Democratizing Playgrounds

Photo True Play Foundation
Photo True Play Foundation

I’ve been reading Tom Hobsons’ Teacher Tom’s Second Book. In the chapter titled Rabble Rousing, the talks about democracy and play, as he does in a number of his writings. I was particularly struck by his depiction of the children, citizens in his narrative, when they get tired of being led and begin to get restless. In his wisdom, he has found it is better the let these rabble rousing citizens free to pursue their play-based learning or face a general revolt later.

That got me thinking about democratizing playspaces. Today’s traditional playgrounds are, let’s face it, authoritarian. They are top-down, inflexible environments that demand that young citizens play in proscribed ways. While we are beginning to see a few notable exceptions, today’s playgrounds are as similar as McDonald’s and about as appetizing and nourishing.

As a veteran of ten decades of play systems design, I can attest that children’s input is the last priority of play equipment manufacturers. Lord knows I’ve tried with all sorts of model making sessions. What I get from these sessions are ideas for themes like castles and spaceships or unrealistic concepts like ski jumps into swimming pools. For me, the saddest drawings are those of the playgrounds they already know. The fact is that we do not have a good method to learn what kids like. Well, that’s not quite true.

In 1996 China signed the U.N Convention on the Rights of the Child. Rather than give lip service to this declaration, as did most other countries, China took action in the form of new standards for kindergarten education. Ms. Cheng Xueqin was charged with implementing this program. To read a detailed account of this process, see Anji Play History.

What is extraordinary in this case, is that Ms. Cheng had to develop the program without a model to draw from. Instead, she has invented the children’s play settings out of whole cloth, combining her recollections of what was fun for her as a child and a keen eye on what engaged the children. Lately her apparatus has been refined and standardized by Cas Holmaa of Rigamagig fame. What you see in the exceptional AnjiPlay Kindergarten today is the result of this rigorous and open-ended process.

We can debate if such an experiment with a different inventor in a different culture would produce the same results. I expect that there would be both differences and a lot of similarities. But regardless of a possible lack of universality, I am also confident that similar lovingly crafted environments would be equally engaging and beneficial for children. This process of adult inspiration and observation is the tool by which play settings and apparatus should be created.

Child’s Play as a Norm

Unfortunately, I have not been able to visit Anji County. But I have been observing its growth from my meeting with Ms. Cheng on her first trip to California. What I have been able to glean from photos from schools and visitors, is the universality of the play patterns. One could put this phenomenon down to kids just being kids, and to a great extent, I think this is true. But in my virtual observations of Anji Play and Teacher Tom’s Woodland and Takoma Park Cooperative Schools, as well as my own experience creating playspaces, is that there are ways that the children use spaces and as furnishings that endure over months, and years. I have visited play sites, where the same play and games have persisted over decades. I’ve seen the same unique, site-specific games played on the first schoolyard playground I did in the ’70s that are still played today when nothing of the original site remains, including the school building itself.

Norms are the other essential aspect of democratizing playspaces. This child-up, instead of a top-down form of playspace creation, allows for the formation of norms and institutions.

This is why so many of us look on in horror as the norms of our civil society that we cherish are violated. In our heart of hearts, we recognize these enduring traditions as the foundation of how we relate to each other and the deep connection those norms have to our past and our future.

Robert Fulghum, in his seminal book, All Really Need to Know I Learned in Kindergarten, had it right. It is through play in the early years that we learn to be citizens in a democratic society. Our current crisis in the economy and dealing with the pandemic can be attributed to these critical early years having been so under-resourced and the cost of supporting young children falling so heavily families.

It’s time for some Rabble Rousing!

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