The Great Backyard Play Disaster

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In my youth, I worked for a company that produced backyard play and subsequently written three books on play at home, but even though I’ve thought about this subject for decades, it is only now that I’m am beginning to understand what a disaster the typical products are for families.

Let’s start with the economics. You know these play systems as you can see the playhouse standing proudly above the fences in subdivisions all over the country. Parents will spend from $1000 to $3000 and up for a system. For this princely sum, they will get a swing, slide and the aforementioned elevated playhouse. The problem is that this investment is mostly wasted as the units sit idly 99.99% of the time. Why?

Let’s start with the elevated playhouse. When the playhouse is put up high, there is no ground space around it, and this is the space where most of the play will typically take place. The inside of the house is generally too small for much play or for lots of loose parts like cooking gear to support pretend play. A much wiser investment is a simple swing set with a slide and a separate playhouse.

The real problem, of course, is these set are boring as there is just too little to do. There is next to zero challenge and very little physical activity. From a physical standpoint, a trampoline is a much better choice so long as these are placed at ground level or have well-designed enclosure systems. A good trampoline will rival the combo play structure in cost but deliver 100 times as much play.

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But functional and cost issues aside the real problem with how most backyard play is provided is that the whole issue is approached incorrectly. For a MUCH better idea, I suggest you get a copy of Playborhood, by Mike Lanza. You see Mike has made the profound leap of understanding that kids don’t play with equipment as much as the play with each other. His solution is as obvious as it is profound. The first step in getting your kids outside and playing is to welcome in more kids. Yes, Mike’s yard would put to shame most parks, but many of the things that his kids do are simple, easy to support, and inexpensive.

That’s the good news. The other side of Mike’s story is time. Mike plays with his kids. Not all the time, in fact not most of the time. But when he does, he both suggests and listens. He follows the boy’s ideas and also adds to the fun.

The point here is that providing an environment that maximizes the benefits of play for your children is not an investment in a commercial package. The real solution is an investment of time, and of love.

Mike has shared how he has created his families playspace, but he is not alone in this. I have lived much of my life in the barrios of California and have seen backyards where the children played with rocks, sticks and a few well-worn wheel toys. In their way these simple backyards are just as beneficial for the kids because they are free to invent, to laugh and to play just as children have since time immemorial. If it is your intent to follow the path of natural play then how you choose to invest your time and your money will not go too far wrong.

12-30-18 Got a note from Mike:

I would amend your interpretation of my work in my neighborhood to say that I spent the time I did trying to change the culture of our neighborhood, not trying to control my kid’s play (as most parents do).  Now that kids come over on their own, as they have done in large numbers today, I’m very happy to recede into the background.

 

Eco-Play is a Non-Trivial Problem

Green energy

Since 2006 I have had an avocation of studying the impact of climate change and its relationship to economics. As we are in the process of setting up Constructive Playgrounds consulting, I’ve taken what I’ve learned and tried to work that into our business plan which turns out to be much harder than I ever expected. Oh, making a greener product is not that hard. Several toy companies do a great job of that, and my favorite is Green Toys.

The problem, as Tesla and the other makers of electric cars are finding out, is that you can be as green as possible, but there are many externalities of which you have no control that makes your work far less than green. As Bloomberg recently reported the electricity that powers those vehicles is often anything but green.

This grim fact forces us to look at the whole transportation issue. Should everyone have the right to drive their own personal vehicle that uses a tremendous amount of resources to create and sits idle for the bulk of its existence?

As we consider creating apparatus and venues for new types of play, we must think about the whole question of the total impact of such a venture. For example, could we recycle plastic and use it to print equipment locally and thus reduce both waste and transportation? How about creating equipment that is extremely durable and provide a support system of lending libraries so that the gear is used for many generations?

There have been various strategies employed in the past. My first commercial venture was with BigToys, and we used peeler cores left over from producing plywood and used tires. As the business grew, it became increasingly difficult to continue to use such materials because of their inconsistencies and, frankly customer preference. While BigToys continues to exist under new ownership the current product is a far cry from its roots. Play Mart and PDPlay companies make commercial playground equipment using mostly recycled content with modest success.

My other advocation, or maybe an obsession, over the past decade, has been trying to understand what it will take to solve the housing problem. My focus has mainly been here in Sonoma County, but the issue is worldwide. What I’ve learned is that there are good technical and economic solutions, but at its core, the problem is really about the attitudes of the public and entrenched standards and practices. The conclusion I’ve come to is that change to the housing crisis will require a proliferation of excellent solutions on the one hand and increasingly dire environmental conditions that force more drastic change on the other hand.

Applying the same logic to Eco-Play, we must strive to create excellent examples and that the products will have to be extraordinary goes without saying. But it will also require a complete package that makes this business one that matches the green consumer’s preferred lifestyle. An excellent example of this is the inhabiatots website that curates all things green and cool for kids. They display many successful ventures that successful at creating such systems.

As I have stated so often in this blog, the focus should not be on products but on systems, and the core intent is what is best for kids which includes ensuring that there is a livable planet in their future.

Maybe I’m a bit crazy about this but I’m not alone. Check out what Lego is doing

lego green.

Almost Everything We Do to Educate Children is Wrong

Reading

In the past couple of decades, there has been an explosion of new information about how children’s minds and bodies develop. Perhaps it shouldn’t come as a surprise, but most of our assumptions about child rearing and education are flat out wrong.

We are far enough along this discovery process to go beyond just recapitulating the studies. It’s time to begin to look at the revolutionary social changes that must and will take place over the next decade as we put into practice the consequences of our new-found knowledge.

Take education for example where the most noticeable change that has already begun is the transition to Inquiry-Based learning. I will acknowledge that much of this change is still too structured and curriculum driven, but the trend is strong and will become the dominant approach to education over the next decade. Along the way, the draconian practice of finals exams that test nothing of importance and negatively impact learning will fall by the wayside. Perhaps we will even see the most dramatic change of all, a later start to the school day.

It’s not just the big systems that will change but also how the systems interact and intersect. I’ve been exploring writing children’s books and have come to realize that the whole system is broken. While there are great writer’s and artists doing excellent work, the publishing industry seems to be hell-bent on killing the goose that lays the golden eggs by so gaming the system that the creative talent is one of the least compensated as a proportion of the overall gross revenue of any industry.

But it’s not just the publication of books that is broken. Look at how libraries manage books for young children. We know that reading the same books to your child over and over makes them smarter. That means the books have to be at home for years, not weeks. How do we fix this?

Or how about Storyline Online? They do a fantastic job of creating free videos of very well curated children’s books that are read by A-list actors. They even produce excellent parent and teacher activity guides to accompany each book. What they miss is one of the essential elements, helping parents understand that children benefit most when they do the reading not some actor on a screen. And it would be so easy to have that A-list actor add a second video talking to the parent about the important bonding and learning that takes place as they read the stories repeatedly. The final link is access for low income residents to children’s books for longer periods than libraries now allow.

The people who know how important it is for parents to read to their children is First Five California. They even have a nice budget to pay for great television ads to promote this idea. Visit their website to see what a really great program it is. But what about the parent who saw the spot touting reading to their kid? Any links, any follow through? Nope. How hard would it be for First Five and Storyline Online to coordinate their campaigns?

OK, I think you get my point. Good intentions are not enough! Is your intention to make excellent videos of actors reading books? Is it your intention to admonish parents to read to their kids? Or should you intend to get up to date on the current science, look for other organizations in the same space with whom you can coordinate and do so and maximize the benefits to children?

The Perfect Toys

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As regular readers of this blog know well, I am obsessed with finding those elements of the environment which physiologically trigger play behavior. Last month I added water as a trigger, and this morning I realized that I had ignored another of one the most potent prompts … the ball. Of course, ball play is universal across recorded history and cultures. John Fox has written the seminal work on this subject The Ball: Discovering the Object of the Game, and I will leave it to John to fill you in.

I think that I came late to realizing the importance of the ball as a prompt for play because it is so incredibly fundamental that I overlooked it completely.

As a sculptor, I am struck by the contrast of sphere to the majority of the built environment. The urban setting is primarily edges and corners, and we rarely see spheroid shapes, and when we do, they generally house something of a spiritual nature.

As a toy, a cube is great for stacking up, and that’s about it.  A ball, on the other hand, can be rolled, thrown, caught, kicked and hit.

I am also struck by how durable the ball is as a life-long toy. We play with balls from infancy to our dotage as we head out to the golf course.

Whereas a ball’s essence is its shape, water is the opposite; it has no form. Water play is all about the container, whether the container holds water or water contains the player.

Both balls and water share the aspect of flow. Both are preeminent in their capacity to be entirely under the child’s control, which is the key to their power as both toys and learning facilitators.

As a metaphor for sharing a communication, it seems that shaping a message as a sphere rather than a cube would make its transmission much more effective. Maybe that’s what is happening to modern society in that information these days can be transmitted in a multitude of ways, not just by word of mouth. The same can be said for water as a shape for communication, as information has the same tendency for a flow-like behavior. It wants to run downhill and can be only temporarily dammed up. As they say, information wants to be free.

History Lesson

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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!

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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!