Getting the Dirt on Play

muddygirl

“Let your child be a child. Dirt is good. If your child isn’t coming in dirty every day, they’re not doing their job. They’re not building their immunological army.”  Dr Mary Ruebush, immunologist and author of Why Dirt is Good: 5 Ways to Make Germs Your Friends

This post may make you feel really yucky but bear with me, it’s important.

Over the past few decades there has been a growing body of research that points to the role of the bacteria in our gut to our health. Most of us carry around about five pounds “of not us” stuff, something like 100 trillion little beasties, mostly in the lower G. I. tract. Without them, we could not metabolize what we eat.

We are beginning to understand that establishing this diverse community of mostly bacteria and keeping it balanced is essential to health. For one thing, when they are functioning optimally, they crowd out bad bacteria that can trigger disease. The first major breakthrough in this area was in 1982 when it was discovered that ulcers are not caused by stress or diet but by the bacteria Helicobacter pylori.

Poor intestinal health has subsequently been implicated in obesity, autoimmune diseases such as MS and lupus, Parkinson’s, acne, cancer, asthma, ADHD, and diabetes. The most recent research is finding connections with behavior and moods as well as a strong implication with autism.

This is serious stuff. One of the reactions to this flood of new research is to review the use of antibiotics, painkillers, and other medications, which have been shown to damage the microbiome. Currently, there are also major studies looking at the impact of genetically modified foods, as tests connected on mice seem to indicate a problem with them and gut health as well.

The bacteria in our guts are derived from many sources. Babies pick up their first load during birth and the type of delivery makes a big difference. They also begin to get them from physical contact with adults.

It appears that some of the most important denizens of our gut come from dirt. Mycobacterium vaccae is found in soil and stimulates serotonin production, which makes you relaxed and happier. Researchers found that “Exposure to friendly soil bacteria could improve mood by boosting the immune system just as effectively as antidepressant drugs.”

In this article, Toddler temperament could be influenced by different types of gut bacteria, it is reported that researchers “found that children with the most genetically diverse types of gut bacteria more frequently exhibited behaviors related with positive mood, curiosity, sociability, and impulsivity.”

In 2010 researchers established “that mice that were fed live M. vaccae navigated the maze twice as fast and with less demonstrated anxiety behaviors as control mice.” So dirt not only makes us happy, it also makes us smarter.

Of course, microbes in large doses in some dirt can be bad for us, but in small amounts, our immune systems are wonderfully designed to select the good from the bad. When the exposure is moderate, the more bacteria, viruses, and parasites our immune system is exposed to the better chance we have of warding off diseases. Research has shown that children who grow up on farms have lower allergy and asthma rates, a phenomenon attributed to their regular exposure to microorganisms present in farm soil. Another study found that infants in homes with a greater variety of bacteria were less likely to develop environmental allergies and wheezing at age 3.

Annual+Mud+Day+Celebration+Lets+Kids+Get+Dirty+rOS7KBcnzkel

What’s Gut Health Have to do With Play?

Perhaps we should not be surprised that playing in the dirt makes us happy or that gardening elevates our mood, but few of us would go on to assume that these activities are absolutely essential to our health. It is even more unlikely that we would go even further and say that the earlier such playing with dirt occurs the better.

Of course, allowing children, especially infants, to be exposed to dirt is primarily at the discretion of parents, but as the evidence grows that the long-term health of each individual depends on the dirt that they play in, we may see a time when the essential and beneficial microbes are isolated and children are routinely inoculated at birth.

The fact that M. vaccae continues to elevate our mood throughout our lifespan suggests that our bodies continue to benefit from re-exposure to dirt. When we lived as hunter-gatherers or farmed by hand, such long-term contact with soil was no problem. In today’s highly urbanized world getting dirty is becoming increasingly problematic. As the correlation between microbes and disease gets increasingly well understood, some researcher in the not-to-distant future will do the math and determine that the health care cost to society’s fixation on hygiene is so large that it may well become the number one cause of preventable disease. The good news is that this will mean that community gardens, which are already very popular, will become ubiquitous. The other impact will be that dirt pits will become a standard feature of early childhood programs.

For more information and a great resource, list visit the Stay At Home Educator Blog.

Here are various posts that expand this idea:

This article first appeared in Playground Professionals November 23, 2015

Playing During Pandemic – Part Four – Miracle Mud

Mud is “Nature’s Prozac”

There has been an explosion of interest in the role of the gut microbiome in recent years. The discoveries range from the role of bacteria gained through vaginal birth to their role in Alzheimer’s. I have written previously about the benefits of mud Mycobacterium vaccae (MV) in Getting the Dirt on Play. This installment will look at getting those benefits with the least amount of hassle. My reasoning is to make it so easy to allow your kids to play with mud that it becomes just another toy and not another cleanup chore.

The key to this approach is moderation. Sure, it’s fun, on occasion, to get fully immersed in mud, but that is not necessary for our goal, which is to just get a taste. You see, the bacterium in mud will multiply to the appropriate balance with the 100’s of other species that dwell there. One of the benefits we are looking for is the mood-altering power of MV. Think of mud as Nature’s Prozac in its ability to calm anxiety and elevate the spirit. Kids don’t have to play in mud to get this boost as they can get it with just playing with dirt. You get the same effect from gardening. There are other benefits to getting dirty such as lowering allergies and asthma, but in these stressful times, the reduction in stress outweighs all other considerations.

If you can get the same benefits from dirt as you can from mud, why should you bother with the mess? The reason to add water to the mix is that the tactile impact of mud is a force multiplier. The slithery, gooey, squishy quality of mud has its anxiety-reducing quality. Let’s look at how to get all the benefits while minimizing the mess.

I’m sure you’ve heard the phrase, “there is no bad weather, only bad clothing.” This notion applies doubly for kid’s play. Your first step is deciding what you are comfortable with what your children will get dirty. In our preschools, we use aprons, rain gear, or a change of clothes as our solutions depend on the play materials we are presenting. Having these options ready to pair with the play agenda for the day is a recipe for success.

As has been the case with our previous recommendations in this series of blogs dealing with the pandemic, the primary path to maximizing benefits is setting up the environment. Preschool programs have been dealing successfully with this challenge since forever, so we will highlight what they have found to be successful.

Another common phrase is “everything in moderation,” and it applies doubly in this case. Small amounts of water and dirt are fully adequate to support great play sessions. One way to lower the amount of dirt and water used is to set up another traditional feature of early childhood education centers, the “Mud Kitchen.” These are so beneficial and emblematic of a school that supports play-based learning that I recommend those looking for a school for their children to walk away and not look back if the school they are considering doesn’t have one.

Photo – Adam Segel-Moss 

A mud kitchen can be very elaborate or just some tubs and boxes. The key to making this work is to have lots of bowls, pans, bottles, and squeeze sprayers. Adding some marbles, small rocks, sand, lawn cuttings, and Easter egg dyes in containers set up an apothecary so kids can create potions. This sort of brewing up trouble will produce happy play episodes where you will only need to eat some pretend cake or poison once in a while to have hours of relative peace. You will initially have to maintain the materials and set up to some extent but try to transition as early as possible to have the kids gather the ingredients with you to extend the play and kid control.

Photo – Rebecca Fox Stoddard

While any dirt is great, some are concerned with “germs” and don’t trust just digging in the backyard. If that’s a concern, you can start with sand. The two images above are from Nature Play at Home: Creating Outdoor Spaces that Connect Children to the Natural World by Nancy Striniste, which I highly recommend.

Another alternative is clay. Sure, you can buy all sorts of “toy” clay in a myriad of colors and get none the bacterial benefits. It’s so much better to get a 25 lbs bag of air-dry clay for $30 and have enough to last for months. Play clay will also result in great sculptures and tons of slithery fun.

If your child is adverse to mud, a fun way to get them into the slimy play is by doing “finger painting” with chocolate pudding.

Let’s look at wet-play next.

The Theory of Play Patterns and Triggers

Over the past two decades, significant advances researchers have made great strides in both neuroscience and evolutionary psychology. Taken together, this body of new knowledge allows us to finally answer the question that has vexed philosophers and child development researchers since Plato; What is the importance of play?

The core insight is both obvious and surprising. Historically children have been seen as entering this world “Tabula rasa,” which is the notion that the child’s mind is a blank slate, and knowledge comes only from experience. Nothing could be further from the truth. The child’s brain is more like a multiple answer quiz in which the child can choose an answer out of many that are correct that fit the environment in which they find themselves. For example, children are born with significant language capability and must discover the specific language in use by those around them.  In addition to this language template, infants also have many other models, such as motor functions, social engagement, and a sense of how the world works, to name a few.

As adults, we sometimes get overwhelmed by the complexity of this world. For an infant who has dozens of potential templates into which all the various stimuli which bombard them must be organized, the real problem is to what select out the chaos of all that surrounds them what is correct and useful. In essence, the child’s core question is, “What do I need to pay attention to?”

To address this critical issue, young children are not only armed with the scaffolding on which to construct their reality, but they also have a spotlight that shines on those aspects of the environment that will best fill out the mental structure they are erecting. Imagine the world’s most complicated jigsaw puzzle and now make that three dimensional, then put all of the pieces of the puzzle are in constant motion, and you have some idea what the child is up against. Fortunately, they are not only equipped with a picture of what the eventual puzzle is supposed to look like, but they also have an inborn mental laser pointer that points to the pieces that are most likely to fit. We call this target identifier a trigger.

This notion of patterns and triggers is by no means new or original. Philosophers from Johan Huizinga to Jean Piaget and beyond have used similar constructs. What is new is that we now have fMRI devices that can peer into the child’s brain and see it being triggered by specific stimuli. Not only do we now know what lights up the brain, but we can also determine to a large extent what is being learned.

Of course, when we are dealing with human development, nothing is easy, simple, linear, or disconnected from the whole. That said, these new tools have given us insights that can be very helpful to educators. The challenge for teachers is choosing what children must learn, and the right time and sequence in which to present the information. For children in the 0 to 8 years of age, teacher-directed learning is not optimal because we now know that children have an elegant system of identifying what they need to know and the ability to pull from their environment the necessary information. Again, this is nothing new. Many teachers and parents are well aware of the value of child-directed learning. With all this new knowledge, we can now be much clearer about the specifics of this process. The theory of Play Patterns and Triggers is a step in that direction.

That children come pre-programmed to learn and do so in a very predictable way is nothing short of amazing. But why should such a system be necessary? Wouldn’t an unstructured brain with an open-ended discovery process work as well?

To answer this question, we must start at birth. The challenge is that having children is painful, demanding, and puts the parent at significant risk. To keep mothers from rejecting their child, the mother’s brain is flooded with the bonding hormones oxytocin and dopamine. Also, babies are born cute, engaging, and fun. Parental bonds drive a strong protective instinct. But such shielding behavior can cause a parent to overprotect and prevent the child from having the experiences they need for their full functioning, as we see in helicoptering parents. To encourage parents to allow their children to take on challenges, those risks all fit into these recognizable play patterns that single to parents that learning is happening, or at least that the child is having fun. This allows them to tolerate risky exploration, and perhaps even participate in such play with them.

The child’s side of this story is interesting as well. Not only are the play patterns deeply engrained, but children are highly motivated to engage in them. We have used the term “triggered” for this condition because it correctly identifies and describes the high amount of potential energy that is released with a specific stimulus. Indeed, one could say that children cannot be prevented from play without direct intervention by adults. A case can be made that such interference causes real harm to children. From this analysis, we can see that children and parents are engaged in a dance of protection and challenge and that the behaviors on both sides are highly structured and biologically driven. The question becomes then, why should such a complex and powerful dynamic be set up? Let’s look at a specific play pattern, jumping in puddles, to see if we can tease out the motivating factors.

Select and click on the image to play the video

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The protective parent will try to prevent their child from getting muddy. Not only are they concerned about “germs” but are also likely not to want to deal with the mess. Both motivations are certainly understandable. The child, on the other hand, finds water play, especially mud play, irresistible, but why? The first layer of motivation is purely physical exploration, learning how this play feels, what the water does when you smack it, and full sensory stimulation. The deeper motivation is genuinely astonishing.

The science on mud play has only recently been developed, and it turns out that a big appeal of mud play is ingesting soil. We now know that exposure to the soil microbes, specifically mycobacterium vaccae, is essential in establishing a healthy gut biome, which is crucial to a robust immune system. It gets even more complicated as we have recently found that these microbes elevate our mood. This is not only true for kids; it also true for gardeners. But the story gets even more amazing.

There has been an explosion of recent research on the gut biome, and several useful references are listed below. The finding that is most relevant to this discussion about mud and feeling good is that the gut biome produces 95% of the body’s neurotransmitters, such as serotonin and dopamine. Why is this important? Most of us think of brain development as cells linking up like the wringing in a computer. Nothing could be further from the truth. Synapses do not touch other cells directly; instead, they get close enough to pass these neurotransmitters back and forth. Rather than digital on-off signals as in a computer, connections made in the human brain are much more like a cocktail party with all sorts of different feelings and messages being exchanged.

What’s the bottom line here? First that children will compulsively play in mud. Second, that playing in mud is essential for human health and, finally, that the gut provides much of the juice that drives the brain.

Water-mud play is only one of the 20 play patterns we have identified. Each one of these has the same multilayered and interconnected beneficial structure that results in the miracle that is a child. Our goal is to delve into these and gather the emerging research into a form that teachers can use to maximize the powerful learning system that is playing.

Babies Know: A Little Dirt Is Good For You

“Dirt is Good”: Why Children Need More Exposure to Germs

That Gut Feeling

Baby Love? Oxytocin-Dopamine Interactions in Mother-Infant Bonding

 

Play is Not Important

The following article of mine was just posted on
Play is Not Important - by Jay Beckwith

Throughout my nearly 5 decades advocating for kid’s play I have tried to convey the message that play is critical to all social creatures, and especially children. My message has been “The Importance of Play.” I am now of the opinion that this was the wrong approach. My sense is that believing play is IMPORTANT actually impedes my, and our, fully understanding of play behavior and prevents the creation of fully optimized environments.

Like a doctor that prescribes an ointment for a rash instead of treating the patient’s allergy, when we think about play as a specific behavior, we are looking at the symptom rather than the cause. If we look for the first principles behind play behavior, we see that what is being expressed in play is really the physical manifestation of intelligence. This is the key idea; it is the brain-in-action that is “important” not specific play behaviors.

As we discover more and more about artificial intelligence, we come to appreciate, and stand in awe of, organic intelligence. Even though both types of intelligence, brains and computers, can do many of the same things, like solve math problems, the difference is profound. It is the difference between a shovel and water; both can effectively move dirt but they operate in totally different ways.

The face of an information gathering brain.

Play is Not Important - by Jay Beckwith

From the moment they are born, babies have tremendous capacity for learning. Within days they begin to consume information about the world around them. Their learning ability continues to soar and is soon joined by the ability to organize the information they have acquired. This process of information organization, pattern recognition, is the primary way that organic intelligence is so vastly superior to computers. While computers are super powerful at parsing in a lineal fashion, organic brains are what are called “massively parallel” information processors; each neuron is tiny but there are millions of them all acting simultaneously.

Play is based on this process of discovery. Play comes after the child has answered the question “What is this?” Only as they develop an overall understanding of an object can they move on to play with it. For example, a toddler will spend a long time getting to know what a spoon is before they discover that it can also be used as a catapult for peas.

As the child continues to gather information, organize it and then play with that basic set of knowledge, they will discover aspects of their experience on which they want to concentrate; they get “really interested” in something. In this type of play we see the same playful activities repeated continually. This is called “practice,” the point of which is to perfect a challenging action.

With sufficient practice the child will gain “mastery.” Generally once mastery is achieved, the child will want to perform, “Mommy, look-it!” The peak of mastery is when the skill is taught to others. Thus play is not an isolated behavior and cannot be meaningfully isolated as a distinct set of activities. Rather play is part of a continuum that looks like this:

Discovery –> Play –> Practice –> Mastery = The Learning Spectrum

As a designer of play environments I now see that my work has been compromised by a singular focus on play. It has been as if I could understand a rainbow by focusing on red rather than the full continuum of the spectrum. I believe that this chauvinism about play is shared in most people in the developed world. It is the kind of atomistic thinking that modern science has completely invalidated. In almost every branch of science there is no “object” of study; rather today’s science looks at systems, as scientist have come to understand that what they want to learn about can only be understood in its full context.

What does this insight mean in terms of designing environments for children? The clear implication is that the designer should look first at supporting the discovery process and assess the amount of complexity in the space. Today’s playgrounds are seen as “boring” and there is a strong movement to create “natural” play settings. I believe that both of these sentiments spring from our intuitive understanding that the more complex the environment is, the more it will engage children and that there is nothing more complex than nature. A super clean, orderly, and slick playground is the antithesis of what the child seeks and needs.

Does this mean that swings, slides, and climbers are wrong? No. But they are no more effective at providing the sort of environment questing young minds need than a pill is effective at curing depression. If we were to create a play environment rating system based on this insight, modern hygienic playgrounds would be on one end, a stream in the forest would be on the other, and an adventure playground would be somewhere close to the middle.

This insight of play as a continuum of learning bears not just on the specifics of the environment but to the whole notion that playgrounds, and play as well, are distinctly separate from the “regular” world. I firmly believe that the way we have planned our communities since the ‘40s to create neat spaces and the orderly movement of cars, boarders on being child abuse. Rather than pigeon hole play to the sand box and design for maximum efficiency, communities should create and preserve complexity and provide the opportunity for children to robustly engage in the whole spectrum of learning in as many places as possible.

In the next column I will explore the ramification of this idea in more detail and provide examples where communities have been successfully approaching this ideal.

Play Attendant

lifeguard

Photo – http://hungovernews.files.wordpress.com/2011/08/lifeguard.jpg

A funny thing happened on my way to finding a good place to play for the kids in my neighborhood.  I talked with the Recreation Director and mentioned the unused open space along the Russian River that forms one side of that triangle that encloses our homes.  I suggested that all we really need to make it work is someone to open the gate and “sit” with the kids.  Oh, and it wouldn’t hurt if they adopted some or all of the techniques that the wonderful folks at Pop Up Adventure Play have developed.  Knowing her I wasn’t too surprised that she liked the idea and was enthusiastic about Pop Up too.

Pop Up

Photo: Pop Up Play

As we talked it became increasingly clear to me that we have a model for somebody who just sits and watches kids play that is well over 100 years old and exists in virtually every corner of our society – the Lifeguard! In fact just across the river from our intended new good place to play is a county park that runs along the water’s edge.  While the weekends are packed more than half the time the guards are on duty there are few, if any, swimmers yet nobody complains this is a waste of money.

Well. I say that if we can afford to have somebody watch kids play in the water then we can afford to have them watch kids play in the dirt!.  I suspect that such Play Attendants would be lower cost than guards since they won’t have to be safety certified, just typical recreation staff.  I’m leaning towards a lifeguard model rather than asking parents to do a co-op for several reasons but primarily the kind of play I hope to foster will not be easy to do with parents running the show.  I mean the only thing that lifeguards do is blow a whistle when you run on the sidewalk.

I think this idea has the potential to really get some traction.  It will appeal to those who long to provide the the kind of memorable play experiences we’ve been talking about.  It will appeal to those in the urban planning community who want to provide open space for unstructured play.  I’ve already discovered that at least some recreation professionals can embrace the idea.

My next step is to look into how to fund this project and stick my finger into the hornet’s nest of getting the Fish and Game folks to let us use the space.  Stay tuned!

If you want to really dig into this subject I recommend a recent interview of Peter Gray published in the American Journal of Play.

“Peter Gray is known best for his widely assigned university-level textbook Psychology, now in its sixth edition. HisPsychology Today blog—“Freedom to Learn: Play and Curiosity as Foundations for Learning”—has earned a large following while drawing eclectically from recent scholarship in history, anthropology, sociology, and economics. Gray has long appreciated how spontaneous, unsupervised play aids self-directed learning and self-assurance in children, and he explores this natural process and its societal implications at length in his latest book, Free to Learn: Why Unleashing the Instinct to Play Will Make Children Happier, More Self-Reliant, and Better Students for Life. In this interview, Gray talks about the lifelong social, physical, and moral value of play, and he identifies and traces the consequences of factors that in recent decades have eroded opportunities to play.”

Bath-Less Kids

Image: Pixabay

While I have paused writing about play environments and am deferring to authors who produce new and comprehensive works on the subject, I will continue to explore subjects about child development I find interesting.

Those who follow this blog, or my personal Facebook page, know that I am very interested in the body’s microbiome. It seems that there are discoveries almost weekly about the role of bacteria in the gut on general health. The recent findings are astounding on how our gut profoundly influences our moods and child development.

Listening to one of my favorite programs, Science Friday on NPR a week ago, they had a segment on a book titled Clean: The New Science of Skin by James Hamblin in which he makes a case for fewer baths and much less soap. A part of his thesis is that the skin has its own microbiome that mirrors the gut’s.

Here are my previous observations about mud play:

I would argue that during the early years, we should consider the skin and gut as essentially one system with the skin being an essential pathway for creating a robust and complex microbiome. I also suspect that the skin acts as an ecology where bacteria and the body’s immune system interact in beneficial ways.

Hamblin’s discussion was compelling in his explanation of the negative impact of too much bathing. He made it clear that hyper-cleanliness has a negative impact on the health of our skin. This is especially true for young children who’s system is working hard to adapt to the world.

Thinking about this, I recalled hearing that, when asked what Elizabeth Warren uses to keep her skin so radiant, she replied, “water.” Warren’s skin success suggests that both doing fewer baths or just using no soap is a good idea.

I also remember the common new mothers’ exclamation, “I could just eat my baby up.” The science on this is fascinating. It turns out that the baby’s body odor creates neurotransmitters in new mothers that are very pleasurable and are an important part of forming a strong parental bond and promote caring. This bonding smell is produced primarily by the infant’s skin, so washing this away may not be a great idea.

For more information, check out:

Creating a Barefoot Preschool

There is a buzz about Forest Schools and getting kids more access to nature, and there is of lots of science pointing to the benefits. The question is how to make this a reality in more preschools. Nature is complex and ever-changing, and trying to duplicate it is a real challenge. The good news is that we don’t have to replicate the forest precisely to deliver most of nature’s benefits. What are those benefits?

  • Trees – Shade
  • Trees – Climb in
  • Rocks – Climb on
  • Hill – Roll and Run Down
  • Grass – Soft path
  • Bushes – Hiding place
  • Dirt – Dig
  • Sand – Build
  • Water – Flow and float
  • Loose Parts – Perhaps nature’s greatest gift to children

The goal of the Preschool playspace creator should be to come as close as possible to giving children the same experiences and benefits as are to be found in nature. The following are suggestions about how to accomplish this when space, time, or budget mitigate against their inclusion.

Barefoot Preschool Playspace Design Suggestions

Landscape Considerations

  1. Pathways – Limit the use of concrete and asphalt as much as possible

The routes of travel must conform to ADA guideline for accessibility, but that does not mean they have to be tricycle freeways. Trikes and wheelchairs can negotiate grass, decomposed granite, wood decks, and other surfaces just fine. Consider using as much grass as possible. Using a rubber turf protecting mat system will vastly improve the durability of the grass by reducing compaction and protecting the roots while enhancing drainage and also reducing maintenance. Trikes are a means of transportation and are not of themselves play activities. Wheel toys that allow more than one child or hauling stuff is best.

Sof-Path-1

  1. Shade – Should be where children play

Unfortunately, most playspace shade falls where the children are not playing. The best solution is to just shade the whole playspace just as plant nurseries do. Heck, if it is good enough for plants it should be good enough for kids.

Slide shade 1

  1. Plant Materials – Editable as much as possible

Select plant materials that produce fruit smell great can be harvested for loose-part play, or attract birds and butterflies. The very best information on plant selection comes from Robin Moore, Plants for Play: A Plant Selection Guide for Children’s Outdoor Environments.

  1. Fixed Elements – Only those elements that are used every day should be fixed permanently in place.

Anchoring to the ground limits flexibly and increases the cost. Limit fixed elements to sandboxes, hills, trees, shade structures, and the like.

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  1. Hills – Needed but are problematic.

Hills are one of the best ways to enhance the playspace. Unfortunately, they come with problems of their own. When we use the grass-everywhere rule, then grass at the top of the hill will tend to die. One could cover that spot with a play feature, but that will trigger the ADA ramp requirement which requires far more space than most preschool yards will provide. The best solution is a four-foot circle of decomposed granite at the top.

Apparatus Considerations

  1. There should 1½ play opportunities per child.

Most playground problems come from boredom and competition. Ensuring play opportunities are abundant is the best way to have the playspace truly become the third teacher

  1. Only introduce plastic when no other material is available to perform the function.

Plastic is the least natural material that we find in the playspace. Almost all functions can be performed by wood, glass, fabric, or metal.

  1. As much as possible, elements within the play space should be able to interoperate.

While each feature, like the sandbox, has a specific function, many of the loose parts associated with that function can become play objects in other elements. For example, a simple plank can be used almost everywhere.

  1. Every element should have two or more functions.

The plank mentioned above can become a bridge, a balance beam, a teetertotter, or a slide.

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  1. Climbers should be both inside and outside

Climbing outside is mainly the same movement as walking, whereas trees allow for inside climbing that requires very complex movements and strength.

  1. Active play areas should also contain places or materials for quiet play.

Kids play hard and then need to catch their breath and self-regulate. Perches on climbers, nooks next to blocks and other cubbies for withdrawing from the more intense play should be in as many places as possible.

Storage

  1. Children use loose part accessories in direct proportion to the proximity of storage.

Designing a playspace should be very similar to designing a kitchen with the arrangement of the work surfaces and the storage of tools carefully laid out for maximum efficiency.

  1. Storage should be designed or selected to match the items to be stored.

For example, sand toys should be stored in wire baskets.

  1. How elements trigger play behavior, and how that behavior changes over time, should be known and integrated with the curriculum so that teachers can initiate desired play episodes and manage transitions.
  2. Where possible storage can provide space definition, look for opportunities to place them back to back to separate functional areas.

For More on the benefits of nature play see:

No More Cookie-Cutter Parks

This article was written around 1986. Most of the points are still valid … except for the idea that there would be no more cookie-cutter parks.

California has a long history of playground innovation. The 1960s and ‘70s were a particularly creative period in playground design. During this time, literally hundreds of totally unique award-winning parks and playgrounds were created. These often included experimental equipment designs which essentially laid the groundwork for the commercial products of today.

Artistic creativity, conceptual advances, innovative use of materials, and attention to detail, characterized the playgrounds of this “golden age”. The landscape architects who devoted themselves to these projects found them very time consuming but also enormously gratifying. Much of the play equipment in these playgrounds approached the quality of sculpture. Characteristically, hundreds of hours were spent in community meetings developing plans which were sensitive to the neighborhoods in which the playgrounds were placed.

The play areas from this era became the focus of community recreation patterns and the source of considerable neighborhood pride. When visiting a new town one could find the location of these playgrounds by asking almost anyone on the street —they were community landmarks.

Losing a Legacy

Now, these original creative playgrounds have aged, most of them with considerable grace, and with the passage of time hard decisions have to be made. Can they be maintained? Do they meet current safety requirements? Are they accessible to people with a wide variety of disabilities? Usually, the answers are no.

In just the past couple of years, an unexpected pattern has emerged. Across California (and in many other parts of the country), park departments are tearing down these old playgrounds. With few exceptions, these heritage playgrounds are replaced with the ubiquitous new modular pipe and plastic systems.

Granted, the modern integrated play structure has many advantages over older wood and concrete play sculptures. These new products provide greater durability and are easier to maintain. They also assure compliance with safety and risk management guidelines. Many new play activities have become available such as track rides, curly climbers, and all manner of plastic components.

While real improvements have been made, something has also been lost. We are now entering a new era: the age of the “cookie cutter” playground where one play area looks just like all the others. This pattern is largely due to the fact that the diversity in available commercial play equipment is basically limited to a choice of colors and the scale of the structure.

What is Really Going On Here?

Is it true that these older playgrounds are dangerous? The history of accidents does not support this contention. There have been relatively few claims filed against these designs and they have excellent safety records. Is it true that they have been unreasonably difficult to maintain? To the contrary, they have endured for decades with little but routine servicing.

During the “golden age,” landscape architects were required to be creative, work with the neighborhood, and design environments that would be a source of community pride and identity. Today they are frequently being told not to experiment and are told exactly what play equipment to specify. Sometimes they are limited to a particular vendor or product model.

Play area design and renovation is under the control of maintenance directors and risk managers rather than of landscape architects working with the community. Is it any wonder that the results are stale and cliched? Ask any landscape architect. They will tell you that playground design just isn’t fun anymore. After you’ve visited any one of the new playgrounds, going to any other is not as much fun either. Considered on a site by site basis, we may be providing good playgrounds, but overall, we are failing the public.

If all that was lost was a matter of aesthetics it would not be a big concern. But the issue is far larger. The playgrounds of the ‘60s and ‘70s provided for many different types of play. The new playgrounds provide only for active play. As a primary designer of the modern modular play system, it was never my intention that it should be considered the total answer to all children’s needs in a play environment.

“PlayBoosters” and “Kid Builders” were designed after five years of observation of over 250 experimental play structures to determine the correct size and play activity requirements of children from 5 to 11 years of age. Manufacturers have taken this modular system and reduced its scale to sell it for use in tot areas. However, the smaller versions of these systems provide only a fraction of the play needs for younger children because they do not provide good support for social, dramatic, or constructive play. To limit equipment selection to such active play systems makes the playgrounds poorly suited to the play needs of younger children. Proving only active play equipment also makes accessibility to play by many children with disabilities impossible.

Society is Changing

In the last two decades, there have been startling changes in our society. A recent book, “Childhood’s Future” by Richard Louv, details and discusses many of these changes. To effectively plan for the recreational needs of our society we must be aware of the changing demographics. Here is a summary of just a few of Louv’s findings:

Increased Poverty. Young families are under considerable economic stress and this will have an impact on their need for and use of leisure services. One out of three American children now lives in poverty. In the past twenty years, the percentage of income spent on housing has doubled. One-third of the new jobs created pay less than $12,000 per year. These entry-level jobs are being filled, in many cases, by people just starting families. Most children will experience a divorce in the family. When couples separate, their earnings are cut by a third. The financial condition of young families impacts park departments in a variety of ways. For example, if people do not have money to take a trip, they will tend to drive to the nearest quality playground. These visitors are sometimes seen as “outsiders” invading the local park by the neighbors and a variety of conflicts can arise.

Time for Leisure. Economics has also had an impact on the use of recreational services. The typical workweek is now closer to 50 hours per week than it is to 40. This added time at work is taken away from leisure time. The amount of time parents spend with their children is down 40% since 1973. It is no accident that McDonald’s Restaurant play areas are so popular; they are convenient, clean, and safe. A parent can stop at “Playland” and get a low-cost meal and play for their children in less than ten minutes. Can, or should, park departments be concerned with such competition from the private sector?

Health and Fitness. Societal changes have also had an impact on community health. By far the most leisure time is spent in front of the TV. As a nation, we are not as active as we once were. This shows up in the children’s fitness levels, which are drastically lower than just ten years ago. Studies show that the activity levels of children are very strong predictors of life-long patterns. We are currently raising a generation of future couch potatoes. The problem is especially acute in California, where schools have eliminated most physical education specialists. Quality parks and play environments can draw people out of their homes and into positive physical, social, and affective interactions.

Perceptions of Safety. Marshall McLuhan’s concept of the Global Village, as put forward in his book, “The Medium is the Message,” has come true and it has implication for recreation. The constant barrage of news about violence in our communities has parents completely paranoid. Children are no longer allowed to play in the street or even the front yard. The experiences we had growing up are no longer part of the everyday lives of children. Few children now build treehouses or “dig holes to China.” Parents need a safe place for their children to engage in these important developmental experiences. The typical park, with its manicured lawns and island of sand filled with metal equipment, is too formal to allow for discovery learning, which is the primary way children learn about the world. At least some of our parks need to have places where it is OK for kids to pick flowers, to dig in the dirt, and generally engage in natural play.

Study after study shows that far too many young families and children are in desperate situations. As professionals in parks and recreation, we have daily personal experience with these trends. But as professionals, we are also among the more fortunate in our society. Our personal comfort makes it all too easy to overlook the real needs of our clients. When, for example, was the last time you had a staff retreat to discuss emerging societal trends and how to design facilities and develop programs to meet these changing patterns?

Just the single issue of learning about the financial condition of young families can have important implications for the management of your programs. For example, many park professionals feel threatened by what they see is a “lawsuit-happy” society in which the get-rich-quick mentality has become pervasive. While this may be true in a few cases, it is far more often the case that most people don’ have sufficient medical insurance or savings to cover the cost of hospitalization. They have to sue just to survive the economic impact of an accident to a family member. We should be dealing with the root cause of lawsuits with risk management policies which quickly compensate for medical expenses incurred in playground accidents. Instead, we have become defensive and started to design parks for the lowest possible liability as the prime criteria instead of designing for the needs of children and families first.

We should consider the lives of so many of our young families, living in poverty or close to the line. Working long hours for little pay, frightened for their safety, largely physically unfit and with few recreation skills. What kind of park, what sort of playground, do these families need?

A New Paradigm: Playscapes

It is time we reconsider the wholesale removal of the significant playgrounds from the “golden age” and their replacement with “cookie cutter equipment. We must resist the liability hysteria. We need the courage to advocate for creativity and innovation in the creation of new playgrounds. We can and should return to the idea of the park as the focal point of the community. We must develop a better understanding of the recreational needs of all of our citizens regardless of physical abilities. To create playgrounds that meet these needs, we must develop a new paradigm for playgrounds a new model with clear ideas and workable solutions around which people can rally.

Over the years different types of playgrounds have been given unique names to help people identify their special design characteristics. We have seen adventure playgrounds, creative playgrounds, tot lots, mini parks, and theme parks. Playscape is a term which has been used in the past but is poorly defined. The term was coined by merging the terms “play” and ‘landscape” in an effort to emphasize that the total environment can contribute to play value.

The term Playscape is precisely the name we need for this new model for playgrounds. Its historical meaning links it to our past traditions and yet there is no impediment to adding to the definition so that it could include the best of new technology which has become recently available. We need to fully define the term playscape and develop design standards to make it a powerful tool for creating more functional playgrounds.

This new definition of playscape should balance the benefits of our contemporary understandings of liability and low maintenance with the developmental needs of children. The successful adoption of this new model will depend on how well it meets the needs of three groups. Park departments must have environments which are durable and safe. The realities of funding require that a playscape include design features which make it appealing to philanthropic organizations so that parts of each project can be supported by grants and funding sources other than general funds.

The playscape concept must include a comprehensive process for community participation. When the neighborhood is actively involved in the planning process, Playscapes will become a source of community pride and identification.

This playhouse is one of the few products available which provide
for social-dramatic play in a form which meets the standards of
durability and supervision required today.

Finally, the needs of children must be the foremost playscape design criteria. It is necessary that the definition of a Playscape start with an acceptance of the standards imposed by parks for safety, maintenance, and budget but the definition cannot stop there, the developmental needs of the children must also be included. If a playscape is to meet the needs of park departments, neighborhoods and children, the following elements must be included:

1) Active Play. The new modular play structures are very successful at providing for the active play needs of children. This is a proven concept that rightfully belongs in any park. The way these systems are configured, however, could be improved. We need to do a better job of including upper bodybuilding events, interesting climbers, and dynamic balance events.

2) Constructive and Manipulative Play. The essence of play is the freedom it provides children. A good playscape would empower children to create and change it. In the “old” days we believed in the value of the “adventure playground” which children could build themselves. Concerns for liability, maintenance, and aesthetics destroyed the few experiments that were tried in the U.S. In many other countries the idea is alive and well and has evolved into a practical program easily included in many park settings.

Perhaps we can’t go as far as the adventure playground, but we can and should include, at a minimum, sand and water play. Note that the criteria are sand and water. Dry sand under an active play structure may provide a good fall surface, but it does not provide for constructive play. Sand must be moist if it is to be used in the building of sand castles. Just because it is difficult to design a low maintenance water feature doesn’t mean that the function should be abandoned. According to Kazuo Abby, of Royston, Hanamoto, Alley, and Abby, “Water features within the total play environment are extremely important. The wet sand provides unlimited creativity and it’s safe, simple, and fun.”

The first “manipulative” piece of equipment was the steering wheel. Recently we have seen the development of a variety of game boards, like tic-tac-toe panels. Some companies have been adding a variety of controls, levers, binoculars, etc., to their theme play equipment. This greatly expands the play value of what is essentially static equipment.

3) Social Play. To create social play areas only two basic criteria need to be met. First, there should be a “transaction interface.” This is simply a window, counter, or storefront that creates an “inside” and “outside Such an arrangement literally sets the stage for all sorts of dramatic play.

Second, a sense of enclosure is necessary. It is possible to provide small semi-enclosed spaces which offer a sense of intimacy but also allows for supervision. When properly scaled, such spaces are too small to provide cover for vagrants.

4) Uniqueness. Communities need and value unique features in their parks. Playgrounds with trains, ships, sculpture, and other special features create a sense of identity. The photo on the next page illustrates a successful recent installation of such a feature at Peacock Gap Playground. While it was thought that theme equipment would inhibit children’s play, it is now known that such equipment can stimulate rich imaginative play. Children are not particularly troubled by playing “Star Wars” on an old-fashioned looking ship.

Currently, the major obstacle to fulfilling the uniqueness criteria is the requirement that projects be bid and that three vendors must submit proposals. Certainly, there are other methods of ensuring competitive pricing in the creation of playgrounds. These methods will have to be clearly defined and made available to our communities.

5) Accessibility and Integration. As many advocates have brought to our attention. integrating all citizens is not only ethically correct, but it is also the law. There is every indication that the federal government is going to actively enforce the new Americans With Disabilities Act: this means playgrounds will have to be made accessible. While it is not easy, we can design play areas for those who have restricted mobility in order for them to be integrated with the general population. The problem is that there are a few really satisfying design solutions to this problem. The manufacturers of equipment have generally offered only ramps. A few provide low horizontal ladders or ground level steering wheels.

Only a few manufacturers have addressed the problem of creating transfer stations so that children may play out their wheelchairs.

Most advocates for accessibility say that ramps have a very small role in providing for the needs of people with various disabilities. Despite what most equipment manufacturers have concluded, wheelchair access is not the only issue to be addressed in creating an integrated environment. Putting a ramp to an active play structure on which there is nothing appropriate for the child who is physically disabled to do is insulting and can even be dangerous when used by skateboarders. On the other hand, providing access to wonderful places for social, constructive, and imaginative play, like the ship at Peacock Gap, is right, and realistic.

“When children arrive at Peacock Gap Park, they head straight for the ship. It’s a fairyland, a pirate ship, a playhouse, and a lookout. It promotes hours of creative play. Oodles of children are on it all the time.”— Sharon McNamee, Recreation Director, City of San Rafael

In the ‘60s there were few solutions for providing creative structures so we designed and built them ourselves. We cannot wait for manufacturers to develop solutions for integration — their agendas are completely different from ours. It is not just an equipment problem but an issue which involves the total design of the playscape.

6) Involvement. Neighborhoods have the right and responsibility to be involved with the design of their parks and many park departments already work hard at getting user participation. These departments know that just letting neighbors choose equipment from a few catalogs do not qualify as real community involvement. Park design budgets must allow sufficient resources for educating the community. Citizens should be provided with information about the developmental play needs of children as well as current safety requirements. Community participation needs to be facilitated and nurtured. However structured, community input is essential in creating a play area that reflects the unique character of the site. This public relations work also builds a sense of identification with the park that will significantly increase utilization, reduce liability, and lower vandalism by removing the park as a symbol of external bureaucratic control.

For many years volunteers have been used in the installation of play equipment. With the supervision of a trained and licensed installer, this form of community involvement produces substantial savings and a sense of ownership in the neighborhood. The playscape concept should include guidelines for such volunteers.

7) Programmability. An example of a programmable feature would be an informal stage area where small groups can make presentations. Daycare, latch key, populations with special needs, sports, and other programs use parks on an increasingly frequent basis. Future park designs should consider programmed use of the facility in a systematic way. Defining design opportunities for the programmed use of the park would be one of the most important aspects of the playscape model. For far too long, recreation programming considerations have been ignored in the design of parks. Current times demand that they now are included. Designing for the programmed use of the playscape is one of the most powerful tools available for meeting the play needs of all children.

8) External Funding Opportunities. Californian’s have been very generous in providing general obligation bonds for parks. Unfortunately, most of this money has been for acquisitions rather than operations. We must recognize that there will not be a sudden increase in funding through governmental sources. A playscape should take this financial situation into consideration from the very start. Playscapes will cost more, if only because there will be considerably more of the budget allotted to the planning process, to say nothing of the programming aspects or special features. Therefore, planners need to be constantly alert to identifying elements of their plans which can be broken out as separate components which may be attractive to a variety of funding sources or sponsors. Creating an adopt-a-park program can increase funding and lower maintenance costs.

9) Low Liability. The obvious first step in lowering liability is complying with the Consumer Product Safety Guidelines. But just putting a compliance requirement in a bid specification for equipment is a very small step indeed. The playscape concept should be based on a fully-developed and integrated approach to risk management. For example, providing other kinds of play opportunities (like social and constructive, rather than just physically-challenging active play equipment) will reduce exposure to losses because children will not be solely engaged in high-risk play. Providing playground safety fitness programs to schools, using the park as a focus, is another element in a comprehensive risk management program which can pay handsome dividends and justifies the design criteria of programmability.

10) Low Maintenance. A chief benefit of the new modular play equipment systems is their ease of upkeep while providing bright colors and bold shapes. Currently, there are few products available for social and constructive play that provide this same level of durability. As the playscape concept becomes widely understood and accepted, market demand will force more products to become available. But until that happens there is much that can be done in the same way we have done it since the ‘60s do it ourselves. Since the features we are interested in, like good sand play experiences, do not present a liability exposure, they can be designed by landscape architects and built by contractors. But ensuring the correct design is only half the solution. Correct installation must also be assured. This may be difficult without the traditional support of equipment manufacturers. The playscape guideline will have to provide standards for a quality installation.

11) Kid Friendly Plants. The selection of plant materials in and around the Playscape should be carefully chosen for benefits to children. Plants can provide a sense of enclosure, loose parts for constructive play, flowers for decoration, herbs for smells, and changes in the patterns of light and shadow.

Community Gardens have been around for years and their management and operations systems are now well developed. As the photo on this page illustrates, these gardens can be integrated into a playscape and provide a positive visual contribution to the park. Community gardens will help fulfill the criteria of programmability, accessibility, and integration. They offer a place where children can, with proper supervision, dig in the earth and cut flowers.

“Community Gardens can coexist within the playground environment and become a very important element of the urban playground experience. The San Francisco Community Garden Program has been an extremely positive experience for the whole community, including people of all ages and abilities.” – Ron DeLeon, Assistant Superintendent, Neighborhood Parks, City and County of San Francisco. Photo by Perry Nenning

12) Multi-cultural. California has been a multi-cultural community since its founding. The golden age playgrounds reflected this diversity. The new playgrounds have a post-modern industrial appearance devoid of any cultural connotations. Resistance to celebrating the cultural heritage of particular neighborhoods in park design stems from the political content which has been included in some of these efforts in the past. While a radical La Raza mural may have reflected the cultural identity of the barrio, it also made a political statement which some members of other communities found offensive. A dragon play structure in the Chinese Community; a ship in the harbor park, or a Spanish-influenced site are all appropriate expressions in public facilities. The playscape concept needs to define what are the proper limitations for ethnic expression and the proper venue for particular political points of view.

13) Age Appropriate. While the modern multi-functional modular play systems are great for kids from six to nine years, they are less appropriate for other children who need more social and constructive play opportunities. Adolescents have been a particularly forgotten age group. While they do, of course, use the ball fields, they are also interested in free play. One need only watch them on their skateboards to confirm this. They are also interested in just “hanging out” in small groups where boys and girls can “check each other out. ‘Adults have concerns about such groups of teens; are they going to do something dangerous to themselves or others? The playscape concept can help reduce these concerns. A playscape, because of its rich array of unique attractions, will be used by more concerned citizens over a longer part of the day. This high-use brings with it increased adult supervision which, in turn, will help reduce inappropriate behaviors. Welcoming in adolescents makes the playscape a place where they feel they belong and removes it as a target for vandalism.

14) Comfort. It seems obvious that a playground should be a comfortable place for people to visit. But it is surprising how many parks are built without even a bench close to the play area. The issue of a clean, safe, and open bathroom is also central to the comfortable use of the playscape. Park benches can be selected which offer real comfort, but do not encourage people to sleep on them if this is a concern. Shade and shelter from wind should also be considered.

Balanced Design

These fourteen criteria should be the foundation of the planning process when designing a playscape. Expanding these preliminary design concepts into specific guidelines will provide powerful design and planning tools. As an example of how this will work, the figures below illustrate how the application of the age appropriate criteria would produce a budget for play equipment that would be different for children ages 2 to 5 and for those 6 to 9.

Playscape Equipment Budget
(Ages 2 to 5 Years)
25% Active Play
30% Constructive Sand Play
30% Social Play
15% Accessibility

Younger children are predominantly interested in constructive and social play. Active play focuses on swings, slides, and climbers. The cost of accessibility features is modest for play areas for younger children because there is less emphasis on active play and the structures tend to be lower.

When designing for this age group, a space guideline of 75 square foot per child and a budget guideline of $500 per child served is an appropriate standard (75 square feet per child is used by the California State Department of Education). Site preparation and provision of fall surface will add approximately $250 per child. Combining these together results in a target budget of $750 per child or $10 per square foot. If we are designing a space for 25 children, the planning goal for the project would be 1875 square feet and equipment and sand budget of $18,750. Of this budget, only $4,687 should be devoted to active play.

Playscape Equipment Budget
(Ages 6 to 9 Years)
40% Active Play
15% Constructive Sand Play
20% Social Play
25% Accessibility

The school-age child is primarily interested in active play equipment. While swings, slides, and climbers continue to be used, a greater variety is required to sustain their involvement. Upper bodybuilding events like horizontal ladders, ring treks, and track rides are extremely popular with this age group. A large, complex linked structure provides graduated challenge and ensures use by all children.

The budget guidelines for this group are different than those for younger children. The space requirement increases to 125 square feet per child and the budget increases to $750 for equipment. Add $500 for surfacing a larger area, and the same $10 per square foot guideline is obtained. If we are designing for the same size population of 25, then the area required would increase to 3,125 square feet and equipment and surfacing budget of $31,250. Of this budget, $12,500 would be used for active play equipment.

The Elementary School as the New Community Center

The trends and solutions proposed here suggest a very surprising future trend. Given the need for programming and the general lack of funding available both to schools and park departments, out of necessity, we will see increasing cooperation between schools and park departments. There are many communities which currently employ joint-use agreements to mutual benefit. These programs will expand. There have even been cases where parks have sold small, poorly used, sites they could not afford to maintain and used the money to develop improvements to the neighborhood elementary school play area. The playscape concept would be an ideal model for such a cooperative venture. It may be that the most interesting new parks will actually be connected with schools.

A Call for Action

The playscape concept is an idea which is right for the times. This approach can solve the seemingly mutually exclusive issues of liability, accessibility, play value, and cost-effective operations, in an integrated fashion. Expanding this concept into a fully-developed standard would create a new design tool useful for designers throughout California. We need to preserve the successes of the past. We should bring together the designers from the golden age with other concerned designers and those park departments who have lived with their play environments for two decades to discuss the successes and failures.

We need to review the Consumer Product Safety Commission Guidelines due out in October and the forthcoming American Society for Testing and Materials Standards so that our future play areas will conform. The hard work of developing design solutions for integration beyond ramps for children with mobility disabilities needs to be done by experienced designers and park professionals working closely with accessibility consultants. Practical solutions for providing social and constructive play need to be explored.

A sensible strategy would be for the California Park and Recreation Society to join with the California Society of Landscape Architects to co-sponsor a task force to detail the playscape concepts proposed here. With the passage last year of Senate Bill 2733, which mandates that all playgrounds in the State be brought into compliance with the Consumer Product Safety Commission Guidelines by the year 2000, we desperately need this new vision. Without the creation of Playscape Design Guideline, all the playgrounds in California will be as uniform as peas in a pod. It’s not too late to preserve the idealism of the ’60s while making a bold step to provide recreation diversity which can truly meet the needs of the future.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Jay Beckwith has done just about everything one man can do to improve play environments for children. He created School Yard BigToys, PlayBoosters, and Kid Builders and is currently retained by Kompan, of Denmark. He has authored three books and dozens of articles and is currently writing “Vanishing Play,” a pictorial essay on the disappearance of traditional play. He is known for his advocacy for safer play equipment and most recently developed a comprehensive risk management program with the School’s Insurance Authority of Sacramento. Information on Senate Bill 2733 and a bibliography of readings are available from the author by calling (707) 887-7954.