History Lesson

snap town

Being a designer is a bit like being a parent. You have dreams for your progeny, do the best to see that they have a good start, and the rest is up to them as they go out into the world.

In 1984 we were in the process of recreating PlayBoosters after Landscape Structures had purchased Mexico Forge who had been our producer. We named the new system KidBuilders to be produced by Iron Mountain Forge in Monett, Missouri, who went on to become Little Tikes by Rubbermaid. This new relationship had me traveling to Missouri on a regular basis.

One of the joys of my work during this period was introducing the products to the early childhood education community. It was at one of the NAEYC conventions that I met Mike and Barbra Richter who produced and marketed a great line of educational toys and equipment and were located in Kirkwood, MO. During a visit, while passing through to Iron Mountain Forge, I suggested that they should have a sand and water table in their product range which they thought was a great idea.

Discovery table

Rotational molding of plastic parts, which we had introduced to playgrounds a couple of years earlier with PlayBoosters, had become readily available and I figured this was a natural material for the play table. So, not wasting any time, we went downstairs to their basement and I created a mock-up of the idea in cardboard. In a few months later, the product was launched to a great reception. People may think that designers must make a good income. My fee for the design was dinner that night. But more to the point, I got to hang out with this great couple.

The Richters were also selling a modular play system called Snap Wall which was comprised of interlocking plastic squares. I thought that the Snap Wall system had more potential and Mike wanted to see what could be done with it. It seemed logical to add triangle shapes, tunnels, and more interesting square panels.

Both the sand and water Discovery Table and Snap Wall went on to excellent market success for over two decades. The company, Children’s Factory, is still doing quite well although Mike passed away in 1977.

I’m sharing all of this because by following the history of a product it can inform one’s understanding of how a product can succeed and what forces lead to their longevity or discontinuation. In the case of the Discovery Table, it continues and has morphed into somewhat different shapes based on ease of use by teachers.

Snap Wall is a more interesting tale. It seems that the use of roto-cast plastic has become ubiquitous and many more innovative products have had an impact and it has lost its uniqueness. It was an odd product even in its heyday in that the pieces were somewhat hard to assemble and difficult to rearrange so the modularity was therefore not all that useful. In addition, functionally it was in a sort of no man’s land in that it was primarily a crawling environment which appealed to a relatively narrow age group.

The lesson that these two designs illustrate is this. A simple and straightforward solution to a recognized need will endure and generate improved spin-offs. A clever design idea that only somewhat meets the needs of the intended user group will persist in the market until replaced by more functional solutions. So, note to self, don’t fall too much in love with your bright ideas. Although in my defense, the original interlocking concept was by someone else and I only gave it a broader and bigger market, but the lesson is still valid.

The Playground is Dead! Long live the Playground!

AC15_r161_002

I’m going to put myself out on a limb here. I hope you will bear with me.

If you have followed my blog over the years, it must seem odd that, as one of the architects of the modern playground systems, I am such a harsh critic. With this writing, I hope to make my reasons clear.

Let’s start with the basics. In over five decades in this field, and having worked with nearly all the major producers, I have never run across anyone, management or otherwise, who has done a simple analysis of playgrounds as a business. For example, a basic business premise ought to be to make it a goal to have the product placed where customers have access to it. The plain fact is that for most children reaching a playground, especially on their own, is next to impossible. There are any number of studies that demonstrate that the closer a person is to a product the more the product gets used, thus play spaces need to be close to home and not miles away reached by busy streets.

How about this? There is also a direct relationship between the amount of control a child has over their environment the longer their play episodes and the higher the benefits. Today’s playgrounds are generally designed so that children are presented with only active play, and they have very little choice but to follow a prescribed route to unmodifiable activities.

Or consider the business economics. Playgrounds are a phenomenon of the middle class, and in the States where the middle class has been eviscerated, it is a dying business. Don’t believe me? In contrast, the number of new playgrounds being installed in new facilities in China with its burgeoning middle class is huge whereas the bulk of installations in the States are replacements for old.  As play equipment becoming increasingly durable, the replacement rate becomes lower.

Some people may point to the growth of the major play equipment companies as an indication of the health of the industry until one realizes that this growth is primarily due to acquisition rather than innovation.

It is true that there are thousands of “playgrounds” across the country which suggests that my assessment may be wrong. But take a closer look, and you will see a rote formula: 1) ball field, 2) benches, 3) tables 4) play structure and if you are lucky 5) a covered area. These playgrounds are not dedicated places intended primarily for children’s play. Instead, they are multi-purpose community facilities which happen to have some play equipment in them. The intent of these parks is not primarily to provide play, but something for everyone and the result is that the play space offers little more than a short-term babysitter while parents have their picnic and play ball. While there is nothing wrong with that, the problem is, that because their core mission is not children’s play, these facilities, as pleasant as they are, fail miserably at providing for all of the children’s play needs.

In summary, the playground equipment industry makes a product which the intended users have great difficulty accessing, and when they do arrive, the level of engagement and the benefits are inadequate for their needs.

The playground is dead!

But is it?

We can reasonably predict some future trends that will have an impact on playground design. First, autonomous electric vehicles will happen sooner than later allowing the community to reclaim the streets so that access will become easier. Also, there is no question that populations will grow increasingly densely packed, and urban open space will become far more valuable which in turn will require smaller and more focused and beneficial recreation facilities.

There is an increasing appreciation of play, as well as access to nature, as essential for children to maximize their potential. Future well-designed play spaces, places that are designed for all of the children’s play patterns, will be considered as critical play-learning spaces.

As we move forward into a greener future, today’s over-built, material intensive, boring playgrounds will be as out of place as a ’58 Cadillac. They will be replaced with lighter, more flexible and diverse spaces that include abundant playable plant materials, places to dig, to make and create. Perhaps they will even have play leaders.

Long live the playground!