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?
Next, let’s look at 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.
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.
12-30-19 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.