Intention Matters in Playthings

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There is an old saying in design by Louis H. Sullivan that goes, “form follows function.” Nowhere, is that truism more important than when it comes in what objects and environments that we create to support children’s play.

There is frequent comment when it comes to toys, that the best “toy” is a stick. When we put these two ideas together, an interesting observation pops up. It just may be that what makes a stick such a good toy is that is it purely functional, it supports leaves and in so doing is an essential part of the plant from which it came. That is to say; its form is pure function which imbues it with natural authenticity and integrity.

When we look at human-made toys some approach this level of “realness.” Lego blocks come to mind as having this quality, and I propose it is this simple form following function that resulted in Legos becoming the world’s most successful toy.

I will also suggest that as Lego adopted themed blocks that they veered away from this standard much to the angst and dismay of its fans. That Lego made this change as a purely business decision tells us a great deal about the state of our society.

Indeed, other toys approach this level of design integrity. Cas Holman’s work with Imagination Playground Blue Blocks and Rigamajig come to mind. The classic Red Flyer Wagon, Lincoln Logs and wooded blocks deserve mention as well. Why should we care that children’s toys and play apparatus strive to reach this level of authenticity?

When a toy is given a theme, the play narrative tends to move progressively from the child to the entertainment industry, and particularly to Disney and Marvel. We must ask ourselves what is the narrative advanced by these companies? For the most part, the stories are much the same, good vs. evil, the importance of domination and aggression and that life is a zero-sum game. The more these toys become whole systems the more the child’s interior narrative moves in these directions.

Is such indoctrination harmful to children? Ask any preschool teacher how their students behave when a new blockbuster movie comes out, and it leaves little doubt that there is a measurable impact as they struggle to purge the resulting aggressive behaviors from their programs. But far more to the point is that the child’s natural internal sense of what is right behavior is corrupted or at least temporarily diverted.

The real problem is that this is not a fair fight. The capacity of media to push forward its vision of how the world works is extraordinarily powerful and enveloping. Our efforts to help children learn compassion, empathy and cooperation must wage an uphill battle.

All this venting on my part is to add a corollary to the form follows function rule. That is this, “What is the intent of the function”? With the stick, the intention is to be part of a living system. With Super Man and the Joker, not so much.

 

The Great Backyard Play Disaster

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In my youth, I worked for a company that produced backyard play and subsequently written three books on play at home, but even though I’ve thought about this subject for decades, it is only now that I’m am beginning to understand what a disaster the typical products are for families.

Let’s start with the economics. You know these play systems as you can see the playhouse standing proudly above the fences in subdivisions all over the country. Parents will spend from $1000 to $3000 and up for a system. For this princely sum, they will get a swing, slide and the aforementioned elevated playhouse. The problem is that this investment is mostly wasted as the units sit idly 99.99% of the time. Why?

Let’s start with the elevated playhouse. When the playhouse is put up high, there is no ground space around it, and this is the space where most of the play will typically take place. The inside of the house is generally too small for much play or for lots of loose parts like cooking gear to support pretend play. A much wiser investment is a simple swing set with a slide and a separate playhouse.

The real problem, of course, is these set are boring as there is just too little to do. There is next to zero challenge and very little physical activity. From a physical standpoint, a trampoline is a much better choice so long as these are placed at ground level or have well-designed enclosure systems. A good trampoline will rival the combo play structure in cost but deliver 100 times as much play.

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But functional and cost issues aside the real problem with how most backyard play is provided is that the whole issue is approached incorrectly. For a MUCH better idea, I suggest you get a copy of Playborhood, by Mike Lanza. You see Mike has made the profound leap of understanding that kids don’t play with equipment as much as the play with each other. His solution is as obvious as it is profound. The first step in getting your kids outside and playing is to welcome in more kids. Yes, Mike’s yard would put to shame most parks, but many of the things that his kids do are simple, easy to support, and inexpensive.

That’s the good news. The other side of Mike’s story is time. Mike plays with his kids. Not all the time, in fact not most of the time. But when he does, he both suggests and listens. He follows the boy’s ideas and also adds to the fun.

The point here is that providing an environment that maximizes the benefits of play for your children is not an investment in a commercial package. The real solution is an investment of time, and of love.

Mike has shared how he has created his families playspace, but he is not alone in this. I have lived much of my life in the barrios of California and have seen backyards where the children played with rocks, sticks and a few well-worn wheel toys. In their way these simple backyards are just as beneficial for the kids because they are free to invent, to laugh and to play just as children have since time immemorial. If it is your intent to follow the path of natural play then how you choose to invest your time and your money will not go too far wrong.

12-30-18 Got a note from Mike:

I would amend your interpretation of my work in my neighborhood to say that I spent the time I did trying to change the culture of our neighborhood, not trying to control my kid’s play (as most parents do).  Now that kids come over on their own, as they have done in large numbers today, I’m very happy to recede into the background.

 

Eco-Play is a Non-Trivial Problem

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Since 2006 I have had an avocation of studying the impact of climate change and its relationship to economics. As we are in the process of setting up Constructive Playgrounds consulting, I’ve taken what I’ve learned and tried to work that into our business plan which turns out to be much harder than I ever expected. Oh, making a greener product is not that hard. Several toy companies do a great job of that, and my favorite is Green Toys.

The problem, as Tesla and the other makers of electric cars are finding out, is that you can be as green as possible, but there are many externalities of which you have no control that makes your work far less than green. As Bloomberg recently reported the electricity that powers those vehicles is often anything but green.

This grim fact forces us to look at the whole transportation issue. Should everyone have the right to drive their own personal vehicle that uses a tremendous amount of resources to create and sits idle for the bulk of its existence?

As we consider creating apparatus and venues for new types of play, we must think about the whole question of the total impact of such a venture. For example, could we recycle plastic and use it to print equipment locally and thus reduce both waste and transportation? How about creating equipment that is extremely durable and provide a support system of lending libraries so that the gear is used for many generations?

There have been various strategies employed in the past. My first commercial venture was with BigToys, and we used peeler cores left over from producing plywood and used tires. As the business grew, it became increasingly difficult to continue to use such materials because of their inconsistencies and, frankly customer preference. While BigToys continues to exist under new ownership the current product is a far cry from its roots. Play Mart and PDPlay companies make commercial playground equipment using mostly recycled content with modest success.

My other advocation, or maybe an obsession, over the past decade, has been trying to understand what it will take to solve the housing problem. My focus has mainly been here in Sonoma County, but the issue is worldwide. What I’ve learned is that there are good technical and economic solutions, but at its core, the problem is really about the attitudes of the public and entrenched standards and practices. The conclusion I’ve come to is that change to the housing crisis will require a proliferation of excellent solutions on the one hand and increasingly dire environmental conditions that force more drastic change on the other hand.

Applying the same logic to Eco-Play, we must strive to create excellent examples and that the products will have to be extraordinary goes without saying. But it will also require a complete package that makes this business one that matches the green consumer’s preferred lifestyle. An excellent example of this is the inhabiatots website that curates all things green and cool for kids. They display many successful ventures that successful at creating such systems.

As I have stated so often in this blog, the focus should not be on products but on systems, and the core intent is what is best for kids which includes ensuring that there is a livable planet in their future.

Maybe I’m a bit crazy about this but I’m not alone. Check out what Lego is doing

lego green.

Almost Everything We Do to Educate Children is Wrong

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In the past couple of decades, there has been an explosion of new information about how children’s minds and bodies develop. Perhaps it shouldn’t come as a surprise, but most of our assumptions about child rearing and education are flat out wrong.

We are far enough along this discovery process to go beyond just recapitulating the studies. It’s time to begin to look at the revolutionary social changes that must and will take place over the next decade as we put into practice the consequences of our new-found knowledge.

Take education for example where the most noticeable change that has already begun is the transition to Inquiry-Based learning. I will acknowledge that much of this change is still too structured and curriculum driven, but the trend is strong and will become the dominant approach to education over the next decade. Along the way, the draconian practice of finals exams that test nothing of importance and negatively impact learning will fall by the wayside. Perhaps we will even see the most dramatic change of all, a later start to the school day.

It’s not just the big systems that will change but also how the systems interact and intersect. I’ve been exploring writing children’s books and have come to realize that the whole system is broken. While there are great writer’s and artists doing excellent work, the publishing industry seems to be hell-bent on killing the goose that lays the golden eggs by so gaming the system that the creative talent is one of the least compensated as a proportion of the overall gross revenue of any industry.

But it’s not just the publication of books that is broken. Look at how libraries manage books for young children. We know that reading the same books to your child over and over makes them smarter. That means the books have to be at home for years, not weeks. How do we fix this?

Or how about Storyline Online? They do a fantastic job of creating free videos of very well curated children’s books that are read by A-list actors. They even produce excellent parent and teacher activity guides to accompany each book. What they miss is one of the essential elements, helping parents understand that children benefit most when they do the reading not some actor on a screen. And it would be so easy to have that A-list actor add a second video talking to the parent about the important bonding and learning that takes place as they read the stories repeatedly. The final link is access for low income residents to children’s books for longer periods than libraries now allow.

The people who know how important it is for parents to read to their children is First Five California. They even have a nice budget to pay for great television ads to promote this idea. Visit their website to see what a really great program it is. But what about the parent who saw the spot touting reading to their kid? Any links, any follow through? Nope. How hard would it be for First Five and Storyline Online to coordinate their campaigns?

OK, I think you get my point. Good intentions are not enough! Is your intention to make excellent videos of actors reading books? Is it your intention to admonish parents to read to their kids? Or should you intend to get up to date on the current science, look for other organizations in the same space with whom you can coordinate and do so and maximize the benefits to children?

The Perfect Toys

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As regular readers of this blog know well, I am obsessed with finding those elements of the environment which physiologically trigger play behavior. Last month I added water as a trigger, and this morning I realized that I had ignored another of one the most potent prompts … the ball. Of course, ball play is universal across recorded history and cultures. John Fox has written the seminal work on this subject The Ball: Discovering the Object of the Game, and I will leave it to John to fill you in.

I think that I came late to realizing the importance of the ball as a prompt for play because it is so incredibly fundamental that I overlooked it completely.

As a sculptor, I am struck by the contrast of sphere to the majority of the built environment. The urban setting is primarily edges and corners, and we rarely see spheroid shapes, and when we do, they generally house something of a spiritual nature.

As a toy, a cube is great for stacking up, and that’s about it.  A ball, on the other hand, can be rolled, thrown, caught, kicked and hit.

I am also struck by how durable the ball is as a life-long toy. We play with balls from infancy to our dotage as we head out to the golf course.

Whereas a ball’s essence is its shape, water is the opposite; it has no form. Water play is all about the container, whether the container holds water or water contains the player.

Both balls and water share the aspect of flow. Both are preeminent in their capacity to be entirely under the child’s control, which is the key to their power as both toys and learning facilitators.

As a metaphor for sharing a communication, it seems that shaping a message as a sphere rather than a cube would make its transmission much more effective. Maybe that’s what is happening to modern society in that information these days can be transmitted in a multitude of ways, not just by word of mouth. The same can be said for water as a shape for communication, as information has the same tendency for a flow-like behavior. It wants to run downhill and can be only temporarily dammed up. As they say, information wants to be free.

History Lesson

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Being a designer is a bit like being a parent. You have dreams for your progeny, do the best to see that they have a good start, and the rest is up to them as they go out into the world.

In 1984 we were in the process of recreating PlayBoosters after Landscape Structures had purchased Mexico Forge who had been our producer. We named the new system KidBuilders to be produced by Iron Mountain Forge in Monett, Missouri, who went on to become Little Tikes by Rubbermaid. This new relationship had me traveling to Missouri on a regular basis.

One of the joys of my work during this period was introducing the products to the early childhood education community. It was at one of the NAEYC conventions that I met Mike and Barbra Richter who produced and marketed a great line of educational toys and equipment and were located in Kirkwood, MO. During a visit, while passing through to Iron Mountain Forge, I suggested that they should have a sand and water table in their product range which they thought was a great idea.

Discovery table

Rotational molding of plastic parts, which we had introduced to playgrounds a couple of years earlier with PlayBoosters, had become readily available and I figured this was a natural material for the play table. So, not wasting any time, we went downstairs to their basement and I created a mock-up of the idea in cardboard. In a few months later, the product was launched to a great reception. People may think that designers must make a good income. My fee for the design was dinner that night. But more to the point, I got to hang out with this great couple.

The Richters were also selling a modular play system called Snap Wall which was comprised of interlocking plastic squares. I thought that the Snap Wall system had more potential and Mike wanted to see what could be done with it. It seemed logical to add triangle shapes, tunnels, and more interesting square panels.

Both the sand and water Discovery Table and Snap Wall went on to excellent market success for over two decades. The company, Children’s Factory, is still doing quite well although Mike passed away in 1977.

I’m sharing all of this because by following the history of a product it can inform one’s understanding of how a product can succeed and what forces lead to their longevity or discontinuation. In the case of the Discovery Table, it continues and has morphed into somewhat different shapes based on ease of use by teachers.

Snap Wall is a more interesting tale. It seems that the use of roto-cast plastic has become ubiquitous and many more innovative products have had an impact and it has lost its uniqueness. It was an odd product even in its heyday in that the pieces were somewhat hard to assemble and difficult to rearrange so the modularity was therefore not all that useful. In addition, functionally it was in a sort of no man’s land in that it was primarily a crawling environment which appealed to a relatively narrow age group.

The lesson that these two designs illustrate is this. A simple and straightforward solution to a recognized need will endure and generate improved spin-offs. A clever design idea that only somewhat meets the needs of the intended user group will persist in the market until replaced by more functional solutions. So, note to self, don’t fall too much in love with your bright ideas. Although in my defense, the original interlocking concept was by someone else and I only gave it a broader and bigger market, but the lesson is still valid.

The Playground is Dead! Long live the Playground!

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I’m going to put myself out on a limb here. I hope you will bear with me.

If you have followed my blog over the years, it must seem odd that, as one of the architects of the modern playground systems, I am such a harsh critic. With this writing, I hope to make my reasons clear.

Let’s start with the basics. In over five decades in this field, and having worked with nearly all the major producers, I have never run across anyone, management or otherwise, who has done a simple analysis of playgrounds as a business. For example, a basic business premise ought to be to make it a goal to have the product placed where customers have access to it. The plain fact is that for most children reaching a playground, especially on their own, is next to impossible. There are any number of studies that demonstrate that the closer a person is to a product the more the product gets used, thus play spaces need to be close to home and not miles away reached by busy streets.

How about this? There is also a direct relationship between the amount of control a child has over their environment the longer their play episodes and the higher the benefits. Today’s playgrounds are generally designed so that children are presented with only active play, and they have very little choice but to follow a prescribed route to unmodifiable activities.

Or consider the business economics. Playgrounds are a phenomenon of the middle class, and in the States where the middle class has been eviscerated, it is a dying business. Don’t believe me? In contrast, the number of new playgrounds being installed in new facilities in China with its burgeoning middle class is huge whereas the bulk of installations in the States are replacements for old.  As play equipment becoming increasingly durable, the replacement rate becomes lower.

Some people may point to the growth of the major play equipment companies as an indication of the health of the industry until one realizes that this growth is primarily due to acquisition rather than innovation.

It is true that there are thousands of “playgrounds” across the country which suggests that my assessment may be wrong. But take a closer look, and you will see a rote formula: 1) ball field, 2) benches, 3) tables 4) play structure and if you are lucky 5) a covered area. These playgrounds are not dedicated places intended primarily for children’s play. Instead, they are multi-purpose community facilities which happen to have some play equipment in them. The intent of these parks is not primarily to provide play, but something for everyone and the result is that the play space offers little more than a short-term babysitter while parents have their picnic and play ball. While there is nothing wrong with that, the problem is, that because their core mission is not children’s play, these facilities, as pleasant as they are, fail miserably at providing for all of the children’s play needs.

In summary, the playground equipment industry makes a product which the intended users have great difficulty accessing, and when they do arrive, the level of engagement and the benefits are inadequate for their needs.

The playground is dead!

But is it?

We can reasonably predict some future trends that will have an impact on playground design. First, autonomous electric vehicles will happen sooner than later allowing the community to reclaim the streets so that access will become easier. Also, there is no question that populations will grow increasingly densely packed, and urban open space will become far more valuable which in turn will require smaller and more focused and beneficial recreation facilities.

There is an increasing appreciation of play, as well as access to nature, as essential for children to maximize their potential. Future well-designed play spaces, places that are designed for all of the children’s play patterns, will be considered as critical play-learning spaces.

As we move forward into a greener future, today’s over-built, material intensive, boring playgrounds will be as out of place as a ’58 Cadillac. They will be replaced with lighter, more flexible and diverse spaces that include abundant playable plant materials, places to dig, to make and create. Perhaps they will even have play leaders.

Long live the playground!

The Best Place to Play

It has been known for well over a hundred years that children’s natural play patterns include gross motor, constructive-manipulative, and pretend-social play. As humanity has moved to become increasingly urbanized it is interesting to observe how these needs are accommodated within our communities.

playgrounds_in_1900_1Dedicated places to play have only been part of humanity for two centuries. Until the late 1800’s kids just played, when and where they could. Starting with the industrial revolution, dedicated places for children to play were invented to get “urchins” off the streets as they were disrupting the smooth flow of commerce. These spaces were designed not for play but to improve health and moral character.

Today’s playgrounds follow this paradigm to the extent that they provide exclusively for gross motor activity, primarily swinging, sliding and climbing, and to a lesser extent balance. The degree to which such playgrounds meet at least the physical needs of children depends on the diversity of apparatus and graduated challenge. Unfortunately, the vast majority of today’s playgrounds are one-size-fits-all.

adventure pgAt the end of WWII, Lady Allen created the concept of Adventure Playgrounds and, with the exception of sandboxes, for the first time constructive-manipulative was introduced into the commons. Recently these permanent spaces have been supplemented with pop-up adventure play programs.

Playhouse-29b-sjPretend, and social play has appeared sparsely in public settings. These are generally created by DIY community groups wanting to provide miniature houses or even towns. Commercial apparatus producers will occasionally add decorative facia to their gross motor play apparatus in an attempt to meet this need with varying degrees of success.

Currently, the only play spaces that meet all of the children’s needs are found in early childhood education centers and the updated version of adventure playgrounds in Europe. The primary reason that these facilities are able to provide support for comprehensive play is the presences of supervision.

Recently in some of the larger and more complex playspaces such as those in children’s museum and at Magical Bridge playgrounds, restricted access and volunteers have enabled such playgrounds to be both more inclusive and offer a wider spectrum of play opportunities.

anjiThe finest example of accommodating play in all of its richness is to be found in the AnjiPlay early childhood education. What makes AnjiPlay the apex is that in addition to the most inventive and creative environment, the program includes supporting the children in documenting what they learn through play. This fostering of recursive play is both extraordinary and potentially disruptive.

 

Play Superpowers

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More than four years ago, I had the privilege of meeting Laura Seargeant Richardson. While talking with her she introduced me to the concept of “superpowers of play” which I thought was just magic. My hope at the time was that my client, Gymboree Play and Music, would pick up on the idea and collaborate with Laura to integrate the approach into their programming. Unfortunately, that cooperation did not materialize. Laura’s continued development of her concept has resulted in the Periodic Table of Play and the Play Possible Schools curriculum which has received the 2018 IDSA’s Silver IDEA Award for Social Impact.

Meeting Laura has left an indelible impression on, and continued to inspire, my thinking. Where her work is focused on how play can be a tool to open up creative thinking, my focus has been on play as the motivator for development. This line of thought has resulted in my Play Patterns concept, mentioned in a previous blog, that looks at the relationship between observable play behaviors triggered by elements in the environment and the neurological development in the child’s brain.

So, what about superpowers? Consider this. A spider’s egg is about as big as this period (.) When she emerges from the egg the spider already knows how to pick a suitable spot for a web and how to weave it. She knows how to capture, immobilize and store prey. She can mate and lay her eggs in a protective sack. All of these skills are preprogrammed in a few neurons that you can only observe with a powerful microscope, but those minuscule brain cells are powerful enough to motivate and structure all this complex behavior.

Let’s compare the arachnid above with the human Spiderman. Whereas a real spider has a tiny brain that provides all the knowledge she needs to thrive, Spiderman was born totally helpless and remained incapable of surviving without a lot of support for nearly a decade despite having a brain that weighs 380 grams at birth and grows to 1440 grams, or just over 3 pounds, by 10 years of age. That massive brain equals the total weight of a huge number of spiders and yet the pre-teen Spiderman is still not fully mature and capable.

This observation illustrates the incredible power of inborn drive mechanisms versus learned behavior. What current research in evolutionary psychology is showing is that animals with complex brains are strongly motivated by innate biologically drives to express certain types of behaviors, ones we see as playful. While there is not an exact match with insect drives, the drives in animals are also extremely strong. Indeed, babies start out being predominately driven by instinctual motivations that become more complex over the first three years during which the core structural capacities of the brain are formed. The following three years are similarly driven but the child has a more conscious choice about following these impulses. The main goal of these preschool play activities is to refine and calibrate the behaviors so that they are more coordinated and faster.

The point of this somewhat silly comparison is that parents need to understand the power and efficiency of innate play patterns to maximize their child’s development. Nature, it turns out, is an incredibly good teacher. So mom and dad go, as Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi would say, with the flow and have fun playing with your child and don’t worry that they are not learning, because they really, really are.

Preschool Play Patterns Environmental Assessment

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On September 15 I am a speaker at the annual Sacramento Play Summit. This is my favorite professional gathering and always sold out. Great sessions and attendees.

This year I will be presenting the culmination of ten years of work on an overall approach to creating play environments that are best for learning through free play. This will be the first time I’ve done this with a public audience and I’m excited to get feedback from teachers who use such spaces every day.

Here is the written portion of the talk including a site assessment instrument.

Preschool Play Patterns Environmental Assessment 8-15-19

Preschool Patterns 9-15-18