A Path to Smart Toy Boxes

Look Mom! They are training for walking in the city!

At the turn of the century, I began approaching playground manufactures with the notion of using digital technology on the playground. While most of this work was proprietary, I was able to publish some of the research.

The late, and much missed Bernie De Koven advanced the notion in The Well-Played Game, that games increase in fun and engagement when the players are equally matched. I used this idea to design a challenge course in which smart obstacles recorded performance. The score the player received was based strictly on player’s past achievements. The game, Personal Best, allowed the creation of teams without regard to player’s ability. To achieve a high score, all a team had to do is better than they did before. Because the tech at that time was so flakey, we tested the idea with old-fashioned coaching and found that it is very powerful. I must confess that I teared up seeing a team yell and cheer for an overweight student that did one more pull-up that his previous record of five. An article on this project appeared in Playground Professionals Magazine in 2014.

It is well established that digital games are the most powerful way to engage kids. Unfortunately, this all too often results in isolation.

To explore the possibility of using tech to get kids outside, more active, and playing together, in concert with Mike Lanza, the author of Playborhood, we explored using IoT in combination with Geocaching. While this was an interesting adventure, it was blown out of the water by Pokémon GO. The only concrete result of this research was yet another article in 2016, Pokémon GO, Play and Parks.

What have we learned?

There are two big take-aways from two decades of research. The first insight comes in part from watching the lackluster adoption of current interactive playground systems. This was been reinforced by testing of various options as detailed above. What we have learned is that using the systems that use power of smart devices and the ability to connect to IoT will beat any attempt to create smart play apparatus.

The second insight, is that playground equipment producers are not well positioned to develop the tech for Smart Toy Boxes. If not the playground industry, then who?

How about the tech companies?

I have shied away from approaching Silicon Valley outfits because, while they love innovation and gamification, at the corporate level they are difficult to connect with. After all, Smart Play Boxes don’t need anything cutting edge. Rather, we want cheap, reliable and off the shelf.

Wait! Cheap, reliable and off the shelf. That sounds like the tech for cashier-free retail that is being rolled at scale. Hey, if its good enough for Amazon, who am I to disagree?  https://www.cnbc.com/2021/04/22/amazons-cashierless-checkout-technology-is-coming-to-its-new-supermarkets.html

Earth Day 2021 – Doing What is Best for Children

During my years at San Francisco State University, I took every course that Professor Sinclair Kirby Miller taught. One of his messages was the best way to discover the truth is to look for the intent of words and actions.

When it comes to rearing and educating children, using this standard is very revealing. What is the intent of forcing children into the unnatural situations that dominate education as it is currently practiced?

What is the intent of playground manufactures? Of park departments? Of Disneyland?

In my experience, the intent is very rarely doing what is best for children.

You must step outside the mainstream to find exceptions. These include play-based early childhood programs such a Regio, Anji Play, Fairy Dust, and the beautiful approach of Teacher Tom Hobson to find programs based on what is best for children.

Are today’s playgrounds the best we can do?

If an alien were to land on earth and do an inspection, they would undoubtedly conclude that our playgrounds are designed to last forever with little or no maintenance. They would look at the little monkeys for which these facilities are designed and note the activities allowed don’t seem to line up with what is needed.

If we look at the institutions whose reason to exist is to protect and nurture children and ask what are they saying, what are they doing, to address the critical issues that face children today? Where is the united voice for addressing climate change, adverse childhood experiences, inequality?

Where is the leadership?

Can it be that those who have an obligation to protect and nurture have become so accustomed to having other agendas as the top priority that they can no longer recognize that going along to get along is not doing what is best for children?

As my grandmother used to warn, “The day of reckoning draws near.” Of course, she meant that in a biblical context, but it resonates now because the reckoning is existential.

We owe it to all those who have gone before us to do what is best for children now.

Technology for Adventure Playgrounds Everywhere

Photo – Recess Revolution

Twenty years ago, I proposed making play structures smart in my capacity as a design consultant to a major playground company. The response at that time was, What?

Since then, I have seen dozens of approaches to adding technology to playgrounds. For the most part, to my thinking, these have largely been failures. To successfully bring tech to play at scale, one needs to understand why technology has become so pervasive throughout society.

There are four keys that can be leveraged to bringing tech to play:

  • Player Control

The cardinal rule for play is that the amount of play is directly proportional to the degree of player freedom. For example, if the tech can only be used on the playground, it will not scale. The same is true if the players cannot change the rules or how the game can be played. 

  • Personal

Too often, attempts to bring tech to playgrounds ignore the second rule of play. Kids don’t play with equipment; they play with each other. The typical electronic playground device requires that children move from node to node thus limiting social interaction. I have yet to see a design that fosters collaboration, negotiation, or teamwork.

  • Connectivity

Today’s kids expect any device to connect to other devices. The amount of play possibilities grows exponentially with connectivity. A game that can be played on the playground is so much more fun if it also connects to kids on the street corner or backyard.

  • Small and affordable

We keep a computer in our pocket several orders of magnitude smaller and cheaper than one of only two decades ago. Children today have access to these phenomenal devices before they can walk. It is not necessary to add expensive computing power to play settings. All that is needed is the Internet of Things. These IoT devices provide connectivity that is reliable, powerful, and most importantly dirt cheap.

Smart Toy Boxes

When you combine these four elements, surprising possibilities open up. In my recent post, I called attention to the possibility of bringing loose part play to playgrounds and add some of the benefits of an Adventure Playground. A barrier to this idea has been the problem of keeping the parts on the site. These days the problem of “shrinkage,” as they say in the trade, has been essentially solved with standard inventory control systems.

The advances in inventory control and IoT mean that a collection of loose parts can be stored in a “Toy Box,” A player’s smart device can download a list of what play apparatus is available. Smart locks control access to the Toy Box and players gets the key to the lock sent from the Recreation Department to their smart device. When players check out the play elements, the Toy Box tracks who has borrowed which parts.

The scenario painted here is just the beginning of what can happen. The important innovation of the Smart Toy Box concept is that the system is infinitely extensible. The play potential is unlimited since any problems or upgrades in commercial security and inventory control can be readily added.

Such Toy Boxes can be fitted with apparatus specific to the play venue. A Playground Toy Box might contain play elements that can be attached to structures with magnets or hook and loop straps. The Streets Toy Box has sidewalk chalk and traffic signs. Rigamajig is a perfect system for the Mall Toy Box.

We need to look no further than the local library to see the power of free access to community learning materials. Like libraries, Toy Boxes have the power to provide quality Adventure Play opportunities to every child regardless of economic status.

Adventure Play – Past, Present, Future

As a creator of active play systems, I’ve been a huge fan of Adventure Playgrounds. It has been disappointing that they have not been more popular. It would not surprise me to learn that 99.9% of all children in America have not set foot on one. There are many reasons for this failure to thrive but let us, for the moment, accept this as reality.

At its core, Adventure Playgrounds are a great example of “loose part play” Ever since Simon Nicholson developed the Theory of Loose Parts, the term has been used primarily for small parts like blocks. Adventure Playgrounds, in contrast, use large parts. Unfortunately, the venue for large motor play is fully occupied by static equipment. Since I’ve played a major role in creating and popularizing these systems, I feel obligated to push back on their monopolization of public play spaces.

The question becomes, since large motor loose part play is so beneficial for children, what can be done to bring it to the mainstream?

The good news is that such a movement is already taking place in China. Over the past decade, the Anji Play program for early childhood education created by Cheng Xueqin has grown from one school to become a standard approach throughout China. Any fan of Adventure Playgrounds can take one look at the image below and recognize the similarities.

What makes Anji Play thrive?

Photo Anji Play

The big difference is that the play setting is created anew every day. This solves one of the issues that face Adventure Playgrounds when a few children create relatively permanent structures. Yes, such questions of kids “owning” a piece of the play space can be great “teaching moments,” but these are the sorts of program characteristics that are problematic.

Of course, the big difference is that Anji Play is part of the public school system. Once the program’s benefits were firmly established and tested, it was logical to make those benefits available nationally.

The current situation in America is that public playgrounds must compete with so many other entertainments that they are losing their customers. This one of the reasons we see a rise in multimillion-dollar playgrounds. This movement further increases the impact of income inequality.

To address this issue, it would be a great idea to provide the benefits of loose part play to the huge installed base of underperforming playgrounds. What I propose are Toy Boxes that have standard digital locks. This will allow the recreation department to bring their programming to every playground at very little cost. As thousands of Toy Boxes get installed, they will provide the opportunity to create a whole range of new play devices that are compatible with the existing equipment.

The fabulous playworker Penny Wilson has written a wonderful “manual” for creating such play accessories. PlayThings: Loose Parts Play in Good Times and Bad. Currently, much of Penny’s program is in the King’s Cross Station area in the parks and at the mall.

Photo Penny Wilson

I have been shopping the idea of Toy Boxes on playgrounds to the usual suspects without a bite. I want to blame this on Covid-19, and I’m sure this is the primary reason since everyone is preparing to adjust to a new and yet unknown future.

What can make Toy Boxes much more likely, is for those of us who love Adventure Playgrounds to weigh in on the benefits of such a program. I’ve learned over the years that change only comes about when it is needed. So far, the need to upgrade the quality of play on the millions of public playgrounds has not become a compelling issue for park departments or play equipment producers. The voices of advocates can help make changes.

In the meantime, Anji Play is coming to preschools in America. Yeah. Long live Adventure Play!