Play Systems Designers – Part 2

A play product deconstructed into a system – Photo True Play Foundation

I’ve gotten some interesting feedback on the last post that helps me see that I’ve not been clear about what differentiates a play product from a play system. Let’s look at why I chose the four candidates in the last blog. I will also include my work in this discussion as it is germane.

Here are the criteria I used in my definition:

  • Child-directed learning through play
  • Appropriate materials
  • Advocacy
  • Attention to detail
  • Innovative path to distribution
Tom and Me at a BigToys new product launch

Tom Lindhart qualifies as a system designer because of his singular vision about the role of art in urban communities. He was appalled by the sterility of the public housing Denmark erected in the early ’70s. In his work, he drew deeply on the Danish sensibility for elegant simplicity and love of wood. Over the years, he took his passion and insight to create a full range of truly innovative pieces. His attention to his products’ details and every aspect of the enterprise from the factory floor to office décor was always in evidence. Over the years, he employed pedagogues and consultants with cutting edge knowledge of play. He made it something of a crusade to transfer this store of knowledge to his employees. He created one of the first and most extensive worldwide distribution systems of which I was a member. I was also a consultant with Kompan, during which we developed the 10 Plus system for older children, which set the stage for many subsequent developments. Kompan representatives were renowned for the knowledge of play that they shared with customers. Under Tom’s direction, Kompan established its own preschool and directly connected the design process with teachers and children.  

My development of Schoolyard BigToys and PlayBoosters occurred during this time frame. As a consultant to small companies, I did not have the control that Tom enjoyed as an owner. However, I did manage to create these two very successful systems. In both systems, we paid a lot of attention to the distribution chain and provided them with pedagogical information. I went so far as to develop a curriculum for BigToys that allowed the kids to place game activities on the structures. Rather than the sublime qualities of Kompan, my aesthetic at this period of my work was much more rough-and-tumble.

Since the last post, I’ve gotten some pushback from readers on including Maria Montessori as a play systems designer. This criticism is fair since The Montessori system does not include active play. However, her approach was as a systems designer is bolstered by the fact that today the Montessori community has gone on to fill this gap with a plethora of active play products. Also, think about what she accomplished and how she fits the criteria. She invented a whole new approach to education. Her core insight was to trust child-directed learning through play and used hands-on learning instead of didactic instruction. The devices she invented are sublime and still growing in preschool practice. Rather than creating a distribution system, she used founding schools and teacher training as the primary way of getting her inventions into children’s hands.

Cheng Xueqin is another example of this education-first approach. Ms. Cheng came to both her pedagogy and play apparatus solutions by devilling into recollections of her childhood. What did she learn through play? What gave her joy as a child? From this seemingly simple starting point, she has created a revolutionary approach to early childhood education. The AnjiPlay environments, especially outdoors, are unique. The AnjiPlay approach is now available throughout China and is beginning to branch out to several other countries.

Ms Cheng and Cas Holman – Photo True Play Foundation

It is not surprising that Ms. Cheng and Cas Holman have become collaborators. I’ve included Cas as a systems designer for her work with AnjiPlay and her creation of Rigamajig. A case could be made that Rigamajig is just a construction toy. While it certainly doesn’t have the reach or scale of the other examples cited here, it is still in its infancy, and it has lots of room to grow. In the short time that it has been available, it has already evolved significantly. This growth has come about due to Cas’s commitment to its use as an educational tool. One need only watch a video of Cas talking about the meticulous attention to detail she has given the system from inception to distribution to see how she goes far beyond what most designers would invest in a product. Because Cas is conducting her approach to play products as systems, I fully expect Cas to go on to far bigger things in the near future.

Finally, I’d like to talk a bit about developing the Gymboree Play and Music systems. I did their first system 20 years ago, and it is still in use worldwide. Four years ago, I was invited to create a new system. Together with my collaborators, Hap Parker and Dawn Sagorski, we created the only instantly reconfigurable play system for young children. We thought that this new system would replace the original, but it turned out that the two are quite complementary. Deployed in forty countries and nearly 700 sites, the systems provide a unique environment for child development and parent-child interaction. The Play and Music educational team constantly refines the curriculum and expands the teacher’s educational use of the apparatus. I am citing these products because they represent an important aspect of a successful design that meets today’s needs and expectations. The Play and Music system shares with Montessori, AnjiPlay, and Rigamajig support for play-based learning and the capacity for dynamic reconfiguration by users. As an approach to play systems design, these examples fit between playground apparatus and toys and represent a distinct discipline worthy of recognition. I contend that such user control of the environmental elements will become increasingly embraced by educators and parents alike as the value of play-based learning is further supported by research and educational outcomes.

I hope this expanded explanation helps the reader better understand the difference between designing a play product and a comprehensive play system that includes the whole ecosystem in which it is embedded. As we increasingly understand the role of play in child development, especially as we incorporate the new findings in neuroscience and evolutionary biology, we will develop a better definition of Play Systems Design and its practice. Only then will we be able to ensure the best learning environments for all children.

Where are the Play Systems Designers?

There are play systems in nearly every park and schoolyard. All children in the developed world use these systems throughout their early years. They are ubiquitous because it is universally accepted that the experiences playgrounds provide are critical to healthy development.

Given the importance we place on children’s development and their play, isn’t it odd that so little is invested in creating the optimal play environments? Of course, there are bright spots, but the vast majority of playscapes are very low in developmental challenges or features that support long duration play episodes. Pick any playground equipment catalog, and you will find essentially the same experience packaged in various colors with a few flourishes to add brand recognition. This is how we, for the most part, select cars. We distinguish them by color, how many doors, and the grill.

I have nothing bad to say about the talented and dedicated industrial designers who have created these products to be clear. They bring a wealth of skills and creativity to their work. In the end, however, they end up simply creating products. That’s not a bad thing. It’s simply old-school and just not enough for our children.

What do I mean by “old-school”? Compare Tesla with all the other automakers. The industry makes cars, sure. For Tesla, the car is just the first part of an enterprise that includes battery production, disruptive sales techniques, and software development, all wraped in an integrated system. What if this concept is applied to play?

Play Systems Designers

Fortunately, we have some examples to look to. Here’s my list:

Before we get into wresting about who should be added to this list, let me outline my selection criteria. Remember, I’m not talking here about the products. The core criterion is that these folks created play systems. Such a system should include these elements

  • Child-directed learning through play
  • Appropriate materials
  • Advocacy
  • Attention to detail
  • Innovative path for distribution

I won’t go into details about the why and how each of these innovators came to the result of creating play systems and will leave that exploration to you, dear reader. My goal in this post is very simple. I want to elevate our idea of playgrounds, think more deeply into today’s children’s needs and our worldwide highly integrated society.

Children’s playspaces for this century must be ecologies. They should not be static but evolve at the same pace as children grow. These environments need to be informed by the latest findings in neuroscience and evolutionary biology. Above all, places to play need to be controlled, created, and changed by their communities and children through play.

Fantasy? If I told you ten years ago that your next car would be powered by electricity that you generate from your rooftop and that it would be self-driving, you would say I’m totally mad. But rather than being a pipedream, it is inevitable if humans are to remain viable on this planet.

The same can be said for the future of play systems.