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.

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