Pop Up Play for Ukraine – Update

KABOOM Play Facilitator at the ready

Beyond Active Play – The value of cohort flow through play

I’ve devoted six decades to creating active play systems. The most recent project has been exploring augmented reality to provide ways to expand the benefits of active play.

Two things have motivated me to pivot in a new direction. First, the bruhaha about the metaverse and all that silliness that has ensued makes working on augmented reality problematic. But more than that, the current situation of the children displaced by the invasion of Ukraine has compelled me to look at ways to help ease the trauma being inflicted.

Hurry Up and Wait

That phrase comes from the military and can be applied to refugees as well. Children are hustled from place to place, surrounded by chaos and the smell of fear. These spasms of displacement are punctuated by waiting – waiting in basements, lines, public spaces, and shelters. Seldom do these pauses have known periods, so routines, which are the anchors for childhood, cannot be established.

Those who support refugees often recognize the harm caused by forced dislocation and do what they can to ease the pain. The newsreels are filled with pictures of children clutching stuffed toys or playing with balls. While these are important, their impact is very transitory.

Aid agencies also recognize the need for mental health support. However, while therapeutic counseling is ideal, most children will not receive treatment when millions of children are in need, and only a few hundred clinicians are available.

The situation is complicated because, for many children, the worst part of their evacuation is being separated from their fathers. Unfortunately, however, all too many have seen things no one should have to endure.

Meeting the Need

There are two major categories of need. First, there must be an efficient system to tirage children to identify those most in need of mental health services. Second, those locations where children must wait for extended periods must be equipped with play systems that engage and support group play.

Over the last three months, my cohort of play advocates and I have struggled to find a concept that can address both needs. The criteria are been refined to:

Mental Health

  • Small groups of children must be observed by a play facilitator who is trained to support but in no way direct children’s play.
  • Play facilitators must be trained to deal with the expected abradant behaviors brought on by trauma, such as depression and acting out, and to do so without judgment.
  • Facilitator training must include the ability to carefully observe and listen to children to identify those who most need individualized counseling.

Play Systems must be:

  • Compact and portable
  • Appealing to as wide an age and ability range
  • Complex and infinitely variable
  • Full of learning opportunities
  • Supportive of collaborative play
  • Equipped with elements that stimulate pretend play without triggering

Here is the current presentation illustrating the solution we propose.

Pop Up Play for Ukraine

Over the past three months, I have been working diligently to get large-scale loose part play systems to children displaced by the invasion of Ukraine. It turns out this is extremely difficult. Here’s why,

Children’s right to play is often given lower priority than providing food, shelter, and medicines, even though play is crucial to children’s well-being, development, health, and survival in crisis circumstances.

Play helps refugee children who have experienced bereavement, violence, abuse, or exploitation to overcome emotional pain and regain control over their lives. Children use play to process their emotions. They need to do this while wounds are fresh, or they will harden to deep lifetime scars.

Millions of children have been displaced from their homes. But not just from their homes. They have also been displaced from their schools and playgrounds. When the fighting stops, it may be years before things are back to normal. Meanwhile, the Pop Up Play Systems will be there, keeping play alive and helping children thrive.

Rotary’s efforts in support of Ukraine

As one of the world’s largest humanitarian organizations, Rotary has made peace the cornerstone of our global mission. Many Rotarians are deeply concerned about the Ukraine crisis and especially want to help the children.

Donor clubs receive notification of the installation of their Pop Up systems. In addition, the recipient’s programs are asked to send photos back to the donors club so they can see the benefits.

Rotary Clubs in Ukraine and neighboring countries sheltering refugees will identify shelters and schools that need portable play apparatus.

Clubs apply for grants and earmark their donations to Pop Up Play for Ukraine. They also designate the shipping location, which may be the program or a location of the club’s choosing.

Systems for the displaced must be:

  • Portable to go where needed
  • Durable to last without failure
  • Complex to fully engage kids

To soothe trauma, kids need:

  • To feel and be secure
  • To have a sense of control
  • To connect with other kids
  • To maintain long duration play periods

The Pop Up Systems

Having launched many play products and systems, I have learned that success requires a range of products. This is somewhat the same phenomenon as restaurants, which do better in a place that has other restaurants. Therefore, the business plan for Pop Up Play, is to present the only three systems that meet our criteria. (Imagination Playground Blue Blocks are functionally compatible but they don’t flat pack.)

Our research to date indicates that the process must start with a program or agency on the ground. For example, this is how the Rotary grants work. Reaching these programs appears to be as much a matter of finding people who know people. Our efforts going forward will be to trace down the leads we have in hand and see where it takes us.

Cas Holman has spent the last 18 Years designing for play, education, and imagination. The products and materials are manipulable parts and pieces which inspire constructive play, imaginative forms, and cooperative interactions between children.

The Rigamajig Basic Builder is a large-scale wooden building kit conceived for hands-on play and STE(A)M learning. Rigamajig products are now found in hundreds of schools, playgrounds, children’s and science museums, community organizations, libraries, maker spaces, and homes worldwide.  

We will be sending the Basic Builder plus the Machine Set.

Kitcamp panels are engineered to be robust enough to support children and light enough for kids to carry around.

The simple assembly method, combined with the lightweight and strength, allows kids to quickly and easily build incredible dens, forts, houses, rockets, ships, or whatever they imagine.

Kitcamp® is a patented, disruptive, and innovative large-scale loose parts play solution to young children’s modern global challenges.

The basic idea of children having their own space to be, feel secure, and be lost in thought. What a simple way of gifting time to children.

The den as a ‘designated space’ offering privacy and a sense of control is the essential human need for secret spaces to withdraw to because they shelter ‘daydreaming.’

Since 2007 Marcus Veerman, CEO and Founder of Playground Ideas has been supporting communities around the world to build open-source playgrounds using local tools, materials, and skills.

He founded Playground Ideas after spearheading the construction of 40 bespoke playgrounds along the Thai/Burma border.

Playground Ideas has built 5,223 playgrounds in 143 countries and impacted 2,611,330 children.

Nudel KART is an outgrowth of the need he saw in his work.

Stealing Childhood

Photo copyright: powershot

This is a blog, not a book, so I won’t go into all the historical precedents that set the stage for the loss of childhood that started at the end of WWII. Instead, I will lay out the forces, point to more in-depth sources, and suggest ways to protect childhood.

Commercialized Education

  • The imposition of top-down education instead of bottom-up learning has become so ingrained and institutionalized that savvy parents turn to private or homeschooling.
  • Homework in the elementary grades, which was nonexistent in the ’60s, has become ubiquitous and onerous, and testing has become the measure of learning.
  • The rush to have screens replace books has given rise to a perfect platform for product placement advertising with all its negative baggage.
  • https://www.stack.com/a/how-america-killed-play-and-what-we-can-do-to-bring-it-back/




I promised at the start I would provide ways to protect childhood. But, as the saying goes, “It takes a village.” So, forthwith, here are the elders of my village of play.

Schoolyard vs. Park Playstructres

The first playstructure to be designed to the standards recommended in this blog

One of the challenges when consulting a school on their new playground is that we ask the parents and children what they would like to include. The problem is that this cohort has little understanding of the very different roles playgrounds have in different venues. The tendency is to select events that are more suitable for parks than schools, like high slides.

Everyone agrees that they would like the playstructure to have lots of challenges. However, if by challenge, we mean engagement, then we must recognize that other kids are the most interesting and challenging things on the playground. This axiom means that a school playground must be designed differently than a park playground.

Park Playstructres

There are very rare times in a park, mainly for birthday parties, when a cohort of kids is on the playground at the same time. Most often, the children playing at a park are strangers to each other, and they come to the park only occasionally. However, on a school playground, the kids all know each other and play together constantly.

Parks playgrounds that are high, elaborate, and expensive are successful because the community likes their monumental stature. If they are inclusive, so much the better.

Over the past few years, there has been a race to see which company could build the highest structures. The problem is that ASTM mandates require fully enclosed decks and events above 78” high. The result is a tremendous investment in fencing and stairs which now account for well over 90% of the cost of the structure.

The apparent goal of these vertical structures is to enhance the challenge. But note, if other kids are the most challenging element, these designs constantly remove children from the play with other children as they spend the bulk of their time exiting and reentering the structure. While at the same time, these designs provide negligible developmental benefits.

Schoolyard Playgrounds

We must recognize that playground equipment that complies with ASTM standards is generally interesting only to students up to the 3rd grade. In the higher grades, sports and socializing take up most recess time. In the recreation venue, kids also leave the play structure for sports, skateparks, and climbing gyms.

Playgrounds that can be used as a game space where groups of kids challenge each other are better for schools than park designs suited for occasional visitors. A survey of playground usage can easily verify this fact.

A well-designed playstructure will be crawling with kids during recess during the school year. At other times, it will see very few patrons. In contrast, the park playstrure will have a few visitors when school is not in session and especially in the summer.

Here are a few guidelines for a good school playstructure.

  • Connect the events on structure as much as possible.
  • Wherever an event is primarily used for egress, it should be paired with an access event.
  • Emphasize a variety of upper body events, as you can’t have too many.
  • Include balance activities as links.
  • Do include talk tubes.
  • Use nets as conversation nodes rather than challenges. These must be flexible rather than the stiff and rigid designs that have become so popular in parks.
  • Don’t include “activity” panels except for kindergarten structures.

Childhood Dreams

A few nights ago, I met the girl of my dreams.

It was just as they say. Our eyes locked, and no words were needed. Our connection was only for a few moments. But we knew that was enough, and then she was gone.

One of the results of this pandemic lockdown has meant a lot more time to sleep and, perchance, to dream.

The encounter cited above was one such dream, and it had a profound impact. For in that dream, I realized that I was just five years old.

In most of my dreams, I’m middle age, not my true age of 80. So it was stunning to reinhabit my earliest self. However, as I contemplated this further, I realized that, while infrequent, this is not the only time I’ve dreamed as my five-year-old self.

The real shock came when I realized that at that age, I was perfect. I felt whole, calm, and in touch with the world around me. The sensation was not unlike what I can achieve through mediation, but it was different in that Zen inner peace still feels like I am at the bottom of an immense pile of history. At five, I had none of that.

So what happened?

I learned I was not perfect when I went to school.

In the first grade, we were made to read Dick and Jane. Not just for practice, but aloud exhibition style, as each student read a page and then was followed by the student sitting behind. Imagine adding one of the exposures known to be terrifying to the simple act of reading!

I could read, but my mind went numb. I had failed my audition. The whole class saw that I was not perfect.

Every grade after that was another horror. First, it was math, then spelling. Later in high school, it was Spanish and Biology, which was all Greek, well Latin, to me. This was decades ago, and dyslexia wasn’t recognized as a learning disorder until the 1980s.

Now that I’ve come to realize that little kids are not only precious and perfect, but that is their daily experience. Institutional education then takes these perfect humans and takes them off to be quickly informed they are not perfect.

Or worse yet, if they effortlessly fit the curriculums to which they are forceable subjected, they often come to feel they are omniscient. With this sort of cruelty, it is no wonder that some imperfect children become bullies.

Now I’ve planted a seed in your head. Your unconscious mind will have seized on this idea of dreaming as a five-year-old. You now have the choice to ignore this opportunity or relax into it and re-experience your former self.

Perhaps, it will impact you as it has me. I find I can drop into my earlier self even awake and realize I have been perfect all along.

Monetizing Kids

KIds In – Money Out

While the frog cooking in a slowly heating pot is a myth, the fact of normalization is all too real.

For children, everything that surrounds them is “normal.” That’s why as a culture, we abhor things like child abuse. Adults are supposed to protect kids because of this inherent vulnerability. But what if adults, too, have become blunted to things that exploit kids.

It’s hard to tell when it became OK to market to children to make sales to adults, but it goes a long way back. Today, it is an advertising core practice.

If it was just product marketing, this pernicious habit could be controlled. Instead, the problem is that using children to influence adults is now pervasive.

For example, Politicians routinely use potential hard to children to gain support for agendas that have little to do with kids.

The education industry has created the myth that children will fail in life without formal instruction.

Nowhere has is this manipulation more malignant than in digital games. If you are interested in the details, recommend this article: The New Ways Kids App Makers Are Monetizing.

The new trend is interactive marketing. See: Marketing to Kids Through Interactive & Experiential Marketing

See no Eveil?


Comes now the metaverse that is so beyond what most adults understand that determining its potential harm is effectively impossible for most parents.

For Facebook to rebrand itself as Meta tells you all you need to know. But if you need more evidence, Microsoft just bought Activision for $68bn. While this is the largest all-cash acquisition in history, it only makes Microsoft the number three company in the industry after Sony and Tencent. These humongous numbers mean “there’s gold in them there hills.”

When you combine the existing ways, our culture already has to make money by pandering to and manipulating children with the scale and resources of this industry; it is truly frightening.

Add to that; these companies make nothing, their whole product is just dreams, yet they have pervasive access to kids.

What can be done?

Not all gaming is bad. Games such as Minecraft are truly educational. And there are tons of apps to help kids make positive changes.

But nothing will be as effective in protecting children as helping them understand how marketing work. They also need to know how the metaverse works. Indeed, there is no reason kids can’t create their own versions of metaverse games.

That’s truly protecting by empowering.

Here’s a perspective on the metaverse I totally agree with. https://www.theguardian.com/games/2022/jan/25/ive-seen-the-metaverse-and-i-dont-want-it

The Demise of the Playground (as we know it).

Look. You have to have your head in the sand if you don’t see the increase in natural disasters. But unfortunately, we only have ten years to start to reverse the damage to our environment.

While most people are fixated on CO2, the problems are everywhere and equally complex and difficult.

What does the climate catastrophe have to do with playgrounds? First, let’s lay out the facts.

When communities are hit with disasters, how do they adjust their budgets? Logically they prioritize recovery projects. Once those are brought under control, communities adjust by restoring funding to those services which have been cut, such as maintenance. What is the last item in the budget to be funded? New playgrounds.

If you doubt this, just look at the impact of the 2007 recession. I was operating BOLDR play sculptures at that time, and our business went to zero overnight. The downturn happened throughout the industry. Only the largest companies survived, and they have since gobbled up the distressed smaller firms.

That was just a recession. What we are looking at now is a future dominated by ever-increasing demands for funding, not just the current impacts of the climate emergency but also preparing for future losses. Add to that the core infrastructure changes required to become net-zero, or even net-minus.

But you cry; kids are important too. Yes, if anything, the pandemic has taught us, kids get hit really hard, and our society tends to fall apart when we don’t tend to their needs.

So what’s a community to do? We will do what we have always done. We will band together to meet their needs. One thing we will not do is pay tens of thousands of dollars on a new play structure.

If you doubt this assessment, just look at communities already dealing with this issue. For example, in areas of strife, communities meet children’s needs by building their own play environment.

The world needs more Playground Ideas that are sustainable.

A great example of this work of Marcus Veerman and his company, Playground Ideas. Visit his website at https://playgroundideas.org/build-playground/. The quality and quantity of the resource that is offered are remarkable.

Another example is Erê Lab in Brazil. Roni Hirsch has built a new kind of playground equipment company that uses local materials and creativity to provide world-class play environments that fit the local community’s needs, budgets, and culture. Learn more at http://www.erelab.com.br/sobre

Closer to home, a project I thought would be impossible; brings adventure play to schools. Portland Free Play creates adventure playgrounds at public schools. Guided by Leon Smith, this project shows that quality, low-cost play, can find a home in the mainstream.

So, here’s my thesis. Over the next ten years, community budgets will become exponentially prioritized to meet the impact of the climate emergence to fund recovery, adaptation, and mitigation. This will cause the demise of the playground industry as we know it.

Simultaneously, the recognition of the needs of children for play will become increasingly evident.

To respond to children’s requirements without funding, communities will turn to DIY solutions. This will not only include volunteer-built play spaces but pop-up play, as well as outdoor digitally assisted games such as Pokémon Go.

Over the coming weeks, we will look in more detail at these and other examples of sustainable play environments.

Please, God! Make it stop!

Pandering. That’s all this is—instant gratification for parent maleficence.

Look how happy she is. Oh, and she loves the parrot and little Froggie. And there are five other toys she can play with. I can’t wait to get it home.

A 10-second search on “are baby jumpers good for child development” turns up this …

“Baby jumpers are fun, but they are not beneficial in any way. In fact, they promote movement that is detrimental to the motor skills your baby needs to be developing, according to Rady Children’s Hospital in San Diego. First of all, babies aren’t mature enough to control their own body movements when they are bouncing quickly. This is especially true when it comes to leg and trunk control. The position of the baby in the sling is also a problem, as baby’s weight is supported by the hips, the crotch and under the arms. This pushes the baby forward instead of upright. Because of these factors, babies who often use jumpers may experience developmental problems when it comes to proper posture, and leg and trunk control.

In addition, because jumpers are designed to be propelled by pushing off with the toes, infants who use baby jumpers often will get used to pointing their toes. This, plus the posture problems, can delay walking skills.”


I didn’t review all the experts who were listed but they seemed to have the same comment while explaining that 15 minutes per day is the recommended dosage.

So I went on to my next search, “are too many toys bad for babies?” Again, another trove of experts weighed in to sound the alarm.

“Experts agree that the too-many-toys syndrome isn’t just about the aesthetics of domestic order. It can have negative effects on kids’ developing psyches. For toddlers and preschoolers, an overload of playthings can be overwhelming and distracting. “They pick up one toy, drop it, and move on. They can’t focus on using any of their things to the fullest,” says Margaret Sheridan, Ph.D., chair of the human development department at Connecticut College, in New London.”


I don’t want to go into a rant here. But, at the very least, we need to include parenting and child development in high school. Parenting is the most important responsibility anyone can take on. Yet we require decades of schooling for jobs.

As I read the tragic stories of so many children that illustrate what a terrible job we, in America, are doing raising our kids, it breaks my heart. All I can do with the skills and time I have is support more play systems and voice my concerns.

I am confident that anyone who finds this blog is doing much the same. Good on you!

This can only be a cucumber

Recently, I’ve been a member of a play advocates cohort, discussing ways to promote play-based learning, intrinsic play, true play, self-directed play, or …

Since we are all in agreement about the essential need for more play, it is astounding that we can’t agree on the words to use for what exactly we are promoting.

I suspect that our advocacy comes from our different professional orientations. Those of us, who are primarily playworkers or teachers, use different ways of talking about play than scholars. Those who are designers have yet another way to talk about our work.

The image above was posted a few days ago by the Facebook group Loose Part Play. It immediately went viral because it is such a clear meme. However, I was struck by it for an entirely different reason.

As a designer, making a plaything as a kiddie version of a real thing has always been controversial.

My colleagues at Kompan were steadfast in their insistence that abstract shapes allowed the children to assign their meaning to the shape.

What bothers me about this approach is that the children I hang out with love complexity. Children find the exact opposite of simplicity engaging, whether in natural objects or highly-detailed drawings in their storybooks. I have also seen kids turn a very detailed fort playhouse into a spaceship by simply donning a cape and tinfoil cap.

Here’s what I think is really going on.

Kids are much smarter than we give them credit for. In the example of the cucumber, many kids will wonder if this cucumber is part of a set. Maybe there are apples, onions, even strawberries lying about?

I find children have an enormous amount of goodwill towards adults and want to meet their expectations. So, encountering this single cucumber sets off a cascade of conflicting impulses. It is a distraction, not because of its specific image but the adult intentions behind it. There is no intention behind a block of wood.


This line of thinking has made me realize the value of the term affordances. I first ran across this in a wonderful paper in the International Journal of Primary, Elementary and Early Years, The dynamic relationship between outdoor environments and children’s play by Ellen Beate Hansen Sandseter, Rune Storli, & Ole Johan Sando

Here is a particularly relevant quote:

The dynamic between children’s play and their play environments The Theory of Affordances (Gibson 1979) represents an important framework for considering the utility and flexibility of the physical environment since it concerns the individual’s perception of the environment surrounding him/her. It states that the physical environment in which we live affords different actions and behaviours. The concept of affordances includes both the environment and the person, meaning that the affordances are unique for each individual (e.g., while one child may perceive a tree as something to climb, another may see it as a place for hiding when playing hide-and-seek). This person-environment relationship is dynamic, immediate, and based on functional activity, which means we must perceive in order to move, but we must also move to perceive (Kyttä 2004). Similarly, Fromberg (2006) claims that children demonstrate their power as agents in their own activities and learning through a dynamic process of play (and meaning), where both predictability and unpredictability is important. The predictability in play are the frames in which the play takes place, such as the agreed upon theme of the play or the more static physical environment where play develops. On the other hand, the unpredictability in play is how the individual child brings his/her own experiences, ideas, perceptions, and creativity into the play situation and develops it in unpredictable ways

See what I mean about scholar-speak? But this statement jives with what I see in children’s play. Kids create the play. The stuff we design and the materials we present are the affordances upon which the play occurs.

This idea is something like the current hot topic in astrophysics that consciousness creates reality. In the case of play, it is the developmental state of the child that makes something playable. If, for example, a baby encounters a Lego block, it is not a toy but something to be tasted. Later, it may become something to throw. It will be years before the full meaning of that simple piece of plastic is fully understood.

There are several ways the term affordance is useful. First, it establishes the child’s choice as the foremost determinate to the child of the value and use of the affordance.

Affordance requires that adults who provide for children understand the ways children develop and provide appropriate elements in their environment. But it also requires that adults realize that different children will use the environment in their own way, and the same child will use the same environment in different ways at different times.

High Quality Preschools

There is no confusion among play advocates as to what constitutes a “high quality preschool.” However, the concern of our cohort is that proposal all children have access to such programs is, while well-meaning, likely to do significant harm to children.

A review of the supporting documents and the fact that the funding goes primarily to existing programs is alarming. A three-year-old is nothing like a five-year-old.

These new programs need to be staffed by grandparents, not early childhood educators. While children need structure, in quality preschools, that structure is primarily assisting them in making transitions. Preschool kids don’t need teaching; they need to be listened to.

Those of us who understand this age need to give those implementing the legislation a good talking to.

Are you ready to go to Washington?

Today’s Playgrounds are so 1950’s

What do say Bev…want to head out to the playground?

A few days ago, I posted an article I wrote in 1997 about the “wired” child. In it, I site the trends that were emerging that would increasingly make public playgrounds irrelevant.

The most impactful prediction was the rise of virtual reality as intelligence spreads from the computer and enters the environment via the internet of things (IoT).

The earliest manifestations of these trends were the X-Games that had launched when I was writing that piece. I took my own advice and started BOLDR, a range of rock-climbing products for parks. What was then seen as too high risk to be successful has now become a standard playground feature.

Yes, there have been some efforts to add interactivity to playgrounds, but as I have pointed out, these are basically electronic pinball machines that are life-sized. They are not truly interactive.


The article also proposed that as kids increasingly live virtual lives, they will consequentially also seek more “real-time” direct experiences.

We see this in the continued rise of sports like climbing, mountain bikes, and skateparks. It can also be seen in the explosion of indoor entertainment centers that feature race cars and rooms full of trampolines.

The point is that the kids are leaving the playgrounds in mass, while the playground industry and parks and recreation professionals are still mired in the model of playgrounds that the Beaver played on. Why is this so?

For the past couple of years, I have reached out to my contacts in the industry and found the reason that the existing paradigm is so dominant.

Innovation today is limited to squeezing out yet one more theme, higher structure, or eye-popping extravaganza using the same technology, from the same factories, sold in the same catalogs, by the same people.

The actual play value of playgrounds has remained constant, while the cost of fall surfacing, shade, land, access features, and installation has soared.  

Face it. It took a radical environmental change to kill off the dinosaurs. It certainly looks like we are headed in the same direction. The result of the extinction event was good old T-Rex had to get small, smart, and learn to fly.

I’m working on that transformation right now.