Playgrounds Need Complexification

complex

What Is A Playground?
This article first appeared in Bernie DeKoven’s Deep Fun | June 16, 2010 |

Recently I attended a weekend seminar entitled “Deep Fun” presented by an old friend and play guru, Major Fun. One of the “exercises” Major FUN gave us was to create a playground in our mind and have some of our various “selves” play a game. I had my “Bad Boy” team up with “Mr. Incompetent” against”Good Boy” and “Mr. Capable” in a game of stickball. It was a wonderful meditation and a powerful technique.
During the course of this, I started thinking about the word “playground.” We use it so casually and often, but what is a playground, really?

One of the terms Major FUN used to describe the ideal play setting that was new to me was complexification. By this, he means that the play environment, toy, or game is made more compelling and engaging if it can become, or be made, more complex as the player uses it. I’ve always used the term diversification to get at the same idea, but I now think complexification is much better.

My idea was that if a playground simply had lots of stuff that kids would find creative and innovative was to use it as they gained skills. But complexification is better because it suggests that there will be increasing levels of difficulty built into the playground, not just more things to add to the play. This is an important distinction. What it suggests is that a well-designed playground will provide opportunities for the player to add increasing levels of challenge to their play.

Do modern playgrounds provide this? Only the best designs do and then only to a very limited extent. Most modern play equipment is pretty much restricted to one type of correct use and any other type of behavior is considered “misuse.”

The more I thought about the value of complexification the more I realized that this is the exact term I’d been seeking to describe the unique play value we are incorporating into our new BOLDR products.

Consider, for example, our TrainR climbing systems. These products allow the user to reach higher and higher levels of skill the longer that they play on them. The simple act of selecting a series of moves that omit the”easy” holds changes the same structure from a simple, and boring climb, into an ever more challenging one.

Our new FingerParks accomplish the same thing but in a different way. By providing a venue for kids to bring their toys to the park a FingerPark empowers children to be endlessly creative. Our goal is to encourage and support the same sort of”deep fun” that kids have when they play in a sandbox but without the mess and in a more evocative setting.

The main idea is that the thing that provides the greatest source of complexification is another player. The combination of a complex setting, manipulative toys, and several kids provides the fuel for rich and ever-escalating levels of complexity of play.
If you are like me you may feel ill at ease when you look at many of today’s playgrounds because they seem to lack something, some quality that would make them really wonderful. I submit to you that it is the lack of complexification that is at the root of our misgivings about the play value of many of the modern playgrounds.

Playspace and equipment designers will have to begin to think in new ways to introduce complexification into their designs. Today, the biggest obstacle to that sort of re-evaluation is our fixation on safety. So, in our next newsletter, we will return to the teachings of Major Fun to discuss this idea of safety and play.

2 thoughts on “Playgrounds Need Complexification

  1. Jay, I like this term. I agree that it is a better term. What worries me is the continued persistence of the usual playground (often virtual play deserts), the difficulty in spreading these ideas about the importance of play, and getting parents to understand what constitutes quality play and quality play spaces.

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    • That is one reason I’m so excited about working with Play and Music because they don’t have the same restrictions as Parks and Rec and we are in 700+ sites in 42 countries reaching 100’s of thousands of families of so the messages reaches a lot of hearts and minds.

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