Serendipitous Design for Play

I so clearly remember the first play sculpture that I did in a school. I had a very clear idea about how the kids would use each feature of the piece. As is generally the case, there was a ceremonial “opening” in which all the students were released all at once to mob the structure. Within five minutes, they did everything I had imagined and then went on to invent so many more that I lost count.

One of the play events I introduced on that day, and nearly all subsequent designs was the banister slide. Adults would often ask me, “How are kids supposed to use that?” My response was, “Exactly the point, it’s up to them to figure it out.” Indeed, when I would join a class for P.E. I would have a group of kids join me at the banister slide and give them the following instructions, “You can do anything you want to do, except something that has already been done.” We typically spent the whole period on that one event and never ran out of innovation.

Throughout my five decades of play design, I have followed this simple rule, the less I can anticipate how kids will use the designs, the better they are for play. Of course, there is generally some push back from adults who have definite ideas about what playgrounds and toys should do and look like, and I’ve had to learn how to design so that those expectations don’t create too much rulemaking on the part of adults who expect their children to behave “appropriately.”¬† The balance is to appear to be normal and safe to adults while including as much oddball open-ended stuff as possible. I’ve learned to add serendipity to my designs.

This image of the little girl hanging by her hands is an example. The arch at the top rail was added to provide an entrance-like detail and head clearance for older kids climbing onto the fourth and highest platform. I anticipated that it would become a spot for children to hang by their hands and was delighted that not only does this occur regularly, but parents are generally permissive of this very beneficial activity.

hang by hands

This image of two climbers side by side illustrates the idea of serendipity perfectly. The climber on the left uses shapes that mimic rock climber holds and is part of my original design 20 years ago. We replicated them for the new system to honor the success of that design and maintain our traditional appeal. The Peg Climber in the center is something else again. I had no idea how exactly this design would be used. It turns out that each age approaches climbing it differently. Toddlers simply ignore the pegs all together and just swarm up. A year later, and they go up trying to avoid using the pegs to assist them. By three they will try to go up using just the pegs. The most advanced children will go up, stepping only on the pegs.


The Play and Music system has a huge advantage when it comes to providing serendipitous play. All of the elements can be moved and the experience reconfigured. That means what was once a climber can become a bridge. What was used as a slide can become a climber. Perhaps the best illustration of this is the Net Climber that can be removed for the frames and set on the floor where it can be a rocker for five babies or a spinner for two preschoolers.


As we noted in another blog a few days ago, toys and play equipment currently available for children are predominately one dimensional and support very specific and limited play opportunities for creative and unexpected play. We can do much better than this as designers and as consumers. For example, parents and teachers can help by selecting playthings that have some ambiguity about them. Look for loose part systems that are complex. Allow kids to mix systems. And if at all possible, find ways to introduce magic.


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