The Play Everywhere Revolution

The KABOOM Play Everywhere PlayBook –

I could be accused of using hyperbole by naming the play everywhere movement a revolution, but you read on, and I think you will come to agree that this is no exaggeration.

My interest in this idea started when KABOOM launched its Play Everywhere campaign. Here is their description of the program.

KABOOM! created the Play Everywhere concept to inspire kids to play every day and to incorporate it into their normal routines. Play Everywhere innovations and installations bring play to unexpected, but everyday spaces, making play easy and available for kids and families.

While a playground can provide a joyful oasis for play, play must be available in other places to include play opportunities where kids, and their caregivers, are already spending their limited time. Play Everywhere encourages people to think about spaces that could become PLAYces — a laundromat, grocery store, sidewalk, bus stop — any unexciting situation can turn into a stimulating, creative outlet for play.

I liked the idea a lot because I have been following the placemaking movement, the trend of considering the needs of children in urban planning, and the play streets campaign. My take on their decision to go into this area was twofold. It is a logical extension of their commitment to making play accessible to the underserved. I also suspected, but have not verified, that they came to realize that a focus exclusively on parks only addressed a part of the problem. However, after watching the painfully slow progress by those attempting to change the urban environment to be more kid friendly, I felt that this effort would be frustrating for the KABOOM team as they are so accustomed to doing projects a lot of impact and scale, i.e., 17,000 and counting.

I have written many times in this blog about my own frustration with the limited scope of play provided by public playgrounds. Coming from the early childhood education community in which every aspect of play is supported, the typical park playground seems limited, and to be only about active play. In my research, I have identified 20 distinct play patterns. A typical playground only supports four of these.

In 2018 I started thinking about the opportunity to create better play systems for the backyard. In my post, The Great Backyard Play Disaster, I highlighted some of this industry’s deficiencies. I pointed to an example of a better approach, pioneered by my friend Mike Lanza and detailed in his book Playborhood. Mike clearly understans the need for diverse play opportunities. His approach to the high cost of the existing products was to share his home with his neighbors, turning his yard into a community asset. This approach is, in essence, the same as what I understand of the KABOOM concept.

While I absolutely love the idea of shared community play, I fully understood that this would not become a common solution to addressing the play deficit that modern urban life imposes on children like other urban planning ideas. But what approach could solve the problem?

During this same period, we developed the Gymboree Play and Music System. The challenge of that design was that it had to be modular and be quickly reconfigured without tools. I consider this project to be the apex of my career to date. Still, I remain disappointed that we could not introduce even more loose parts and expand the teacher training and curriculum to allow for more reconfiguration during classes. However, the notion of a system that can be quickly reconfigured has given me insights into how a residential system might address the play everywhere concept. While I am excited by the idea of a modular loose part system like our Gymbo concept, I know I will not be content unless we can expand such a system to address more of the play patterns that have been identified.

As a product for homes and early childhood programs, I think the application of the loose part system envisioned here offers the opportunity to really explore such possibilities in depth. For example, what can we do with fabric? How can the system support pretend play? Can kids make play components that are compatible with the system? What about water play? Or the really big one, how about rough and tumble play?

I’m beginning to see a future that allows for all sorts of play to take place wherever there are kids. This is the power of KABOOM’s concept of play everywhere. The concept of Play Everywhere is the seed for a transformative revolution, and boy, is it exciting!

Lego as a LudenSystem

I’m sure you wonder what the heck is a “LudenSystem?” This term, which I hope will become a meme, is an invention to create a way of playing that becomes something like an ecosystem.

“An ecosystem is a community of living organisms in conjunction with the nonliving components of their environment, interacting as a system.” Wikipedia

The aspect of a system that is particularly relevant in this new term is that ecosystems tend to complexify over time and fill all available niches. I am combining the term system with Luden as it is used in the seminal work Homo Ludens by Johan Huizinga, in which he makes the case that play is the foundation of culture.

To make a case for this new term’s value, we can look at Lego as exemplary. Lego’s history goes back to 1895, but the portion that is relevant to this discussion begins in 1949 when the company began making “Automatic Building Bricks.” The simple bricks, now called Legos, begin to become a system in 1955 with the addition of windows and doors. The coupling system was patented in 1958. In 1966 Lego added a train with an electric motor.

In 1968 Lego expanded the Lego brand into a theme park in Denmark. 1969 sees the introduction of Duplo, which expands the range to younger children. In the early ’70s, theme sets are launch, and dolls, furniture, figurines, and boats are added to the range. By the late ’70s, there are complex lego sets, including Space and Castle themes replete with minifigures with moveable limbs.

In the ’80s, 70% of the Western European children owned Legos. Themes continue to expand. Duplo Baby further extends the age range to younger children, and the Technic series grows to include robots and programming to appeal to older children. In 1986 the Lego Foundation was established.

In the ’90s, Lego goes through a rapid repositioning by dropping may sets and introducing new themes. New theme parks are opened.  Lego launches computer games, Mindstorms with fully programable elements, and Lego Studio, a stop motion video product.

By 2000 Legos themes have become tied with commercial enterprises such as Disney and Lord of the Rings. Two Lego movies and Mixels cartoons are created.

These days even the Maker community plays with Legos, and you can have custom elements created for you or print your own.

3D Printed Personalized Lego

Whew! To think it all started with little plastic bricks and now encompasses nearly every aspect of contemporary culture and education. But this is the power of a LudenSystem.

Now, why can’t a new play system use Lego as its model and not require 75 years to fill all of the available niches? Is there a place of a LudenSystem that has large scale components that can support active physical play? Give me a minute. I think I have an idea.

Learning with Sticks or Shapes?

Followers of this blog know that I have an interest, which borders on obsession, play patterns, and their triggers. As a designer of play systems, my fascination brings me insights about maximizing the engagement and the learning potential of the systems I create.

Over the past decade, I have been particularly interested in play-based learning facilitated with loose parts. This area of investigation is compelling because, while the subject has a rich history ranging from Montessori to sand tray psychotherapy, from mud kitchens to hollow blocks, there is very little systematic research on the specific triggers for this sort of learning. My current project is a case in point.

Construction toys are extremely popular and beneficial. I got to wondering if these could be scaled up so that kids could build their environments. There are two main types of construction toys in use these days. The more traditional toys are made with struts and hubs such as Straw Builders. Over the past decade, a new system, Magformers, has gained a lot of popularity. These are geometric shapes that link together with magnets.

As a designer, I want to develop useful skills in the widest range of children as possible. As I have observed children using these toys, it has become clear that Magformers are much more accessible to young children. I have watched infants play with Magformers while the strut and hub systems are hazardous for little guys. On the other hand, strut and hub systems can extend all the way to building geodesic domes.

Since there are many large-scale strut and hub construction systems available and none for younger children, the opportunity for a large shape-based construction system is a clear opportunity for development. It turns out this is not easy.

It turns out that those simple-looking Magformers hide some very sophisticated engineering. I should have been prepared for this since the H-Frame system we developed for Gymboree Play and Music required inventing a method of assembly that was patentable. The way Magformers work is that the embedded magnets are not fixed and are free to rotate so as they orient to face the adjacent shape. I know this is hard to visualize, but it becomes immediately clear when you play with them.

As is the case with most development in early childhood, what is learned is not at the conscious level but becomes embedded in the brain’s neurological structures. In this case, when the child goes from playing with Magformers to playing with magnets, they begin to have hands-on knowledge of polarity. When they encounter the classic experiments of magnets creating patterns of metal filings that expose the invisible fields, it opens their minds to scientific inquiry at a profound level. They now know that there are forces that only become visible when look deeper.

One of the things I love about working in the field of early childhood is that most of this this learning flies under the radar. For example, every adult will immediately see that Magformers are OK for infants, but strut and hub toys are not. We get it because we were once infants too, and that experience is deeply embedded, even though rarely consciously considered.