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.
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.