It has been known for well over a hundred years that children’s natural play patterns include gross motor, constructive-manipulative, and pretend-social play. As humanity has moved to become increasingly urbanized it is interesting to observe how these needs are accommodated within our communities.
Dedicated places to play have only been part of humanity for two centuries. Until the late 1800’s kids just played, when and where they could. Starting with the industrial revolution, dedicated places for children to play were invented to get “urchins” off the streets as they were disrupting the smooth flow of commerce. These spaces were designed not for play but to improve health and moral character.
Today’s playgrounds follow this paradigm to the extent that they provide exclusively for gross motor activity, primarily swinging, sliding and climbing, and to a lesser extent balance. The degree to which such playgrounds meet at least the physical needs of children depends on the diversity of apparatus and graduated challenge. Unfortunately, the vast majority of today’s playgrounds are one-size-fits-all.
At the end of WWII, Lady Allen created the concept of Adventure Playgrounds and, with the exception of sandboxes, for the first time constructive-manipulative was introduced into the commons. Recently these permanent spaces have been supplemented with pop-up adventure play programs.
Pretend, and social play has appeared sparsely in public settings. These are generally created by DIY community groups wanting to provide miniature houses or even towns. Commercial apparatus producers will occasionally add decorative facia to their gross motor play apparatus in an attempt to meet this need with varying degrees of success.
Currently, the only play spaces that meet all of the children’s needs are found in early childhood education centers and the updated version of adventure playgrounds in Europe. The primary reason that these facilities are able to provide support for comprehensive play is the presences of supervision.
Recently in some of the larger and more complex playspaces such as those in children’s museum and at Magical Bridge playgrounds, restricted access and volunteers have enabled such playgrounds to be both more inclusive and offer a wider spectrum of play opportunities.
The finest example of accommodating play in all of its richness is to be found in the AnjiPlay early childhood education. What makes AnjiPlay the apex is that in addition to the most inventive and creative environment, the program includes supporting the children in documenting what they learn through play. This fostering of recursive play is both extraordinary and potentially disruptive.