Kid’s Culture Trap


I’ve recently had the opportunity to do some observations of preschoolers at play. The program serves children predominantly from Latino families. In particular, I watched six girls as they sat around a table with various toys. As I have been reviewing my recollections and impressions, I suddenly came bolt upright and exclaimed, “They are becoming their mothers!” You may think that’s not a shocking insight, but let’s look at that observation in more detail.

Not long ago, I was on the site council for our junior high school for three years, and we struggled with the low performance of our Latino students who make up a large percentage of our school population. I learned that the problem was a combination of many things, such as language challenges and economic issues.

One area where we saw success was addressing the dropout rate for girls. It seems that as these children began to become young ladies, their attention was diverted away from learning to social interactions and acceptance. Many of these girls turned that pattern around when they became engaged with sports. The biggest successes came when each student was paired with another girl who was already successful in sports.

It seems evident that different cultures value education in different ways, and this bias can be seen in patterns of academic achievement. Cultural disparity is apparent not just in middle school but in elementary as well. My epiphany was that, if we want to allow every child to reach their full potential, we need to address the issue of cultural bias in preschool where a child’s fundamental personality is primarily developed.

So, back to my onsite observations. What I was watching was very sweet. The girls were all chatting away in Spanish. The group was inclusive, allowing other girls to join in. They spent the whole outdoor play period in this activity, which I saw repeated often over subsequent visits. It was easy to envision them doing the very same activity for many decades to come. They are becoming their mothers. What’s wrong with that?

What’s wrong is that any one of these children, who come from low economic circumstances, could become a doctor, artist, philosopher. However, the high likelihood is that they will marry young, raise children, and have a minimum wage job, if and when they find employment. What I find disturbing in these children is the passivity, the lack of curiosity and exploration. While such children are a comfort to their parents and a joy to have in the classroom, they do not display the take-no-prisoners attitude that I associate with a child who is truly thriving.

As I have been mulling over these impressions, I began to reflect on how different the Latino children I observed and those I see in other programs such as Takoma Park Cooperative Nursery School, or AnjiPlay where the children are full of energy and inventiveness. What makes for this dramatic difference? These programs and others like them, focus on promoting free play. They nurture this independent spirit as a freezing man nurtures their campfire.

This line of thought has made me aware that the core change has to be with the school staff and environment. Teachers must become alarmed when their children are docile and obedient, quietly going about their assignments. Red flags should be popping up when we see children coming what their culture expects instead of who they truly are.

Throwing Shade on Play – Part Two

kids in desert

Here is our reader’s response to Throwing Shade on Play – Part One

Hi Jay,

Thanks for sending me the draft of the blog post. I appreciate your points on mitigating sun exposure with sunscreen and protective clothing, and I agree these can help.

However, a primary issue I have with a lack of shade at playgrounds is the direct sun causes little kids (and caregivers) to face heat exhaustion, which then limits play. In an ideal day, I would be able to take my child and play outdoors for 2-4hrs/day. But even when dressed with hats, sunglasses, sunscreen, spf rated clothing, and armed with plenty of water, we both end up weary within an hour of being at the park. Not to mention sometimes the equipment becomes too hot for kids to touch.

Sure, play can be achieved inside in an air-conditioned house or indoor playgym. But these are usually much smaller and limit how much kids can run around, climb and get the sensory feedback of interacting with nature.

I see shade as promoting the following:

  • protecting kids and caregivers from UV and sunburns
  • letting kids play longer outside and interact with nature
  • keeping the equipment from being too hot to play on
  • prolonging the life of the equipment by protecting it from the elements
  • attracting more people to parks by providing a cool space to gather

I sympathize that following building codes are challenging and expensive, I used to work in construction for the federal government. Adding a standard describing how much direct sun is acceptable during the peak sun hours may be helpful, but it could sound like extra overhead to a parks department or builder.

Would it be possible to incentivize the inclusion of shade structures somehow? Longer warranties on play equipment that is protected from the elements? Matching funds for playgrounds that have shade from health departments or local hospitals?

It’s definitely a challenging issue to build cities with shade, even outside of playgrounds. 99% Invisible did a great show on why shade is so hard to find in the city of LA which you might find interesting:

Thanks for the discussion,



Nisha raises many valid points. Let’s look for some solutions.

The first and most obvious idea is simple – TREES. Trees not only provide shade, but they also drop the ambient environmental temperate by 10 to 20 degrees. They even are able to drop their leaves in the winter when we want sun exposure. Chosen carefully they are adapted to the local climate. And let’s not forget that they can offer climbing opportunities and many other play benefits.

For too long, have maintenance departments, risk managers, and attorneys ruled playground design and facilities. I suppose we can blame the parents of injured children for bringing the lawsuits that resulted in the sterilization of play spaces. Rather, I contend that it is a lack of universal health care that forced families to seek a way to pay for injuries, and that fight continues to this day. All I’ll say on the matter is that voting matters.

I can attest to the value of trees on playgrounds from experience at Magical Bridge Playground, where the founders, Olenka Villarreal and Jill Asher, insisted on bringing in mature oaks at great expense. I can attest to the fact that these additions addressed the comfort issues that Nisha raises.

Magical Bridge Foundation

The problem with trees is, of course, that the ASTM playground safety standards require ridiculous amounts of fall zones around equipment. Of course, we could use trees as integrated structural elements. Oh, wait. We can’t do that because those pesky standards mandate engineering standards that can’t be realistically achieved with trees. Never mind that treehouses have been part of children’s play from forever.

In a recent post on this blog, Barefoot Playgrounds, I discussed the issue of shade. California Education Code now requires shade on playgrounds. Unfortunately, these have not made a significant improvement as both the placement and size requirements are insufficient to the need.

wt_large shade

I hope that I can work with a client in the near future to use a shade system that is common in nurseries that is inexpensive. Using shade cloth that allows the wind to flow through reduces the structural requirements quite a bit. I’d also like to install a misting system to reduce the temperature as well. The only downside of this is one of aesthetics as these are anything but attractive.

This discussion has brought up many valid concerns that will become increasingly important as we continue to adapt to climate change. Even in this belief overview, we can see that there are interesting possibilities that we can explore. That may require some changes in code, standards, and maintenance requirements, but these are things that can be changed when we begin to adopt the idea of creating play ecosystems.

Please, join the conversation and add your ideas and concerns here. Visit us at Constructive Play Design.


Death by Plastic

bag plastic

Photo Saverio Truglia

I want to say one word to you. Just one word.

Yes, sir.

Are you listening?

Yes, I am.


Exactly how do you mean?

There’s a great future in plastics. Think about it. Will you think about it?

This was 1972 in the movie The Graduate, and already plastic had come to become a major force in American society. Today, it has become increasingly clear that plastic is becoming a threat to the oceans, soil, and planet.

It turns out that children are one of the biggest, if not the biggest, consumers of plastic. They are literally cocooned in plastic almost from the moment of birth. That pretty pink blanket is likely made with synthetic fabric that washes thousands of micro-plastics into the waters with every wash. The teething ring? Sippy cup? Car seat? Toys and their packaging? All plastic.

The preschool environments are as bad or worse. Check out the catalogs from the two major school supply houses, Discount School Supply and Lakeshore, and the only pages without plastic are the ones with books. How about the playground? Today the most popular equipment is made of plastic.

OK, plastic is cheap, can be easily sanitized, and is durable. Great. But from the child’s perspective, it is all the same experience. Plastic robs children of the complex sensor experience of natural materials. Even metal has more going for it on a physical level. At least it varies temperature with the weather. And, yes, there are some things that plastic does better than other materials do only with great difficulty. So, we are not advocating for no plastic, just less.

It turns out that the real problem isn’t so much that plastic is a pernicious solid waste. The problem is that it is made of petroleum. Oil is only cheap when you don’t factor in the environmental costs, which we are now coming to understand are unbelievably huge. There is a better way.


It has long been known that very good plastics can be made from alternative materials and that such plastics biodegrade in reasonable time frames and cause negligible damage to the environment or to children’s health. This is the future. For example, Lego is in the process of converting all its products and packaging to sustainable materials. They are even considering hemp-based bricks. Other materials such as bamboo, mushroom millicium, algae, and organic cotton are already becoming viable alternatives.

The big oil companies can be expected to fight the loss of their market tooth and nail. It is our responsibility to our children and the planet to stop buying products that are primarily petroleum-based plastic.

Visit Constructive Play Design at

Throwing Shade on Play – Part One


We know that kids need to get outside more. The last thing we need is for parents to be concerned about UV exposure and cancer. Here’s a comment I recently received:

“I have been doing research into playground design since I now spend a lot of my time there with my 2-year-old daughter. One thing I have been confused about is why, so few playgrounds have shade built in – either through trees or shade structures or the equipment itself. I live in Santa Monica, CA, and it’s rare to find a park with shade even though its sunny most of the year here. I emailed the city parks & rec department, and they said it’s in the plan, but they don’t know when it will be added. But to be fair, I think a lack of shade is common for playgrounds in many cities. I know your specialty is playground design, but I was curious if you have any thoughts on why shade isn’t built from the start in many playgrounds. Is it just cost? Are there any efforts you’ve seen that are successful in getting shade added – perhaps grants or partnerships?”

As is the case with many concerns about safety, the predictable response to this is likely to be ineffectual and counterproductive. Here’s why.

Yes, shade is often not part of playgrounds because it is expensive. The primary driver of the high cost is the wind load requirements that mandate engineering that ensures structural integrity for winds of 100 mph or more. As the size of the area covered goes up, the structural requirements increase as the square. This means such strictures tend to barely cover the play structure.  This small coverage means that such shade is only useful when the sun is directly overhead, and when children are on the structure itself. These factors mean that this expensive “solution” may provide only a few minutes of protection per child. So, what’s a parent to do?

The first step in any risk management program is to access the exposure. That starts with genetics. Fair-skinned people have a much higher risk of skin cancer than those with darker complexions. A family history of skin cancer is another red flag. For the ultimate information, DNA tests can spot children most at risk.

Of course, there is always sunblock, but there are limitations on how effective this can be since we generally don’t apply enough or as frequently as we should. Lotions above SPF 30 provide very little added protection. As with so many issues in child-rearing, there is no silver bullet solution.

By no means do I want to be seen as belittling the concern or suggesting not to take the issue seriously. While world-wide activism has fixed the hole in the ozone layer, climate change is making sun exposure an increasing concern primarily due to hotter days. Until we fix this problem, we will have to adapt.

The first step is to add a wide brim hat to children’s play apparel. This is a good choice for all children as the face, neck, and ears are the most often exposed and hence to the most frequent site for adult cancer.  For sensitive children or longer exposures, parents should consider sun suits that are designed for snorkeling.

As I have been researching the apparel option, I have been unable to find a line of UV protective children’s clothing that is made with sustainable fabrics such as bamboo, hemp, and organic cotton. This lack of climate-adapted clothing presents a real business opportunity as it will not be too long before there is a huge switch away from synthetic fabrics, which produce thousands of micro-plastic particles with every washing.

This notion of dressing children appropriately for the emerging weather conditions may seem a bit kooky, but I can assure you it will happen sooner than later. As with other adaptation, we have to make, taking positive action is a step in the right direction.

Childhood exposure to ultraviolet radiation and harmful skin effects: Epidemiological evidence.

Visit Constructive Play Design at

The Resilient Child


For the past six months, I have been making a study of what has been called “eco-anxiety.” As the science and consequences of environmental degradation becoming increasingly known by the population as a whole, and to youth specifically, the mental and physical health impacts are mounting and widespread.

My first impulse has been to see what can be done to address this trend. I investigated establishing an education center here in Sonoma County, something along the lines of the Exploratorium in S.F., that would display and allow children to explore concrete actions to address climate change. After several months interviewing the various stakeholders, it became clear that, while the idea was valued, there was little to no appetite for adding such a project to anyone’s agenda.

As this effort was winding down, I came across the work of Dr. Harris and her book, The Deepest Well, which sets forth the impacts of adverse childhood experiences (ACEs) on children and their future health. It became clear to me that eco-anxiety is rapidly become a new ACE to add to the ten already identified. One of the main ways that ACEs can be mitigated is through counseling. Given the number of children impacted by climate change with over 70% believing that this is a crisis that will have a significant impact on their lives, it became clear that there will be a huge need for counseling in the near future. As I explored such a project, I came across a group within the American Psychological Association that is looking at this issue. After several discussions, it became clear that these folks know what the problems are and are also actively creating programs to address the need.

While the issue of eco-anxiety remains a concern for me, it is also clear then some people are much better positioned to address the problem than am I. My sweet spot is play in early childhood, and my action plan is to write a book on play patterns and their triggers. To that end, I have completed the first draft and submitted my proposal to NAEYC to further develop the manuscript for publication.

As I have been pursuing this endeavor, I recalled that Dr. Harris mentioned that not all children who have ACEs have the dire mental and physical outcomes that are so often the outcome of such exposure. Why?

It is reasonable to assume that children who turn out fine despite experiences that will traumatize others have a quality that can be summed up with the word “resilient.” While that are many experiences that help a child be more resilient, I thought it would be helpful to identify the characteristics that I think of when I consider the term. I’ve organized these into a chart.

Resilent Child Chart

I based this idea on what I have observed that children learn through self-initiated play. It is easy to see that that free play builds the mind, the body, and the spirit. Then I looked at each of these domains and identified the skills that play promotes.

I rather like how this turned out, but I don’t pretend that this graphic has scientific validity, or indeed, captures all of the traits that help a child be more resilient. I will maintain, however, that the thrust of this diagram is essentially correct. I also feel that its simplicity goes a long way to illustrate the primary benefits of play-based environments and programming.

I am interested in hearing your thoughts about this approach.