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.

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