bridges and walkways to create “do loops” that support the natural games of chase and tag that kids play from ages 5 to 10. Such structures need to accommodate 20 to 35 children at a time if competition and safety issues are to be avoided. Unfortunately, such structures are expensive, so school play structures tend to be less than half the needed size resulting in poor gross motor development and a “no-tag” rule. That such “playgrounds” are abysmal failures can be established very easily. Just drive by any school yard in the summer and you will generally see that no are children playing there. If this bastardization was not insult enough, the modular system has also become the default mini-park solution for play.

Small unit

Why is this “solution” such an abomination in my view?

  1. It’s boring
  2. It provides little developmental benefit
  3. It supposedly fills the need for children’s play while failing miserly
  4. It’s aesthetically repulsive
  5. While these cookie-cutter units may meet the minimum ADA guidelines, they tend to not be inclusive

Since this is my baby I can bemoan its misuse.

Is there a good alternative? To understand the problem and the solution, one should understand why the need that the modular play system was initially designed to solve. Yes, the clear function is gross motor play, but also the system was designed to provide for large numbers of kids during recess who were not into the ball and yard games, that is, they take the pressure off of more structured activities. None of these conditions exist in parks so why is that parks have adopted this system wholesale?

Tell me, what’s the most interesting thing on any playground?

Other children!

This is why small playgrounds fail. Not only do small playgrounds fail children’s physical developmental need, they also fail their social development. Because recreation departments and landscape architects have “done their job” by dropping in a budget meeting structure the parks and recreation management think that things are just fine. But ask any parent of small children and they will tell you that these gestures are inadequate. Drive through the community on a summer day and look at play structure after play structure that sit empty. Gone are the days when kids would jump on their bikes and head to the park. These days play has become an all too rare family excursion.

So, to the solution:

To be successful play spaces in public parks need to be viewed as recreation facilities designed to serve the whole community. As such, these become a municipal facility such as a swimming pool in that they have the potential to serve citizens of every sort simultaneously.  This is not true of ball fields and courts which tend to be used by persons of similar skills and interests.  What is true of pools is also true of a successful community play space.

  1. They are expensive
  2. They are fenced
  3. They are staffed, often with volunteers
  4. They have programs and events

Are there examples of such community playspaces? Yes! The one with which I am most familiar is Magical Bridge in Palo Alto, CA.

Maical Bridge
Magical Bridge – Palo Alto, CA

The proof, they say, is in the pudding. In the case of this project, the playspace is generally packed. This is the essence of inclusion, not being the kid who stands out because she is now just part of the crowd. The ebb and flow of the use patterns at Magical Bridge is instructive. At times there may not be a single child with special needs in attendance and at other times they can the most prevalent players. Nobody cares about all that because they are just having fun.

Need more proof? Because of this resound popularity, there are currently four more Magical Bridge Play Spaces in construction and several more in planning.

Here is my personal plea. Stop, just stop, with the plunk-n-play structures. Make it right. Make it BIG. Make it for everybody. Make it Magical!




2 thoughts on “Where Playspaces Went Wrong

  1. Bang on Jay. Don’t beat yourself up about the preliferation of post and deck structures. There are many many post and deck playgrounds that are well designed. But you are so right, a truly engaging playground needs so much more than big structures. And the world is starting to see that.
    Thanks for putting what we all feel about unidimensional playgrounds into your good words.


  2. Jay, I found this to be very thought provoking. Ever since your proposals back in the “Day” you have shown creativity and love for making child’s play mainstream. I will be contacting you to discuss in more detail. Jim Simpson RLA #2098.

    Sent from my T-Mobile 4G LTE Device


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