Play In More Places

Photo: KABOOM!

Recently, KABOOM! launched a brilliant campaign to address the COVID-19 impact on children. The program is called At-Home Playground Kits. Here’s what they say about the kits.

Each kit includes items such as sidewalk chalk, pipe cleaners, crayons, coloring pages, origami play activities, and play prompts. The kits aim to promote physical activity while stimulating creativity. Our first deployment of these kits occurred on May 14, 2020, to families with kids attending public schools in Baltimore.

The At-Home concept is so inspiring, and I will be talking with my Rotary Club to do the same here in my hometown of Healdsburg.

We should not be surprised that KABOOM! should come up with this idea. Even though they are renowned for building play structures in neighborhoods that are play deserts, they are also very much involved with the notion of Play Everywhere. Here’s a quote from their highly informative and practical PlayBook.

Just as play benefits kids and communities in multiple ways, Play Everywhere has the potential to impact people’s lives and entire communities. When approached intentionally—analytically, deliberately, and holistically, with an understanding of the larger patterns, needs and challenges within a community—Play Everywhere can intersect with and support other community priorities, and help solve other community problems.

Reading through this empowering document got me thinking. The KABOOM! approach in this is mainly about urban placemaking. I got to wondering where else do children spend time that could use the same approach, i.e., providing practical advice and tools that are based on a deep understanding of child development? Almost anywhere, kids congregate, from after school programs to childcare, can benefit from better play experiences. What if a PlayKit is available to support Play Everywhere?

What would a PlayKit contain? Is there a model for that as well? Perhaps it can be like giant Legos with the same infinite creative potential. What are the design and performance criteria for a child configurable active play system?

  • Children must be able to construct and reconfigure the play experience without tools easily.
  • The elements of the system must be modular so that their constructions can vary in size and complexity to suit the needs of children from tots to teens.
  • The weight of the elements must be manageable by children. And conversely, the constructions they make must be able to support the weight of children.
  • Ideally, the elements should store easily, fit into a standard sedan, or at least, a pickup or van so that they can be placed where the kids are.
  • The system must meet applicable safety standards, including those for playground equipment and toys.
  • The system should be as affordable as possible.

Such a system is possible, and I’ve got some ideas about how to create such a kit. More to follow soon.


The Right to Risk – A Manifesto

AnjiPlay 2
Image courtesy of True Play Foundation

The Convention on the Rights of the Child was adopted and ratified by The United Nations General Assembly on 2 September 1990. This declaration extended other previsions protections, including the Geneva Declaration of the Rights of the Child of 1924 and in the Declaration of the Rights of the Child adopted by the General Assembly on 20 November 1959.

The article that most directly addresses the child’s right to play reads:

Article 31

  1. States Parties recognize the right of the child to rest and leisure, to engage in play and recreational activities appropriate to the age of the child and to participate freely in cultural life and the arts.
  2. States Parties shall respect and promote the right of the child to participate fully in cultural and artistic life and shall encourage the provision of appropriate and equal opportunities for cultural, artistic, recreational, and leisure activity.

Unfortunately, the language of this declaration is overly broad and less than actionable. It would help to see the relationship between human rights and needs. Des Gasper* writes:

The ideas of human rights and basic human needs are closely connected. Human rights – rights that apply for every person because they are a human right – can be seen as rights to the fulfillment of or ability to fulfill basic human needs.

He goes on to say:

The concept of human rights forms, in turn, an essential partner to the discourse of basic needs. It provides an insistence on the value of each person and a strong language of prioritization. These focus our attention and energies: ‘in adverse environments, the primary meaning of human rights is to make people aware of what is basically wrong’ (Goldewijk & Fortman 1999: 117). And when widely acknowledged as norms or legally recognized as instruments, rights form a major set of tools, legitimate claims, in the political struggles for the fulfillment of needs. 

In the 60 years since the UN Declaration of the child’s right to play, great strides have been made in understanding at a very granular level, the biological basis of play. It can now be stated without equivocation that at a biologically level, that play arises when the child takes voluntary action. Without the freedom to move, to explore, to change their environment, and to find challenge, there is no play.

While this statement would seem to be so true as to be without rebuttal, from the standpoint of actualizing this biologically driven requirement of child initiation of play, in reality, it is far from ideal. When we look at what society does by way of provisioning for play, it is clear that the child’s right to what Ms. Cheng Xueqin at AnjiPlay has rightly designated as “True Play.”

Consider these trends:

  • Automobiles and concomitant city planning, and irrational fears of kidnapping have restricted the freedom of movement of children from miles to just a few feet away from home.
  • Today’s playgrounds are designed to reduce challenge to the lowest denominator and eliminate the possibility of children making any changes in the play space.
  • Schools emphasize desktop learning even though the current science of brain development shows that children learn best when they are allowed to move.
  • Touching other children, let alone rough and tumble play, is disapproved if not explicitly outlawed.

Need we go on?

The bottom line is simply this. We give lip service to the notion that children have a right to play when, in fact, the majority of our norms, institutions, environments, and lifestyles actively suppress True Play.

*   The Essentials of Human Rights eds. R. Smith & C. van den Anker, 2005, London: Hodder & Stoughton, pp. 269-272.