Play Can Save the Planet – Part One


Ok, it’s a pretty outrageous claim, but bear with me for a bit, and I think I can make a compelling case that, not only is this true, but it may well be the best and perhaps the only way forward.

Recent studies show that kids are potent advocates for taking decisive climate change action in both their families and in the larger communities. The more kids know about the environment; the more effective they will be. Other studies show that just over half of our students receive instruction on the environment. Finally, we know that the earlier and more hands-on kids get exposed to information, the deeper their grasp of the topic.

Thus, my proposition is simple; we should allow preschool children to learn about ecosystems in early childhood. This is certainly not an outlandish suggestion since most adults learned about the environment in just this way by playing outdoors, exploring creeks, rescuing bugs and animals, etc. The thing is, fewer and fewer children are allowed, or have access to, free-range play in nature, so this knowledge that we picked up as a natural part of being kids is just not commonplace anymore.

My first inkling that this notion could be true was discovering how hard it will be to accomplish. Let’s look at the issues. To understand the core principles that drive ecosystems, kids need to be able to interact with living things and what is required to keep them alive. Few preschool environments have anything alive in them. To make an emotional connection, kids need to have responsibility for the upkeep of living things. Indeed, one of the greatest things most of us learned as kids is that when you keep a bug in a jar too long without seeing to its needs, it dies.

Water is the foundation of any ecosystem, yet preschoolers only know “tame” water that comes from a tap and have, in nearly every case, no experience with water that things live in. Lucky are the kids who have an aquarium in their classroom, but for all the hands-on learning these provide, they might as well be a video played on a screen. I don’t want to belabor this point anymore as I think you can see that we have a long way to go before most children have meaningful exposure to the fundamental elements of an ecosystem and how these work together dynamically.

I firmly believe that every early childhood program should have a closed ecosystem aquarium. The reason this is important is that such displays pose for children a great mystery; Since nothing can come in or out, how do the fish breathe and what do they eat? This is the fundamental question facing our planet today and for children to be able to see this in a microcosm can be profound. For kids, it can become a meme that drives their orientation to the environment lifelong.

Closed aquariums are commercially available as Ecospheres, and they can also be made from materials readily available locally or online. Ideally, there is an example present on the first day of class. This is followed by assembling one with the children as it takes a while for them to become stable, and this is a powerful way for the children to see the dynamics of how the system works.

brine shrimp

To further these lessons, it is great to hatch and grow brine shrimp. Brine shrimp require a lot of attention. As continuous filter feeders, they must be fed often; but at the same time, they are sensitive to poor water quality. Through trial and error, children will learn how fragile and complex the narrow range of conditions are in the shrimp will survive. As they succeed will be all the more rewarding as they directly experience life and death.

From this brief discussion, you can see that helping kids learn about the environment is doable. The problem is that so few programs prioritize this subject or a hands-on approach to learning. As parents and as a society we must demand that environmental education becomes a priority.

So far, this has been a relatively easy discussion. In part two, we will look at scaling this concept up, so children have the opportunity to have hands-on interaction with living systems on a daily basis which is much harder. Part three will look at the early childhood environment as an ecosystem and who it can play a crucial role in saving the planet.

A Play Designer’s Manifesto


A recent report on the speed and scope of the onset of climate change just gave us a gut punch. Eoin Higgins wrote in Common Dreams,  ‘Existential’ Risk of Climate Crisis Could Lead to Civilizational Collapse by 2050,

“The world is currently completely unprepared to envisage, and even less deal with, the consequences of catastrophic climate change.

Even by the standards of the dire predictions given in climate studies, this one’s extreme: civilization itself could be past the point of no return by 2050. 

That’s the conclusion from Australian climate think tank Breakthrough National Centre for Climate Restoration, which released a report (pdf) May 30 claiming that unless humanity takes drastic and immediate action to stop the climate crisis, a combination of food production instability, water shortages, and extreme weather could result in a complete societal breakdown worldwide.” 

A child born today will, over their preschool years, learn about all the wonderful animals on this planet. All too soon; however, she will begin to learn of their existential peril. Unfortunately, the bad news will only continue to get worse. This is unprecedented and deeply concerning.


In a recent article in The Nation, Parenting in a World Hurtling Toward Catastrophe, Frida Berrigan wrote:

I’m almost 45. My kids, Seamus and Madeline, are 5 and 6; my stepdaughter Rosena is 12. They are part of what journalist Mark Hertsgaard calls Generation Hot, “some two billion young people, all of whom have grown up under global warming and are fated to spend the rest of their lives confronting its mounting impacts.”

The phycological impacts of this reality are profound and pervasive. One of the primary responses to climate change is grief. Already we see programs to address this issue spring up around the globe. Avichai Scher reported to NMC new on Climate Grief: The growing emotional toll of climate change.

Young children do not have the emotional development to grieve. How then are they to deal with this tsunami of pain?

I believe that the most effective strategy going forward is to begin immediately to surround children to the greatest extent possible with what we know are the changes that must happen if we are to blunt the impact of climate change. Preschools must become uber-green, solar powered, minimalistic examples of the way all of us will be living a decade from now.

This means my practice as a designer must change drastically. I cannot substitute Robina wood for powder coated steel but must go all the way to bamboo. I cannot use redwood for garden boxes but must use hempcrete. I’ll have to abandon all polyethylene and hope that algae-based plastics are good enough. I will need to find ways to support teachers conducting climate action projects such as a way to use single-use plastic in the play environment, so children learn about “upcycling.”

The idea here is simple. When children grow up living in a world full of solutions then when they ultimately do discover the extent of the crisis to the planet, they will be less likely to despair and much more likely to grab what they know can make a difference and see to it that those solutions become ubiquitous.

This is not only good for the children, but such a design manifesto will be a very effective agent of change. In the May issue of Scientific America, an article: Children Change Their Parents’ Minds about Climate Change reviewed a study that showed that when children learn about climate issues, they are powerful agents of change.

The results suggest that conversations between generations may be an effective starting point in combating the effects of a warming environment. “This model of intergenerational learning provides a dual benefit,” says graduate student Danielle Lawson, the paper’s lead author. “[It prepares] kids for the future since they’re going to deal with the brunt of climate change’s impact. And it empowers them to help make a difference on the issue now by providing them a structure to have conversations with older generations to bring us together to work on climate change.”






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.



Discussing Adventure Playgrounds

The following is an email discussion between Penny Wilson, one of the premiere Playworkers in England and me. You can follow her


Jay – Have you ever wondered that, while it seems many people think adventure playgrounds are great, there are so few of them? I suspect this has a lot to do not doing a deep dive into what works and what stands in the way of broader acceptance. Let’s try to see if we can tease out some of the issues.

Penny – There is always an underestimation of the cost of a sustained project. It demands a huge amount of adult work and constant fundraising to run an Adventure Playground to the demanding standards, regulations, innovation, and support for the staff team.  The difficulty with getting suitable land to rent and build something so extraordinary upon in just the right location is a real headache. And when you have done all of that, there are very few hours that the playground can actually be open to children.

Jay – Perhaps we can start by looking at the term “playground.” The vast majority of the public has a very different idea about what a playground is and should look like. Had these projects been called “urban adventure camps,” I think there would have been more acceptance of the idea. The notion of a campfire even begins to make sense. Another issue is that playgrounds don’t require staffing while camps do. Positioning these as a recreation program rather than a public park playground may have made the whole idea more palatable.

Penny – I think that language has changed so much since Lady Allen coined the term Adventure Playground.  At that time it was a fresh new idea.  ‘Recreation Grounds’  and municiple playgrounds were dull and lifeless places. This concept fizzed and bubbled with inspiration.  We need to remember that most households used fire, that there were many bomb sites and that children were allowed a huge amount of freedom in postwar years and right up to the 1970s. Of course, it’s also worth pointing out that language carries different weight and meaning on either side of the pond.

Jay – What is it that we are trying to provide children when we promote adventure playgrounds? I contend that their real value is loose-part play. If this is at least one to the major benefits, then is the current format the only way to do this?

Penny – for me the most powerful thing about Adventure Playgrounds is the community in which the site and the community of children (and Playworkers) which grows in them.  They always were and still should be a neutral space within a neighbourhood, aware of its needs and talents and playing a role within them.

Jay -One thing is clear; most adventure playgrounds are not suitable for younger children. This is too bad, since children of all ages benefit from loose-parts, even the youngest, as this great article from Community Playthings points out.

Penny-  we always used to have the broadest possible age range of children attending Adventure Playgrounds. It was only ill-informed inspection and regulation which put an end to that. Since that time in the UK, children have been segregated into quite tiny age groupings. (There is seldom any inclusion of children of any age with disabilities within play settings now.) Bob Hughes introduces us to the notion that children treat an adventure playground as they do the natural world which it mimics. He points out that little children find adventures to suit their size and abilities, gradually building up to more demanding risk and challenge that suits their age.  He calls this Graduated Access.  Playworkers also feel that play is catered for in very early years and that older children’s play needs tend to get sidelined by educational and other agendas. We would argue that it is still of vital importance for older children to play.

Jay – Another term I’ve always had a problem with “junk” playgrounds.

Penny – I guess junk makes sense if you are worried about the theft of materials.  The term “junk playgrounds” was very much of its time and in relation to the rich history of the brilliant idea.  Reclaiming junk was a brilliant twist on mass destruction and multiple deaths in one’s neighbourhood. Here is a crux of the subject. It was a community initiative.

Jay – But giving kids junk instead of well-designed construction systems is to my mind unprofessional and demeaning. The notion of giving things that they can manipulate to their own ends is amazing. Letting them do the creating is unique in current childhood experience. To my mind, it is the quality of the support that is offered them is where the quality is. OK, so kids get a chance to use hammers and nails which I suppose is worthwhile.

Penny – I am not sure that I agree. It is great to find children creating a purpose and meaning for objects that they find around them. Their lives are so filled with adult manufactured objects that this is one way of handing back the inspiration and creativity to them. Hammers and nails are interesting and fun. However, adventure play seems to me to be about a great deal more than physical challenge and construction. It is about discovering the world and the fascinations it unfolds within the playing child.  For some of us, this world is one that is filled with dressing up, or acting, with digging, den building,  making daisy chains, standing on your head or quietly watching and daydreaming. We should be very careful not to mistake gross motor skills for play. They are only one tiny little part of the panoply of what playing is. The Gasamstkunstwerk, (total artwork) of play is a mash-up or life without boundaries of interest. That is what an ideal Adventure Playground has to offer. In this current financial climate, it is our responsibility as play literate adults to be finding as many ways as possible for as many children as possible to have as much access as possible to free play experiences over which they have control.

AnjiPlay 2

Jay – A better approach to my mind is what we see at AnjiPlay in China, where the whole curriculum is based on loose-part play. Yes, these are fenced in school environments, and the apparatus is put away each day. But look at the level of challenge presented, extraordinary. In this picture, what first catches one’s eye is the leaping girl, but if you look at the ladder behind her, you can see that it is tipping over, likely because she has pushed off from the plank which supported it. One wonders what will happen next. Will the whole assembly tip over, spilling her playmates to the ground or will they react in time to right the ship? What I don’t anticipate is that anyone will be hurt as these kids know exactly what they are doing and how to react. They have essentially built their own Parkour. And they built that today and tomorrow they will build something entirely different.

Penny – The issue is that adventure playgrounds are not about equipment, they are about the community of players and their families. This community involves, in fact, depends upon the playworkers. Pogo Park is a great example. I ran an inclusive adventure playground all based on loose parts and playworkers. That is what I am doing now essentially. The project creates a community around play. (Hence my request that you look at loose parts rather than depending on a kit!)

Jay – While I have dedicated the bulk of my career to public playgrounds with fixed apparatus, I now believe that loose-part play in combination with trained supervision is what is best for children on a daily basis. Agreed AnjiPlay, Blue Blocks, Snug, and Rigamajig are the pioneers in this field, and there is so much more yet to be discovered, especially as we look at what will work for even younger children.

Penny – My point is that it works just as well with no cost low-cost stuff and people.

Jay – Oh, and let’s come up with a better name?

Penny – That is an age-old argument… Lady Allen’s memoirs struggle with it.  Community playspace works

Loose Parts as Curriculum


As followers of this blog have no doubt noticed, I am not a big fan of preschools that focus on academic learning. I come to this opinion not just because I attended Pacific Oaks College where we learned a different approach to early childhood education but also from over fifty years consulting with ECE programs and designing their play spaces and apparatus. While I have shared in this blog many of the studies that address the problems of an overemphasis on academics, I have not shared my personal observations and I will do so now.

I can walk into a classroom and know instantly if the teacher is an academician. The walls will be festooned with “art” which show the children are all doing the same project. The letters of the alphabet will be prominently on display.  A quick trip outside will show lots of trikes, a play structure which is essentially a set of stairs leading to a slide, and occasionally a sandbox. While being with the children during their outdoor play time, the staff’s behavior will be predominately correcting kids actions and chatting with another teacher. They react in horror when I suggest that they not put out the trikes for the play session. At such times I have to force myself to continue to work with the center and console myself that I can only make things better, not do a complete makeover.

For several decades now, we have known that children have different learning styles. These styles are generally identified as logical, physical, verbal, aural, visual, social, and solitary. Most kids are not one style but a hierarchy that ranks these in order of preference the child has for each style. Academic preschools generally support a very narrow range of learning styles.

ECE teachers often complain that their job is exhausting. That’s how they justify using the children’s outdoor as a break time for themselves. Perhaps they should consider that the reason their job is hard is that they are working against the child’s interests and learning style. Give children to freedom to choose what they are interested in and how they want to explore those interests and what was once work becomes play.

Not that changing from an academic curriculum to exploratory learning is easy or that once transitioned that the teacher’s role is reduced, rather it is changed as well. In this model, teachers are resources and mentors for the children. Their role is now observation and knowing when, for example, the addition of some props will allow the intense interaction of the children at play to continue and deepen. An often unseen and underappreciated new role the teacher finds herself in is as materials collector to find cool stuff to feed the voracious curiosity of early learners.

In no way do I mean to suggest that the educational goals get thrown out the window. Instead, there is now a different, and substantially better way to achieve those goals. Nancy Dougherty, in her article, What is ‘Curriculum’ in the field of Early Childhood Education? writes:

Although there are many definitions for curriculum, they all include this concept:

goals and plans for children to acquire skills and knowledge through activities, experiences, and opportunities.”

She goes on to identify the various domains that are typically included in an ECE curriculum such as social and emotional, language and literacy, and cognitive development, etc. The change is NOT in the goals of ECE. Rather it is a change from trying to teach these, to establishing an environment and a relationship with the child that allows these domains to emerge.

Now that I’ve gotten that off my chest let me share what I suggest teachers do to implement this transition to active learning. I will use the active playspace as my example, but these suggestions apply equally to the classroom.


The first is scaffolding. I use this term in both the physical and metaphorical senses. In the playspace, the children need a sense of place and they need elevation. This can be, as we see in the AnjiPlay centers, as simple as ladders or in the above picture a constructive play storage unit with tons of elements.

My second recommendation is, to the greatest extent possible to use loose parts. This works with the ladders in the above example, and it will work in any other functional area of the playspace.

My last recommendation is to consider the presentation of the materials. Children love serendipity but they struggle with chaos. Learning how materials are best stored and presented is one of those invisible skills a master teacher possesses and works continuously to improve her skills.


Serendipitous Design for Play

I so clearly remember the first play sculpture that I did in a school. I had a very clear idea about how the kids would use each feature of the piece. As is generally the case, there was a ceremonial “opening” in which all the students were released all at once to mob the structure. Within five minutes, they did everything I had imagined and then went on to invent so many more that I lost count.

One of the play events I introduced on that day, and nearly all subsequent designs was the banister slide. Adults would often ask me, “How are kids supposed to use that?” My response was, “Exactly the point, it’s up to them to figure it out.” Indeed, when I would join a class for P.E. I would have a group of kids join me at the banister slide and give them the following instructions, “You can do anything you want to do, except something that has already been done.” We typically spent the whole period on that one event and never ran out of innovation.

Throughout my five decades of play design, I have followed this simple rule, the less I can anticipate how kids will use the designs, the better they are for play. Of course, there is generally some push back from adults who have definite ideas about what playgrounds and toys should do and look like, and I’ve had to learn how to design so that those expectations don’t create too much rulemaking on the part of adults who expect their children to behave “appropriately.”  The balance is to appear to be normal and safe to adults while including as much oddball open-ended stuff as possible. I’ve learned to add serendipity to my designs.

This image of the little girl hanging by her hands is an example. The arch at the top rail was added to provide an entrance-like detail and head clearance for older kids climbing onto the fourth and highest platform. I anticipated that it would become a spot for children to hang by their hands and was delighted that not only does this occur regularly, but parents are generally permissive of this very beneficial activity.

hang by hands

This image of two climbers side by side illustrates the idea of serendipity perfectly. The climber on the left uses shapes that mimic rock climber holds and is part of my original design 20 years ago. We replicated them for the new system to honor the success of that design and maintain our traditional appeal. The Peg Climber in the center is something else again. I had no idea how exactly this design would be used. It turns out that each age approaches climbing it differently. Toddlers simply ignore the pegs all together and just swarm up. A year later, and they go up trying to avoid using the pegs to assist them. By three they will try to go up using just the pegs. The most advanced children will go up, stepping only on the pegs.


The Play and Music system has a huge advantage when it comes to providing serendipitous play. All of the elements can be moved and the experience reconfigured. That means what was once a climber can become a bridge. What was used as a slide can become a climber. Perhaps the best illustration of this is the Net Climber that can be removed for the frames and set on the floor where it can be a rocker for five babies or a spinner for two preschoolers.


As we noted in another blog a few days ago, toys and play equipment currently available for children are predominately one dimensional and support very specific and limited play opportunities for creative and unexpected play. We can do much better than this as designers and as consumers. For example, parents and teachers can help by selecting playthings that have some ambiguity about them. Look for loose part systems that are complex. Allow kids to mix systems. And if at all possible, find ways to introduce magic.


STEM and Serendipity

STEM Part 2

Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.  – Arthur C Clarke

A surprising amount of modern technology is the result of happy accidents. Penicillin, X-ray imaging, microwave ovens, and many more were not the goal of the lab worker but came about because the researcher was highly observant and open-minded.

While STEM knowledge is valuable, the capacity to recognize an unusual pattern and explore it is incalculably precious. Even in the science and tech communities, people vary in their encounters with serendipity. Apparently, this is a learned skill. The question is when and how does this skill arise?

We recognize happy accidents in adults when they result in significant breakthroughs. These tend to happen when the research is in highly complex environments such as pharmaceuticals and quantum mechanics. Thus, we can speculate that an information-rich setting is fertile ground. Second, interviews of “super-encounterers” who find happy surprises everywhere tend to seek out novel information just for the joy of it, the odder, the better. What others see as a waste of time they see as data gathering.

I suggest that most young children are also super-encounterers by nature. They come into this very complicated world where everything is new, and they are driven to discover all they can about it as quickly as possible.

Recent findings in neuroscience tell us that at birth, children already “know” a tremendous amount. They come pre-loaded, if you will, with many behavioral templates that they deploy and refine through direct experience with their environment. For example, it is well known that neonates are wired for language and over the first year their babbling increasingly sounds like the dialect of their parents. Parents are also programmed for this interaction and use “baby talk” and eye gaze to enhance this learning.

We have identified 20 of these programs that we have labeled Play Patterns. These templates reside primarily in the cerebellum and as they are acted upon messages are sent to the right cerebral cortex where they increasingly become under voluntary control.

Most of the current neuroscience suggests that for the most part, the left cortex, which tends to be the seat of numbers and letters, is largely dormant until the second year. I suspect that this is not entirely true. Children exhibit a unique behavior that is not accounted for in our current model of brain development, that is, serendipity. This behavior can be observed when children encounter phenomena for which they have no predefined play pattern. The telltale signs of serendipity are best characterized by rapture and wonder, in other words, “magic.”


At Gymboree Play and Music, we conjure up this magic at the end of every class. Our parachute and bubbles are now ubiquitous and for a good reason, as they evoke the wonder of childhood. Put yourself in the mind of the child. She sees the teacher dip a wire circle into what appears to be water. Pulling the loop out of the bottle, the teacher blows on the loop from which emerges a magic bubble that detaches and floats free into the air. When she explores this with her index finger, which is the child’s discovery tool, the bubble suddenly disappears entirely. Pure magic. This experience is then followed by parachute time during which a colorful “cloud” is made to rise up into the heavens under which all the children can gather. Suddenly it too magically disappears.

Whether this sort of non-pattern matching phenomena becomes, as I suspect, the early awakening of the left cerebral cortex or not, serendipitous experiences are one of the great joys of life for parents and children alike. I also contend that having such experiences helps children seek out other wondrous experiences and welcome the unique event that does not fit into a preprogrammed pattern.

My concern is that with the increasing emphasis on STEM, we may ignore this higher level of awareness. We may be educating perfectly functional people who function adequately in a technological world but at the same time conditioning them in a way that makes them blind to the magic in this world and the next reality transforming breakthrough.

For further reading:

Too Young to STEAM?

STEAM Part 1

Back in 1974, Buckminster Fuller wrote in the introduction to my first book, Build Your Own Playground, the following:

I think that playgrounds should be renamed “research environments.” This is what the children are doing so vigorously. They are not playing. They are finding out how the universe works. This is spontaneous research which is inherently gratifying, often joyously gratifying. How wonderful to find out how to use gravity as an accelerator or a brake. Nobody is around to tell you or to give you the name gravity, but you learn quickly that the greater the drop, the more it hurts your legs. That is what Galileo’s work with falling bodies was all about. You want to understand that invisible power that is working around for you; you wish to check out your theory on a slide.

Children learn about tension. They have got to tear a great many things apart to find something that won’t tear, that they can spontaneously grab for to arrest the falling and anticipate leg shock or break. They don’t have to know the names tension, compression, gravity, or acceleration, but they have to get very familiar with such phenomena before a sound emanating from somebody’s mouth can develop a word meaning experience. City-born and -matured children have almost no access to operative research environments as have had the billions of humans in the millions of years of their occupancy on planet Earth’s pre-city eons. 

Playgrounds provide children with experience-fortified gratification of physical research. Thus, their intuitive assumptions of “can do” are proven; they are thereafter confident of their own capabilities for sensing and employing the principles operative in nature, such as gravity, flotation, wind resistance, tension, and compression. Teen-agers and adults then may successfully deploy into wilderness for such activities as mountain skiing, surfboarding, cross-country motorcycling, and flying kites. 

Of course, we all know that Bucky was WWWAAAY ahead of his time. What I especially love about Bucky’s statement was that it presented the vision of full-body exploration. Far too many STEM products are desktop and don’t account for the fact that little kid CAN’T sit still. They learn faster and better when they are totally immersed in playful learning. Many of the toys presenting themselves being STEM have a single “right” solution which, for me, is the antithesis of scientific inquiry. This is especially true when looking at toys for children seven years-of-age and younger.

Screen Shot 2019-05-27 at 10.39.40 AM

I just ran across an excellent white paper by the Toy Association, STEM/STEAM – Formula for Success. The paper does a good, if very superficial, job of identifying right and left-brain functions and clearly supports the proposition that a good STEM product needs to be both fun and intellectually challenging. What they don’t point out is that, for young children, the left cortex is in a very primitive state and is not ready for intellectual growth as such. I liked nearly everything they have to say, especially this point:

“OPEN-ENDED. This refers to a toy that encourages the child to find his or her own individual way to play. After the mandatory characteristics, this was the most predominant attribute mentioned for a good STEM/STEAM toy – the ability for a product to be used in multiple manners where there is no one right way to play. This includes toys that offer various pathways to solving a problem, building a structure, creating a design, or accomplishing a task.

I will recommend this paper to you if the object of your interest in STEM is for kids eight years and older. However, if you have, or are teaching, younger children stay tuned to this blog as we will be exploring what the neuroscience has to say about how the developing brain is preparing the young child to take on the rigors of STEM.

One Dimensional Play


The folks who have been creating children’s educational toys have been shortchanging us for decades. Kids will play with just about anything. That kids play with the materials in most early childhood programs is no evidence that these materials are as beneficial as possible. A great example of this is the ever-popular hollow blocks. These are excellent examples of loose-part play toys that have been around for decades and are in nearly every early childhood education center.

There is no question that kids will play with them, often for extended periods. But ask yourself, after the first few play sessions what more can they learn besides how the shapes fit together? I assert that block play devolves to social play in short order, not that this is a bad thing, but could we do something more?

Our recently departed and much-loved play guru, Bernie DeKoven, used the term “complexification” for the idea of maximizing playful learning by making the environment multi-dimensional … more stuff means more complex play and more learning.

floor blocks

Visit nearly every preschool, and you will find the environment laid out into functional spaces; the kitchen area, the reading nook, and the block play space. The materials in each of these areas are siloed and rarely mixed. Teachers are taught to program these spaces. School supply catalog merchandise their products along these same categories. And so it has been for decades. And let’s not even talk about the lack of travel between indoors and outdoors. This “traditional” ECE format seems set in stone. The result of all this stagnation is that designers of educational materials find themselves trapped into these narrow and shop-worn classifications.

What will happen when we begin to look at the physical plant of an ECE program as a system of interoperating elements? I’m not suggesting a rigid requirement that everything has to fit with everything else, but that the apparatus and space are thought of, and planned for, dynamic and fluid mobility. How are the boundaries between functions presented to allow for flow? How is the presentation of materials transformed? What changes need to happen to storage?

The good news is that there are many examples of precisely this thinking that creative teachers have pioneered. Puddle Jumpers Nature Preschool is an excellent example. The way that Teacher Tom organizes space is also worth checking out. The rapid rise of AnjiPlay and Regio Emilia centers shows that this approach is rapidly becoming a trend.


We need to think about how much more we can get out of our school equipment if we allow for the mixing of functions. As Bucky Fuller taught, one plus one doesn’t equal two. These synergistic combinations can be transformative.

For many teachers and administrators, taking this new path will take commitment and patience. The good news is that there are great exemplary programs and organizations like NAEYC that are there to help make the transition.


The Ideal Learning Environment

BH yard
An OK place to play but not an ideal learning environment

Most early childhood education centers do an adequate job of providing an outdoor play space. That said, these environments are not ideal learning environments. This is somewhat strange because teacher generally learning during their education process the basic principle of how children learn but then don’t fully put this knowledge into practice when developing their outdoor play space. If they did, what would that look like?

Until the ‘70s was the consensus of childhood researchers like Piaget was that children’s brains were “tabula rasa”, a blank slate. Ten years ago, Alison Gopnik and her colleagues Andrew Meltzoff and Patricia Kuhl published The Scientist in the CribMinds, Brains, and How Children Learn. The main thesis of the book is that children are born with very powerful brains and do a lot of thinking. They are like scientists who are constantly creating predictions about their world and how it works and refining those predictions based on experience. Her analogy was that they are like a computer with tremendous computational power and loaded with sophisticated programs but until a person sits down and enters information, they are not functional. Another way of saying this is that kids are born with complex templates and these are adapted and filled in as the child gains experience. For example, from the moment of birth children are listening for words and they learn the specific language that they are born into, they have a template for language which they fill with the local dialect.

Another point that is brought out in the book, which I don’t think has gotten enough attention, is that for the most part learning is promoted by two key components, action, and social engagement. Babies give rapped attention first to the parents, and as they mature, to other people they encounter. They are also moving almost constantly when they are awake. It is through motion in a social context that the child’s intrinsic templates get adapted to their environment, i.e., this active play is the optimal condition for learning.

In the decade following the publication of The Scientist in the Crib researchers have been able to actually peer inside children’s brains and can now verify that the book’s contentions are correct. They can see the parts of the brain that light up in response to specific stimuli. They have shown that for the first two years children are primarily learning how to operate their bodies. The term we often hear used for this process is sensory integration. The main player in this process is the cerebellum. The interesting finding has been that the cerebellum had been thought to be essentially a movement computer like the self-driving computer in a Tesla. It turns out that the cerebellum is constantly creating a model of the whole world of the child and anticipating what will happen next. It then adjusts this model based on the accuracy of those predictions. To do this it talks to the right cerebral cortex to assess how best to make adaptations, i.e. the right cortex is the diver in this analogy. So, far from just learning how to move, for the first seven years, the cerebellum and its partner the right cortex are the main areas of learning about everything in the child’s world including emotions.

Let’s make a list of what the current research has established the ideal learning environment for children from 2 to 7 years of age:

  • There are other players in the setting, preferably with a mix of ages
  • The space allows for lots of movement, especially large gross motor activities
  • Children in the space are able to experiment, test limits and to fail often
  • Children will have essentially unlimited ability to change the elements within the space
  • The elements in the space have more than one function, preferably they can be used in many ways
  • The optimum learning space will be primarily outdoors
  • The space promotes immersive and emergent learning that is indicated by very long play episodes

While still rare, there are schools that embody all seven of these criteria. For example, AnjiPlay schools in China, the increasingly popular “Forest” schools, and many Reggio Emilia schools.


anji yard2
The many AnjiPlay sites have ideal playspaces

It is fair to say that than most schools in the USA fail at providing the ideal learning environment. There are many reasons for this, the push for academics, the need to provide a “safe” environment, the lack of teacher training for operating in such a learning space, and parent expectations of what a “proper” school should look like and teach.

The fact is that for the majority of programs being able to have an ideal learning environment is hampered by the lack of well-designed equipment. Indeed Cheng Xueqin, the Director of the Office of Pre-Primary Education had to invent from scratch the apparatus they use in her program. Most other schools that meet these criteria have access to naturalistic spaces and hand-make whatever else they feel they need to support the children’s learning.

It is no wonder that few schools can implement an ideal learning environment. For example, one need only look at what outdoor equipment is currently available for early childhood educators to see that large motor apparatus is invariably fixed in place, has a single function and cannot be changed by the children.

In my next blog, I will explore ideas that can offer new options for creating the ideal learning environment.

In the meantime check out this great article by our friend Peter Grey – Children Educate Themselves