Smart Playgrounds

Smart Social Games – So much fun!

Here’s a question for you.

How does an organization dedicated to creating inclusive playgrounds and getting disabled kids outside and gaining a sense of belonging with their peers also accommodate all kids whose differences are not physical?

Let’s look at how the playground industry currently answers the question of inclusive design. Then, for fun, let’s also suggest some solutions that are possible by adding Smart technology.

Kompan has made the most progress towards a smart playground. While theirs is a good start, it is hampered by being locked to their product. This is a universal defect with the other attempts at solving this issue by other companies. Their solution is also hampered by the focus on children’s books for themes.  

In contrast, the Metaverse uses smart technology that is open source and interoperable across any environment where children play. The only limitations are the supportive connectivity infrastructure.

Biba Ventures made a good run at this idea a few years back. They had a lot of content and packaging, right … if a smart playground is a product. Which it is not! They got support from Playpower, but the exclusivity clause came back to bite them. BCI Burke and Playground Center in Australia may continue to hold the fort, but Biba Ventures is now vaporware.

What is an Inclusive Playground?

These days, it is unconscionable not to make playgrounds inclusive. Playworld has a very well-developed Inclusive Design Guideline. While not as comprehensive as Playcore’s ME2 – 7 Principles of Inclusive Playground Design, the Playworld Guideline is far more useful to the typical playground developer.  

Looking at the Playworld Guideline in the way we are proposing for the Metaverse, the following are a few examples of how adding connectivity will solve the glaring inadequacies of the common hardware-only approach.

Wayfinding – Kids need to have multi-sensory signals and cues in the play space and surrounding environment. The standard solution is handrails. Well, what if you use a walker? Wayfinding can easily be done with sound cues or just use a map app.

Sliding – Sure, nearly every playground has a slide, and many can be accessed, sort of. But if the child uses the slide, how does she get back to the top? Instead of a caregiver recovering the chair, how about a robot chair that they can ride back up to the top. The point is that playgrounds should be a place that is safe enough to try out being independent and having fun with your peers without too much supervision. Unfortunately, the current best practices still don’t address this obvious shortcoming.

Cooperative Play – A spinning net climber is a great event where children play with each other. But for kids on the spectrum, this is way too intense. Smart toys and devices can be a more accessible solution to stimulate cooperative play by helping socially awkward kids make connections.

Symbolic Play – Symbolic is particularly important in language development. Other than themes like castles, ships, etc., today’s playground does little to support symbolic play. Adding Augmented Reality, as in the Metaverse, turns this issue around 180 degrees.  

Loose Parts – “Oh, we can’t have loose parts on the playground. People will steal them.” Wha-wha-wha! Come on, every store in existence solves this problem. Today we have smart technology to do this even without a shopkeeper. We can do this for playgrounds as well. An easy place to start is by providing Smart Toy Lockers with digital looks and inventory control technology. This stuff is available off the shelf.

Game Play – The new electronic playground games such as Yalp, Kompan, and Playworld are great and a step in the right direction. They are, however, limited by cost and lack of player control of the gameplay. It’s time to harness the ubiquitous and ambient computer power that exists in the pockets all around the playground. Can we say “Flash-Mob-Play?”

Height – Multistory play structures are all the rage. The idea is that height adds challenge and excitement. Both are true. The problem is that they exacerbate many of the goals of inclusive play. They are the coolest thing on the playground, and difficult to make wheelchair accessible. In addition, the long access routes are a challenge to populate with engaging play activities.

In contrast, a Smart Playground can use AR, add excitement and challenge along the accessible route at no cost. Kids having to duck under the grasp of a fire-breathing dragon will make a standard slide as engaging as a multistory slide. Virtual challenges mean projects with limited budgets can be as appealing as a destination playground. 

The conclusion?

The notion of children playing with phones is antithetical to the goal of getting kids outside and off their screens. And that’s a huge barrier to the wide adoption of the Metaverse on inclusive playgrounds.

My point is that by not accommodating millions of kids whose lives are already lived in the Metaverse, we are exclusionary, which goes against the goal of play for all everywhere.

The Smart Playground addresses this conundrum. Pokémon Go is a great example of using tech to get kids outside. The problem is all that observers see is folks walking around with a phone in their face.

By changing the intent of virtual games to focus on social connectedness and leveraging the computing power in phones, and connecting them with sound and AR, playground play will look much as it does now, but with invisible playmates.

The design and programming of the Metaverse can turn any playground into a smart playground.

Gamification is the Enemy of Play

Between the climate crisis and political issues, there is no doubt that things are getting serious—likely, more serious, faster than we can imagine.

When times get tough, children and play suffer. While our current scenario is truly existential, there are precedents. One need only to look back on other crises to see children as workers or soldiers. In the world today, there are more children in these “occupations” than ever before.

The justification is always the same, “It’s time to get serious.” Since child labor is ostensibly outlawed in first-world countries, getting serious means learning things like Career Technical Training (CTE).

Dr. Peter Grey has made it his life’s work to campaign against the authoritarian nature of education. The more “enlightened” approach to reach the same goal is gamification. If you doubt me on this, just Google the title of this article, and you will get pages of links that provide advice about using games to make learning “fun.”

Gamification is not play-ification

Let’s start with the locus of control. From Wikipedia – “The Locus of control is the degree to which people believe that they, as opposed to external forces (beyond their influence), have control over the outcome of events in their lives.”

In play, the locus of control is in the child. Gamification, as it is most commonly employed, is the opposite. The goal of cyber games is to commodify and monetize attention. Game designers use well-established tools such as triggers and rewards to literally “hook” players.

Those in ECE should know better, but even the best of us can fall err to some of this thinking. For example, take the way we present the quintessential play activity, loose parts. While few of us would present something as highly structured as this “sensory” example, we often have a pretty clear idea about how something will be used. The kicker is that, by golly, the kids do just what we expected; all is good. But who is in control?

Teacher Tom Hobson is the true guru at poking holes in this adult arrogance. His many stories of children upending the predictable use of materials and making play in unexpected ways. While Tom is certainly not a no boundaries kind of guy, he loves the use of “junk.” He sees in junk what the play master, Bernie De Koven, prized, i.e., complexification. Gamification, in contrast, doles out more game elements as rewards for deeper engagement.

What is your intention with my child?

Every day we seem to have to relearn the wisdom of “follow-the-money” as the best tool for finding corruption. This is as true for things children are subjected to as it is for politicians. Digital games are only two decades old but are already a bigger industry than movies or sports. So we have to ask ourselves, what is being corrupted to turn a profit?

Is educational gamification any better? While we don’t see the enormous growth or profits in education that we do in gaming, “making learning fun” props up an equally enormous industry. Ironically, parents are very pleased when their children spend more time in school and on homework than playing Grand Theft Auto, both of which steal time from play.

To figure out the intention of a game, it is useful to look within the category of casual gamers; researchers see four quadrants or Bartles’ “types.”

  • Killer:         Scores matter.
  • Achiever:   Levels drive retention.
  • Socializer: Seeking friends or new experiences.
  • Explorer:   World Building.

Many of the popular games, such as Grand Theft, tend to be of the Killer type. Pokémon combines all four categories and includes “shooting” opponents and conquest. Minecraft, in contrast, is based on the Achiever type and uses both Socializer and Explorer themes.


Often when studying an issue deeply, we find that more research is required. Such is the case here, and in the coming days, as we delve into the implications of cyberspace on early childhood and play, we will continue to follow the money.

Introducing the Metaverse Playground

An apology to the followers of this blog, as I have not posted for a couple of weeks. In my defense, I have quite literally fallen down the rabbit hole.

Those of you who have checked out my history will note that I have moved progressively through several phases:

  1. Play Sculpture
  2. Build Your Playground (book, DeYoung exhibit)
  3. Wood play systems (BigToys, Kompan)
  4. Metal play systems (PlayBoosters, Kid Builders)
  5. X-game type challenges (BoldR, Rocks, and Ropes)
  6. Indoor (Gymboree)

I have been an advocate for inclusive play throughout this journey. I contributed to the Play For All Guidelines and hugely supported the Magical Bridge Foundation.

Over the past couple of years, I have been exploring and advocating for loose-part play systems, especially those exemplified by Anji Play.

I had hoped to launch a loose-part play product and came up with a system that is a large-scale version of Magformers. That product is viable, and I’d be happy to share the details with any company interest in bringing it to market. However, at 80, I simply must pick my projects carefully and don’t have the time to pioneer another product. I must select the most impactful project possible.

Play in Cyberspace

Here’s the deal. The playground business is likely worth a billion dollars annually. Cyber gaming is worth at least a hundred times that much. That means if you are serious about the value and importance of play, you must look closely at what is going on in that realm. I have been studying this, and it has been a real Alice in Wonderland adventure. Let me share some of what I’ve found.

While the whole subject is mind-boggling, my focus is the impact on children, especially those between 5 to 10 years of age. The reason for this emphasis is that these years have clearly defined and well-established critical periods. When designing play systems, we must use these inflection points to select and configure physical apparatus that will trigger specific behaviors to elicit vestibular, balance, proprioceptive and sensory stimulation that builds connections and integrates the child’s brain and body. The concern is that video games designed to maximize kids’ engagement are likely disrupting some aspects of normal development with unknown effects.

As a society, we are concerned that young children are shielded from spending too much “screen time.” Unfortunately, the reality is that cyber-play has greatly overtaken physical play. While there is handwringing about this issue, play advocates have a real lack of concern. That is not to say, and there has been no work in this area. It is just not coming from those who are close to the playworker community. I have been reaching out to my friends in this area with the notion of forming a “Play Advocates Cohort.” More on this effort in a subsequent post.

The Facebook Syndrome

The cyber-world in general and digital games are dedicated to “hooking” users in order to monetize their attention. While this is not a big concern for those older than 15 years, the younger the children are when exposed to digital games, the more potential for damaging impact.

Unfortunately, the genie is out of the bottle on this. There is just no way a family with two working adults will completely control kids’ access to multimedia entertainment.

Since 2003, Common Sense Media has been doing yeoman’s work in curating children’s media. As a resource for parents, it is unapparelled.  That said, they don’t address the deeper issues about the developmental impact of media in general.

If you would like to drop down the rabbit hole with me, I want to recommend several deep dives into this subject:

This is the most accessible article on the impact of Augmented Reality (AR) that I have found. Furthermore, it is the entry point for my current project, creating a Metaverse to overlay physical playgrounds.

Read this to understand the ethical and cultural impacts of virtual gaming. I guarantee you will be transfixed with the complexity of this discussion.

Finally, this article shows why it is not so much the content of cyber gaming, as it is the issue that Marshall McLuhan articulated so well; “the Medium is the Message.”

So, dear reader, hop to it and do your homework. Over the next few posts, we will continue to explore what is involved in creating the Metaverse Playground.