When is There Too Much Stuff?

An example of limited abundance at Anji PLay

As we continue to explore popularizing loose part play and making it available everywhere, we are presented with the question of how much stuff is required and when is too much a detriment to play?

I’m not a trained researcher, and I try to keep my compulsive nature in check, so I can’t claim to have done an exhaustive search of the literature. Besides, it would break my budget to pay for all the papers in which the abstracts hint at relevance. That said, this is a critical issue for parents who want to use loose parts to maximize play-based learning. Answers should not be hard to find.

Absent good research, we can begin to tease out some insights into this subject. One need only look at how loose parts are managed in programs such as Anji Play, Montessori, and Regio Emilia to recognize how the loose parts are presented. There are three commonalities to note:

  • There is a certain sparseness to the affordances. When there is abundance, this tends to be of similar things, such as blocks.
  • There is also diversity such that the various play modalities such as pretend, constructive, active, tactile, discovery, and creative are offered.
  • Finally, the role of the adult is very carefully choreographed, so additional materials are introduced into ongoing play episodes at critical moments.

One of the most cogent discussions I have seen on this subject is a paper by Diane Kashin, A Thinking Continuum: A Search for Complexity in Early Childhood Education Practice. Her discussion of the loosely structured vs. highly structured classroom is instructive, and I urge you to take a few minutes to read it.

My point here is this. We can design a community-accessible loose part play system that meets the first two criteria. Helping parents develop the sensitivity to manage loose part play in a communal and public setting is a challenge of a whole different order and kind.

First, there is the issue of training. Parents simply can’t try to become early childhood educators. Even if they went back to school, most critical skills are not imparted by the academic curricula but by the practicum. They can observe master teachers interact with children.

There may be a way to make some of this hands-on learning available. While being physically present is ideal, one can learn a great deal from video. In this video, Anji Play founder Ms. Cheng Xueqin describes the important role of the teacher with Jesse Robert Coffino, Co-Chair of the True Play Foundation. This is a great introduction to the practice. In addition, Anji Play has posted many YouTube videos that are extremely instructive.

A unique element of the Anji Play method is the emphasis on reflection. This is a very subtle technique that most harried parents will overlook. Trying to stuff the practice into an online platform seems insurmountable. Can it be done? Maybe.

The approach I’d like to establish is “best practices” for the loose parts. These follow well established and effective early childhood education norms they are:

  • Storage – The way loose parts are stored for easy access by children is well thought out.
  • Clean up – It may seem crazy to many Americans, but kids want to be useful and participate in maintaining their living space.
  • Schedule – Parenting is so much easier when the child’s life falls into regular eating, sleeping, and play periods.

The system we are contemplating can follow the bike rental technology and establish procedures to ensure the loose parts are checked out and put away in an orderly fashion. The accompanying app can also provide a scheduler to assist parents in establishing and maintaining a rhythm to family life that accommodates their needs and normalizes their child’s life.

While this is a very brief discussion about the challenges of making loose part play available in public places, it suggests a path forward. Success will require a very well-thought-out physical system combined with an online portal for parent support.

The Virtual-Physical Playground

Fairies, Leprechauns, talking animals, and other imaginary creatures have been the foundation of children’s stories for eons. While unseen, they are devoutly believed in by children and far too many adults.

That something invisible can nonetheless be real is the world of childhood. For example, did you know that things, even people and pets, have names? You can’t see them, but those names are very real to everyone around the child.

In the 1950s, Children’s Fairyland was created at the Oakland, CA zoo. It was a huge hit and copied in many locations. Walt Disney toured Fairyland and was so impressed he was inspired to create Disneyland, and hired the director to lead youth programs in his first park.

The core concept of Fairyland and later Disneyland was to make the virtual world of children’s stories into concrete reality. Literally concrete.

Disney, of course, realized that he was already making children’s stories real through the magic of animation, so it was not unexpected that he would want to physically embody his characters so children could interact with them.

This trend continues today. Angry Birds has a hugely popular virtual playground game as well as several activity parks. KOMPAN recently introduced a play series based on the tales of Hans Christian Andersen. Indeed, most playground companies have several “theme” products that relate to children’s stories.

Today’s children are fed a constant diet of fantasy reinforced with toys, board games, costumes, animated movies, and physical environments. While most kids can tell what is and what’s not real, this constant blurring of the line between the unseen and the physical sets up an opportunity to develop counterfactual reasoning in children between 6 and 12.

It is believed that humans tend to think of counterfactual ideas when there were exceptional circumstances that led to an event, and thus could have been avoided in the first place. We also tend to create counterfactual ideas when we feel guilty about a situation and wish to exert more control.” – Wikipedia

We can’t do a deep dive into counterfactual thinking here. However, that work needs to be done if the notion of a Virtual-Physical Playground is to be actualized and address the technology’s ethical issues.

What are the possible benefits and challenges of a Virtual-Physical Playground?

Since homo sapiens evolved, the child’s world has been filled with an ambient soup of words heard but not seen or touched yet connected to real things. The huge change for today’s children is being surrounded by an ambient soup of unseen digital connectivity. Consider the child’s experience. How does unlocking the front door turn on the house lights? How does talking to the TV change the channels? For our children, this is not the magic it is to us. Rather, it just is.

Like the beloved Labrador is Ruff, there is no magic the dog has a name, and since it is an unseen fact, it is hard for a child to imagine Ruff with a different name. Such matured counterfactual thinking is why so many children change their name at 6 to 12 years. By this age, they realize that the names of things are a just community convention arbitrarily applied, and names can be changed to better reflect the person she is becoming. What is reality now could have been different in the past and can be different going forward.

Engaging in augmented reality (AR) offers the possibility of learning through trial and error without the threat of injury. Indeed, AR is a rapidly developing area in risk management and training. Creating a virtual-physical reality platform in which children merge their digital playground with an actual playground allows children to explore both environments in fascinating and safe ways.

Or, at least, this seems intuitively true. But that’s why we need a proof-of-concept test.

Playgrounds – Nothing new here! – Part Two

The Galaxy System introduced climbing on the outside of structures and revolutionized playgrounds.

Hap Parker commented on my last post,

“It’s true, there’s nothing new out there on the playground, just lipstick on the same old pigs.”

There is a core truth in this observation. I don’t take the “old pigs” comment as a pejorative. Rather, that play is universal to all creatures with complex brains. I’ve provided slides, swings, and monkey bars to all kinds of animals, including countless children, and they all play the same way. So, it is no wonder that today’s playgrounds are composed entirely of these “old” elements.

The problem that confronts to diminished popularity of playgrounds is twofold. Gross motor play is well and good, but it is not enough to overcome the attraction of other entertainments.

The other issue is far more fundamental. Today’s playgrounds can’t compete with other entertainment precisely because they are entertainment! The difference between entertainment and play is the locus of control. Play comes from the child, not from equipment.

A well-designed integrated play structure with accessory elements such as spinners and swings does provide kids choices about physical play but only within very limited challenges. However, the climbers are a pale imitation of real trees or mountains. The swings can hold a candle to a rope that ends up with a drop into the lake.

Another limitation is physical play is just one part of what kids do. As Hap pointed out, “the most developmentally crucial play involves constructive play, play that has the child problem-solving.” If playgrounds are to become more relevant in our digitally obsessed era, they must go beyond the same old, same old.

The notion of adding challenges is gaining some traction. The problem is that the way it is being introduced is with height. An adrenaline rush is a cheap shot that only increases the entertainment value while also further restricting the child’s choices because of all the added enclosures.

A few years ago, KOMPAN, to its credit, introduced the notion of climbing around the outside of play structures. As a strong proponent of free climbing, I’d love to see that concept extended to the multistory play structures that are now all the rage. Sure, like that’s going to happen.

As a fan of boldering, I love the Kompan BLOQX

There are ways to introduce more challenges to playgrounds. But that will only happen when producers are motivated to do the work needed.

We are mired in the “good enough” dilemma in what products being made, how they are marketed, and the choices presented to customers, all conspire to kill innovation. This same issue has prevented the radical changes needed to address today’s existential crisis in transportation, housing, energy, and education.

As generation Z begins to enter their childbearing years, they will bring their profound understanding of the need for systematic change to parenting. They are joining the growing trend in homeschooling motivated by recognizing that traditional education fails to adequately address the range of learning styles, or the core skills children need.

The path forward to playground innovation will not come from the existing producers. It will only come from consumers who demand better products and force change. This is the lesson that Elon Musk has taught us.

I, for one, intend to follow his strategy. Watch this space.

Playgrounds – Nothing new here!

The first PlayBooster, Roller Slide with plastic spiral slide by Henderson Recreation, 1983

All play equipment is derivative.

Do you doubt that assertion? Show me one piece of playground apparatus that isn’t a twist on something that preceded it. Having worked to invent new stuff for six decades, I know intimately how hard it is to come up with any playground innovation.

True confession time. While I have significantly improved the design of play apparatus and contributed to popularizing these improvements, none of my designs are particularly original. Rather, I was inspired by things I saw that looked like fun and adapted them for public playgrounds.

Here are some examples:

  • While designing for BigToys, I added banister slides. These were inspired by handrails on the stairs to the Conservatory at Golden Gate Park, which my daughter loved to slide down.
  • The Roller Slide we introduced with PlayBoosters was derived from an art exhibit of play sculptures in New York. The art piece we drew from used an industrial roller conveyer that we refined, so it didn’t have entrapments.
  • The NYC exhibition also had a rotating barrel that was fun.  We added it to the Mexico Forge catalog, but it never took off. Probably because it was a stand-alone event, I see that the idea is back on the market.
  • How about the Track Ride? We started with standard barn door hardware and redesigned it to fix its safety and durability issues.
  • I saw a Curly Climber on a trip to Japan. We added them to PlayBoosters as soon as I got back.
  • The BIG revolution in the ’70s was the modular integrated play structure concept that I introduced first at BigToys and then at Mexico Forge with PlayBoosters. The “innovation” there was a clamp combined with the newly developed 5-in tubing from Allied Pipe. Using a clamp to attach a horizontal pipe was inspired by visiting my volunteer-built wooded play sculptures. I was stunned to see how quickly the wood was aging, while the steel turning bars at the same school had been there since the turn of the century and looked great. The combination of clamp and tubing provided the visual density of the wood systems with the tinker toy ease of configuration we had popularized at BigToys.
  • I must also admit to taking inspiration from Miracle and their rotationally molded spring toy. I gravitated to plastic to replace the steel barrels I had been using.

The one innovation that I hoped for that didn’t catch on was bending the five-inch tubing into more pleasing shapes. Bending pipe has only caught on as arches, but so much more can be done. For example, I’ve pitched a system using bent tubing that replicates the climbing challenges of an ideal tree complete with flexibility. I know kids will love it. Existing playground companies, not so much.

The first integrated play structure – Schoolyard BigToys Model 1976

What’s my point?

I’m baring my soul and sharing all this history to address a personal concern. Playgrounds are losing their customers to digital games, commercial entertainment centers, skateparks, etc. There are just too many other places to play. Why go to a park that the same old, same old?

In my next post, we will look at the decline of playgrounds as a center of children’s lives.  Will they continue to exist? Yep. Will there be more created. Sure. But the same can be said for cemeteries. Let’s do something that attracts a few more visitors, shall we?