Loose Parts from Preschools to Playgrounds

KitCamp UK – Foam and fabric loose parts on a playground.

Most successful early childhood educators are masters at presenting loose parts. Some because they have a natural intuition for children’s play, others because their student teaching was under a master teacher. Unfortunately, too many new teachers in today’s rapidly changing world of early childhood education find themselves at a loss of how to begin.

When creating a loose part play space, a teacher who has no background with play-based learning will tend to use a criterion for selecting elements ranging from “Kids like to play with this” to “It’s recommended in the catalog and fits my budget.” We can do better.

Let’s start at the beginning. Children’s spontaneous play follows three steps, 1) Discovery, 2) Practice, and 3) Expression. The initial presentation of loose parts should be paced to mirror this sequence, introducing new elements progressively as children master the possibilities of the parts.

There are also fundamental play modalities, 1) Constructive, 2) Active, and 3) Social. As children play with different intentions, we often misread how they use loose parts in their play. For example, children may construct forms and use them for active play or social play.

It is critical to observe the children’s intent, so when the play idea has been mastered, it is clear what sorts of loose parts to introduce. For example, if the children have built a tower and are jumping from it, this play pattern suggests adding parts that support challenging movements such as ladders and planks. However, if the children are engrossed in a story they have created, then costumes are more appropriate.

Establishing a successful loose part play area requires setting up “norms” for the space. If all the possible add-on elements are immediately accessible, the play will tend to be chaotic, unfocused, and frustrating for the kids.

By presenting the basic loose parts and introducing new elements as the children’s play dictates, teachers model the three steps mentioned previously. In practice, this means initially keeping the augmenting elements out of reach in the play area. Children quickly learn to bring out the parts they need without supervision. The parts can be presented, so they have free access. New children learn these norms from “old-timers.”


While neuroscience in this area is still in its infancy, it is becoming increasingly clear that children learn through pattern recognition. While the best studies have looked at language acquisition, it is reasonable to extend the findings to loose parts, as such systems constitute a physical “language.”

As we consider the presentation of loose parts from a language standpoint, it brings up some interesting questions. For example, what if we have one setup containing lots of wood blocks and another with some blocks and various other stuff? How is the play different?

Thinking about the ideal loose parts play setup brings up another question. How much complexity is needed to support long-duration play episodes? In my experience working in zoo environments, there is a point at which there is sufficient complexity for the animals to exhibit normal behaviors. I have been unable to find any research that addresses the minimum. Since we have limited space and budgets, it would be helpful to know the ideal number of parts needed to maximize play-based learning.

As we begin to rollout the Toy Box program, the issues addressed in this post become central to success. In the Toy Box scenario, supervision is by parents rather than teachers. Children will engage with the loose parts irregularly rather than daily. This use pattern means that most play will be focused on discovery and suggests that the complexity of the parts should be kept to a minimum.

When looking at the three types of play constructive, active and, social, each will have distinct use patterns. For example, social play with elements such as costumes will be the easiest to implement with the least negative consequences. Portable obstacle course components can promote active play. Constructive play will be most successful when designed for the specific fixed equipment on the playground or when limited to soft elements such as cardboard.

This discussion also highlights the need for the Toy Box program to include a robust parent information platform to support them as they introduce loose parts onto playgrounds. Not only will they want answers to their questions, but they will also need support to address the inevitable concerns of other parents sharing the playground. While developing and testing such a platform will be challenging, the educational value for the whole community is substantial.

Upgrading Playground Infrastructure to Ensure Children’s Right to Play

First Lady Dr. Jill Biden speaks on the playground at Samuel Smith Elementary in Burlington City, N.J. (Emma Lee/WHYY)

Simply put, we do not know the condition of the Nation’s Playgrounds. Of course, municipalities do inspections. However, this information is not collected, collated, and analyzed. What do we know?

Since 1995 the National Program for Playground Safety (NPPS) has been gathering data on playgrounds, including generating report cards on 6,045 playgrounds. Since NPPS’ was founded during a rising awareness of the need to improve playground safety, their primary focus has been on fall surfaces and maintenance. They have also looked at an “appropriate environment,” again within the context of standards for age and accessibility. Their work has been, and continues to be, needed and relevant.

KABOOM has been doing a superb job of championing play for underserved communities. Their goal is for every kid to have access to incredible places to play. Not only a worthy goal but also one that they have worked tirelessly to achieve. In recent years they have expanded their focus to look beyond playgrounds to the community as a whole.

Recently it occurred to me that even though I’ve been creating play systems for over five decades, I have no idea how many there are. From what I have been able to glean from population and planning statistics, there is about one public playground for every 5000 people. That is roughly the same ratio for elementary school playgrounds. The nation’s population is a bit over 330,000,000 people / 5000 playgrounds x 2 = 132,000 playgrounds. My previous estimates were off by order of magnitude, but this is an enormous community investment and asset. Roughly 550 kids of ages 2 to 11 have a playground at school and in a park.

The NPPS program and other studies show an alarming rate of safety, non-compliance, and maintenance issues. There is, however, no systematic assessment of these problems. In addition, if the goal is ensuring that children have a right to play everywhere, it would also be great to how many communities lack adequate play infrastructure.

Currently, play infrastructure is not considered in the Biden Administration’s plans to Build Back Better. 

I propose a unified lobbying effort to Contact Pete Buttigieg’s office and request that playgrounds be included in the forthcoming legislation. Portions of the bill that can apply to playgrounds are the plans to modernize public schools and improve public housing. The section on Remediate and redevelop idle real property, and spur the buildout of critical physical, social, and civic infrastructure in distressed and disadvantaged communities offers a good opportunity.

Several organizations can join this effort and help make a case for assessing and upgrading play infrastructure. We could start by asking IPEMA to get a ballpark number of playgrounds. They tend to be very circumspect about sales, but there are easy ways to anonymize their information. The industry can also inform the issue of jobs created, which is a cornerstone of the legislation.

As the experts in addressing underserved communities, the team at KABOOM can provide invaluable expertise. Their nationwide network of community organizations and their capacity for organizing and training are unparalleled and can help provide the infrastructure for the program.

NRPA should certainly weigh in, and the Certified Playground Safety Inspector program will play a huge role. Ideally, CPSI inspectors will have their training upgraded to go beyond compliance and to look for opportunities to improve playgrounds to be more inclusive and appropriate.

Finally, the International Play Association can and should play a central role in promoting the Child’s Right to Play. It is important to note that when China signed the U.N. resolution and required early childhood programs to comply, it spawned Anji Play, transforming their entire preschool program. Putting the Right to Play as the lead message is critical. This emphasis might even expand the initiative to consider children’s play in all the infrastructure programs.

We might want to talk with Jill Biden. Hey, Pete! How about a plan for safe streets for play?

Empowering Playgrounds with Gamification

Watto Chess Set by Peter Kingston

If you give children a chess set at the age of two, they will play with the pieces like toys and put them on trucks and dollhouses. However, if you wait until they are in the second grade, they will be ready and eager to learn the game. At this age, the game pieces have very little play value as objects. What is interesting is the game.

It is also around this time that playgrounds start to become “kid’s stuff.” It is possible to maintain some engagement by older kids by infusing the playground design with higher challenge activities. While this works to some extent, these activities are generally accessible for those with mobility impairments.

Augmented Reality (AR) games like Pokémon, for example, do not have this limitation. Such games only get more interesting as kids mature.

Suppose we begin to think of the playground as a 3-D game board, all sorts of possibilities open. For example, a child could be alone and still play with virtual playmates. Teams can be formed for group play with virtual opponents. Such teams can include players of very diverse ages and abilities, supporting truly inclusive play.

AR holds out the promise of greatly extending the appeal of playgrounds to much older children than is currently the case. Current studies indicate that it also extends the level of exertion and the length of play episodes.

A design goal of such games is to use smart devices while not constantly watching their screens. Heads-up play can be achieved by populating the play environment with many wireless beacons that trigger the devices to give audio instructions or visual clues that appear for a limited time.

In the near future, AR glasses will become commonplace. In the meantime, if we want to have kids get outside, playing longer, and playing harder, we need to take the games they now play indoors, sitting down, to the millions of playgrounds that are getting lonely.

Empowering Play with Kindness

Parents may be reluctant to bring their children into situations likely to trigger their children to behave in ways that are outside the norm. Complexifying playgrounds with loose parts can be reasonably be perceived as a cause for concern and caution. Let’s unpack this issue.

What are the benefits of complexification?

There is a school of thought that children learn best when their learning environment is simplified. This idea assumes is that learning is additive, i.e., start with the basic and then elaborate.

Neuroscience, however, tells us that learning is about pattern recognition in which the highly complex patterns of the natural world and social interactions are compared; by observing complexity, the unique elements stand out. For example, the forest is all green, but the lion’s face is not.

The early years of any animal are devoted to subtracting information rather than adding to it. Learning by subtraction means that children will acquire more in a complex environment than in a simplified one. While the studies on complexification focus primarily on language acquisition and understanding systems, they support this contention.

The Freedom to Play

If complex environments cause sensitive children to trigger, therapeutic rooms that can be filled with loose parts like the one pictured here will frighten these children. Why don’t they?

Few things stimulate play behavior more than that the child is in control. That means the power to say no is critical. Indeed, it is the basis of selfhood. All kids go through a stage where “NO!” becomes their favorite word. Being able to control elements in the external world sets the stage for self-control. The lack of external control is often the underlying cause of childhood tantrums. This “misbehavior” can often be observed in overprotected and overscheduled kids.

A complex environment can certainly be overstimulating for any child. A parent who visits a Toys R Us store with tired and hungry kids is just asking for a meltdown. One reason that the apparent chaos of the therapy room is not triggering is that children know they are safe and have the choice to be there.

Kindness on the Playground

A second reason that the therapy room is not triggering is that the adults present are dedicated above all else to kindness. It starts with empowering the child by allowing them control within boundaries. This intention is extended to listening and encouraging rather than expecting and judging.

Just as a therapy room requires an adult, adding loose parts to traditional playgrounds requires supervision as well.  Magical Bridge playgrounds have demonstrated the effectiveness of this approach. They have developed a Kindness Ambassador program for teen volunteers that works on their playground and in schools.

The curriculum for supervision of play-based learning is well developed, for example, at Anji Play and Reggio Emilia. Such an established program can readily be integrated into a program to support loose parts supervision on playgrounds. The challenge comes when the program scales up to thousands of sites. Fortunately, such systems to ramp up “boot-on-the-ground” already exist as well.

Adding loose parts to playgrounds provides an opportunity to help thousands of teens acquire the essential skills of good parenting. Increasing the number of great parents is a not so inconsequential benefit to the Empowering Play initiative.  

The Future of the Playground Equipment Industry

During my five decades of designing play systems, I have watched the playground equipment industry proceed through the predictable product life cycle.

When I started, small mom-and-pop shops were making play equipment in nearly every region of the county. These folks had been doing business for decades very comfortably. That all changed starting around 1950. The cause of this was the rise of the automobile and specifically drive-in theaters. At their peak, there were over 4,000 of these across the country. To make the entertainment more family-friendly, they began to add play apparatus. This trend, in turn, gave rise to the first national producers, primarily GameTime and Miracle.

In the ’70s, the composite play structure was introduced. The success of this concept was fueled in large part by a campaign for playground safety. Since the then dominant players were primarily relying on traditional swings and slides, the pitch for change was compelling. The ADA guidelines initiated a second major wave of growth.

The profitability in the industry attracted the attention of what we now call hedge fund managers. The acquisitions trend led to the consolidation we see today with two massive conglomerates and two independent producers.

The play equipment industry has the same problem as light bulb producers in that they have improved the durability of their product so much that they are running out of customers. This has led to the rise of two trends, mega-playgrounds and bespoke products.

Playpower and Playcore are at a handicap to adapt to the new market as their major asset is the production capacity of a product range with rapidly diminishing returns. This will inevitably lead to shrinking capacity in both production and distribution.

Some companies seem to be pivoting well to this trend. Kompan has completely reinvented itself. Smaller companies and imports are finding niche markets and will survive.

It will be interesting to see how the conglomerates manage the transition. Will they be able to maintain their overall structure or sell off their smaller producers?

The core question is, what does this mean for children?

While the future is challenging for the industry, there is some good news for kids. The mega-playground designers and clients now find themselves in a buyer’s market. This allows them to request innovative products. We have already seen this in the availability of surface mount spinners that have become a standard.

The downside is that millions of playgrounds will sit with fewer and fewer visitors as kids are drawn to skateparks, entertainment centers, and screens.

Park departments are now saddled with major investments with just enough patronage to be required to maintain them. Those in affluent communities will install a mega-playground or two. The bottom line is that the average child in the typical community will grow up with inadequate and outdated play infrastructure.

The story doesn’t end here. Today, there exists a massive opportunity to revitalize the playgrounds in every community. And, yep, you guessed it. This is exactly the mission I’ve set for my current project.


This is a first pass at what a smartwatch app kid-interface could function and might look like.

Current project assumptions


  • What is your Dream?
    • Start screen
  • Stronger
    • Measures heart rate
  • More Fun
    • Tracks location over time
  • Be My Best
    • Compares with pervious performance
  • Be a Friend
    • Ops in to sharing
    • Tracks proximity to others
  • Find Friends
    • Sets up links
  • Join a Team
    • Pikachu
    • Squirtle
    • Raichu
  • Choose Your Game
    • Designed Games
    • Kid created games
  • Meals Given
    • Reward system

How can a Toy Box Empower Play?

Using the expensive fall surface for play between units

Let’s assume that there at least one playground for every 600 people living in the USA. That’s probably conservative at a half-million playgrounds. Let’s also consider that 25% of these welcome the idea of significantly increasing the play value of their existing playground for less than $10,000. This back of the napkin estimate gives us a reasonable expectation of 125,000 playgrounds that can substantially increase the benefits of their investment.

The above estimate makes it clear the project is worthy of exploring. The next step is to look at how to maximize the scale and velocity of the proposed Empowerment upgrades adding connectivity and loose parts.

The Biba smart playgrounds project, while impressive, failed to demonstrate a business model that will achieve the sort of hockey stick growth of adoption that is needed. Rather than follow a proprietary, the Empowerment Project will use an open-source approach. Going open-source is strategic since there is very little about play with intellectual worth trying to protect. Even those patents that are acquired generally protect minor products with marginal impact on play overall. What we seek is transformation, not recovering the development cost of R&D.

 The Empowerment Project goal is to grow by sharing and collaboration. The overall philosophy of the Empowerment Project doesn’t focus on children exclusively but is embedded in every aspect of the initiative. This rule applies to the Toy Box in that the loose part apparatus can be purchased from recommended vendors or any other suppliers. Likewise, the connectivity tags for the loose parts can be sourced directly from various vendors. Some parts are better sourced locally, and wherever possible, plans are provided for such DIY fabrication.

An important part of the Empowerment Project is collaborating with playground equipment producers to develop products specifically designed to be compatible with their equipment. We anticipate that, while retrofitting will get some traction, the main product development will be motivated by loose parts that can sell new products. For example, attachable “skins” to impart temporary themes such as seasonal or birthday parties. They will also be interested in play activities that link play structures and take advantage of the major investment the required resilient surfacing, and offer an affordable way to offer softer play elements that are used temporarily.

Going Beyond Inclusion

In 1979, I was in the process of creating dozens of community-built playgrounds in schools across the San Francisco Bay Area, which brought me in contact with physical and special educators. The hot topic at that time was the new book by Jean Ayres, Sensory Integration and the Child.

The book and collaboration with teachers provided validation of the work I had been doing creating play spaces. From the very beginning, I sought out opportunities to observe children with disabilities on my designs. While I was concerned that all kids could play on the playgrounds, my main motivation was that when disabled kids first encountered the environments, they slowly engaged them. The neurotypical kids would do everything I expected in the first twenty minutes, and the special ed kids would take days to explore the challenges in the play space fully. These observations allowed me to deeply understand the learning taking place.

The other benefit to Sensory Integration is that it used equipment to engage very specific neurological functions and was my first concrete connection between play and the brain, which has subsequently been the foundation of my work. Given this background, you will not be surprised that my suggestions for the loose parts for the Toy Box look like an occupational therapist’s studio.

Since we are also concerned with the cost and size requirements for the project, we need to look at the number of pieces required. I suggest that we follow the rule of three, which says that things arranged in odd numbers are more appealing and memorable than even-numbered groupings.

Suggested Toy Box Loose Parts

In the next blog, we will detail the equipment that we customarily recommend and explain what we look for in each product and the benefits children derive from playing with them. It is anticipated that most communities will collaborate with local educators and recreation professionals to develop their own kits.

  • Hoop Tunnels with enclosure
  • Snow Disks
  • Balance
    • Slackline
    • Teeter Popper
    • Balance Set
  • Inflatable Ride-on
  • Fabric
    • Parachute
    • Silks
  • Obstacle Course
  • Planks
  • Blocks

Augmented Realty Playgrounds -Articles

Perkins School for the Blind

The follow are just a few articles to provide background as we continue to explore the notion of an Augmented Playground layer of digital resources to welcome the assertive devices children use and empower them.


James Sinclair

Here’s how he describes his website: “Autistic & Unapologetic is an autism awareness site founded by one lad on a journey to find out what makes him (autis)tic.”

Below is quote from a Feb 2021article

Why Pokémon is GREAT for Autistic People?

While I could go on and on about the different ways autistic people have benefited from Pokémon, such as therapies which have helped with facial recognition or how the games themselves seem to reduce anxiety and stress, it’s unquestionable that one of the series newest entries: Pokémon Go, has supported autistic people with, well, everything.

This can be seen in how the game not only requires outdoor exploration to find success, but in that it encourages collaboration to achieve the best result – something which, upon release, erupted in many local communities of likeminded players. Subsequently, these gatherings have come to serve as hotspots for autistic people to learn valuable life skills, like communication, teamwork and improving motor functions (all whilst soaking up that sweet, sweet Vitamin D).


Larkin Babbitt & Sophie Chank April 2, 2021

This article in Spellbound on the ways augmented reality can impact autism spectrum disorder lists three that are relevant to an Augmented Playground:

  • Increase Attention Span

AR experiences result in increased engagement, enjoyment, motivation, and attention. One particular study designed to teach object discrimination revealed a 62% increase in on-task participation and happier, more determined students.

  • Increase social interaction

An AR app called MOSOCO was developed for public schools in California to help children with ASD practice social skills like eye contact, initiating interaction, asking questions, and sharing interests with their peers. The app allows for users to pair up together and then supports them through each step of the interaction exercise. Students reported that the app was fun, engaging, and had notable teaching ability. The overall number of interactions increased, both between students with ASD and students without ASD.


How Families of Children with Autism Greet the Digital Future

For www.parenting.digitalAlicia Blum-Ross and Sonia Livingstone discuss how for parents of children with disabilities, technology offers particular promise and raises particular anxieties, as they discovered when interviewing parents from many walks of life for their new book, Parenting for a Digital Future: How Hopes and Fears About Technology Shape Our Children’s Lives.


This article in Readwrite provides ways that augmented reality help people with disabilities and can be applied to empower playgrounds.

Here are two quotes:

You may be familiar with the blind superhero Daredevil, who uses small audio cues to move, run, and even fight. The same basic concept applies to new programs using guided audio to help blind people move through museums, college campuses, and entire cities.

Only a tiny fraction of people with visual or hearing impairments suffer a total loss of that sense. The overwhelming majority can benefit from VR applications that amplify or refine the input from these senses. For example, a VR program that magnifies objects on-demand can overcome severe visual impairments. An AR filter that cancels background noise can drive the next generation of hearing aids.


The website Autism Speaks provides tips has a list of apps for assistive technology devices. Creating an Augmented Playground means understanding that children will come to the physical playground with devices that assist with communications, making requests, daily activities, and rewards.


This PDF study – Effects of Pokémon GO on Physical Activity and Psychological and Social Outcomes: A Systematic Review – is particularly relevant

Augmented reality (AR) mobile game, Pokémon GO, leverages gamification and location tracking technology to encourage players to walk in different places to catch Pokémon characters in real-world settings. 

Players had significantly greater physical activity than non-players in terms of daily steps and number of days spent in moderate physical activity. Pokémon GO game also improved players’ social interactions and their mood/affects. Selective attention and concentration improved in adolescents and memory improved in young adults after playing the game. Findings suggest playing Pokémon GO could promote meaningful improvements in walking behavior, as well as psychological and social well-being. More multidimensional research with randomized controlled trial design is needed to identify factors that influence adoption and sustainability of Pokémon GO playing.

Going Beyond Inclusive Play to Empowerment – Augmented Reality

Photo – My Modern Met

We have discussed the history of inclusive play and its growth beyond ramps and transfer stations. We noted that the operating assumption for the ADA Playground Guidelines has been that if we provide ways for children to together physically, that inclusion will naturally emerge. For the most part, this is true.

I have been a huge cheerleader for Magical Bridge Playgrounds because they understand that physical proximity only gets you so far. That’s why they have created the Kindness Ambassadors program. We will come back to this approach soon. But let’s look at why this program is so important.

Playground accessibility grew out of the ADA, which was primarily concerned with allowing people to access public spaces. This emphasis caused the playground standards drafting process to focus solely on architectural features. I attended the meetings held on the west coast and followed the proceeding elsewhere and can testify that there was no room for discussions about how the standards would impact on play.

Since the promulgation of the standard, playgrounds have largely implemented the changes. This is great for the 10% of the population with mobility disabilities. It is now time to look at the 10% of the population with other issues such as Autism Spectrum disorders, ADHD, sensory deficits, and many others. Taken together, children with disabilities that are not mobility-related outnumber those who need physical barriers eliminated. When you add those children, who have both physical and other disabilities, we can begin to see why we need to go beyond physical inclusivity.

OK, it’s time to pivot.

I’ve been using the term Virtual Playground because most people understand “virtual” to mean something that lives in a computer-generated space. However, we can’t actually use Virtual Reality on the playground because VR puts the player in a computer-generated reality projected onto a headset that blocks the real world. This is totally the wrong direction from our intention. What we are looking for is technology that allows for more engagement with reality, not less.

Hence, the pivot away from using the term Virtual Playground. Going forward, we will use the term Augmented Playground.

The more I think about the name change, the more I like it. We’ve pointed out that the disabled community are the pioneers of technology that increases their abilities. Being augmented is in tons of children’s stories and culture. From the Six Million Dollar Man to the current line of superheroes, most of these fictional characters all have backstories of how they overcame a disability by being augmented. Many of those augmentations involve gee-wiz technology.

So, let’s hear it for Augmented Playgrounds! Yeah!

In our next post, we will review the literature on how Augmented Technology is being used to help kids.