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.
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.
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.