The Right to Risk – A Manifesto

AnjiPlay 2
Image courtesy of True Play Foundation

The Convention on the Rights of the Child was adopted and ratified by The United Nations General Assembly on 2 September 1990. This declaration extended other previsions protections, including the Geneva Declaration of the Rights of the Child of 1924 and in the Declaration of the Rights of the Child adopted by the General Assembly on 20 November 1959.

The article that most directly addresses the child’s right to play reads:

Article 31

  1. States Parties recognize the right of the child to rest and leisure, to engage in play and recreational activities appropriate to the age of the child and to participate freely in cultural life and the arts.
  2. States Parties shall respect and promote the right of the child to participate fully in cultural and artistic life and shall encourage the provision of appropriate and equal opportunities for cultural, artistic, recreational, and leisure activity.

Unfortunately, the language of this declaration is overly broad and less than actionable. It would help to see the relationship between human rights and needs. Des Gasper* writes:

The ideas of human rights and basic human needs are closely connected. Human rights – rights that apply for every person because they are a human right – can be seen as rights to the fulfillment of or ability to fulfill basic human needs.

He goes on to say:

The concept of human rights forms, in turn, an essential partner to the discourse of basic needs. It provides an insistence on the value of each person and a strong language of prioritization. These focus our attention and energies: ‘in adverse environments, the primary meaning of human rights is to make people aware of what is basically wrong’ (Goldewijk & Fortman 1999: 117). And when widely acknowledged as norms or legally recognized as instruments, rights form a major set of tools, legitimate claims, in the political struggles for the fulfillment of needs. 

In the 60 years since the UN Declaration of the child’s right to play, great strides have been made in understanding at a very granular level, the biological basis of play. It can now be stated without equivocation that at a biologically level, that play arises when the child takes voluntary action. Without the freedom to move, to explore, to change their environment, and to find challenge, there is no play.

While this statement would seem to be so true as to be without rebuttal, from the standpoint of actualizing this biologically driven requirement of child initiation of play, in reality, it is far from ideal. When we look at what society does by way of provisioning for play, it is clear that the child’s right to what Ms. Cheng Xueqin at AnjiPlay has rightly designated as “True Play.”

Consider these trends:

  • Automobiles and concomitant city planning, and irrational fears of kidnapping have restricted the freedom of movement of children from miles to just a few feet away from home.
  • Today’s playgrounds are designed to reduce challenge to the lowest denominator and eliminate the possibility of children making any changes in the play space.
  • Schools emphasize desktop learning even though the current science of brain development shows that children learn best when they are allowed to move.
  • Touching other children, let alone rough and tumble play, is disapproved if not explicitly outlawed.

Need we go on?

The bottom line is simply this. We give lip service to the notion that children have a right to play when, in fact, the majority of our norms, institutions, environments, and lifestyles actively suppress True Play.

*   The Essentials of Human Rights eds. R. Smith & C. van den Anker, 2005, London: Hodder & Stoughton, pp. 269-272.




Pandemic Preschools

A child in a medical mask during a coronavirus pandemic


I’ve just finished reading a great article in the NY Times by Donald G. McNeil Jr. The Coronavirus in America: The Year Ahead. This is by far the best science-based assessment I’ve run across as I sit scouring the internet for facts. While many people are similarly obsessed, their motivations are generally about their exposure and that of their loved ones. Because of my age, I should be equally concerned but, because I’ve accomplished most of my goals, I am at peace with my mortality. What drives my search is what will be the impact on children, especially those of preschool age.

The good news is children seem to be the least susceptible to the illness both in terms of symptoms and death. ALthough there are some troubling new symptoms. While their health is not a huge concern, how we care for and educate them is one of the most challenging problems we have yet to address. Fortunately, there are pilot programs now being run for the children of front-line workers that will give us insights on how we can manage such programs. The initial indications are that this is not an insurmountable problem. Longer-term management is far less clear.

The most immediate issue will be staffing. Since children can be carriers for infection, sooner or later, the staff of preschools are likey to come down with the coronavirus ether through contact with children or when they are out in the community. Most will recover, some will not. This will result in two trends, a shortage of teachers and a demand for higher pay. It will take some time before we realize that all front-line workers have been undervalued and for the society to begin to recognize that teachers ARE front-line works who are grossly underpaid.

In our capitalistic society, the economics of preschool has always been skewed because it was established when childcare was “women’s work” and, therefore, not the responsibility of the father as the breadwinners. Thus, we expect families, rather than society, as we do for older children, to pay for preschools. This economic stress has a regressive impact on families who are, for the most part, at the start of their income-generating opportunities. This is exacerbated these days by the heavy burden many families carry for their college education. It is possible but extremely unlikely that our society will suddenly make both preschools and college free for all. That means that in the gradual reopening of the economy, these perverse economics, together with the adjustments made to a new post-pandemic paradigm, families will increasingly find that preschools are no longer affordable. Many couples, and their employers, will conclude that working from home and watching their children is the sensible thing to do.

While this could be a trend that lasts for only a few years, when one looks at the history of post-pandemic societal changes, they tend to have very long-term impacts. Taken together with the rapid acceleration in technology and the nature of modern work, we can expect home childcare to become the norm. What do these trends mean for children?

When it comes to sit-down education, they will be just fine. There is an unlimited supply of educational materials and online content that is more than adequate to provide a solid basis for academic learning. We can also expect that parents will have to adopt a more play-based form of learning if, for no other reason, than it is far less time-consuming. So, is there a downside for kids?

There sure as heck is a downside when it comes to physical activity and development. How many homes have the sort of environment that provides the full spectrum of physical development? For that matter, how many playgrounds do? That is, if kids are allowed to go there, and parents have the time to supervise them for a couple of hours a day. Play in the neighborhood? Forget about it.

Through my research on the recent in developmental neurological science, I have been able to identify the play patterns that stimulate development in specific areas of the brain. A few of the most important include vestibular, proprioception, executive function, and somatosensory. These are difficult, if not impossible, skills to acquire indoors. If kids could go outside and be in a complex natural environment, the lack of stimulation would not be as acute as children have a knack of finding what they need if left to their devices. Yeah, like that’s going to happen soon and at scale, NOT.

The result of this inevitable scenario is that many more wooden playsets and plastic mini houses with slides will be bought. As anyone who purchased such gear will tell you,  these setups were unsatisfying to their kids and regrettable. What is the path forward?

What is needed, and needed right now, is a line of inexpensive apparatus that provides diverse challenges that the children can reconfigure by themselves as their skills improve. Impossible? No! Difficult? Yes. Creating such a system is the mission of Constructive Play Design.

Watch this space.

See How They Learn

Walking Barrel

Photo –Suzanne Axelsson

I have been creating play systems for five decades. During that time, my greatest joy has come from literally watching brains grow. Increasingly I have moved away for providing fixed elements in favor of provisioning spaces that allow children to create their own play.

I have been following Ms. Cheng Xueqin from her first visit here in the States, where she introduced us to her work at AnjiPlay. While many others, such as Lady Allen, Carl Sørensen, María Montessori, and others have made significant contributions to the notion of kid powered learning, no one has been more resourceful, innovative, or a better proponent of the concept.

While the environments she and her team, including the hugely talented Cas Holman, have created are to my mind astounding, the effort placed on teacher training and pedagogy is equally essential and innovative. Her insights are both simple and profound. Here is a graphic example.

The picture above would give most early childhood teachers a heart attack. But if you look closely, you will see that the children have the situation superbly under control. Not only are they safe, but they are learning deeply and profoundly. It helps us understand this better if we deconstruct what we are seeing.

Note the pieces of wood in the barrel on which the boy in the black shirt is balanced. Why is it there, and how did it come to be placed there?  The simple story is that the wood provides ballast to the barrel, so it is much more stable than it would be otherwise. The children likely learned this piece of engineering by trying to move a barrel while another child was inside. This learning took place probably a while they were younger and exploring in a less challenging way.

Both the balancing boy and his playmate clearly know that this is an experiment that might fail, so they grasp hands. Both understand that this is only for added stability and not to catch the acrobatic partner. This assumption is supported by the fact that the spotter child is not in a position to make a catch, and they are both relaxed in the knowledge that the balancing child is skilled in making a safe landing. They also know that this game is not about rolling the barrel but rather on jumping off as the raised foot in anticipation clearly shows.  The final piece of evidence that these kids know how to take on a challenge safely is that both are aware that the amount of wood ballast is more than sufficient to provide the inertia needed to counter the force of the push off by the jumper.

All of this action is taking place in a matter of seconds. Here in the States, most preschool teachers would intervene and correct this learning moment as hazardous. During the many teacher programs at AnjiPlay attended by people from all over the world, participants are not only given background information about how such challenging play is essential to the development of competent children, but they also have the opportunity to see it in action. Seeing is believing.

While there are some colleges here that provide aspects of this approach, many do not. As we move more towards what Ms. Cheng calls “true play,” we will need to find ways and practical examples to help teachers who have not been given the education nor the direct experience with this type of programming.

I am currently working on a book called Kid Powered Learning that will be a workbook for teacher development to address this issue. My hope is to have it print later this year.

Here is the link to Suzanne Axelsson’s blog Interaction Imagination. This is one you should follow if you are a teacher, parent or play advocate.


Playing With POOP


While I continue to expound on my theory of play patterns and triggers, I’ve begun to look at how to use the approach to help children develop “school skills.”

I’m sure that it will come as no surprise that since I am a champion of following the lead of the child and trusting their natural proclivity of learning through play, that I look askance at the wrote-education that is all too prevalent.

Following that path, I began to look at those books and lesson plans that pair a letter with an image and a word. The child in me found those exercises repellent, and I can honestly say I have never used them in the classroom or with the children in my life. So, what is a better way?

For me, one of the talismans of learning in early childhood is laughter. While I have not seen a study that directly supports this contention, it is the logical extrapolation from the neuroscience. Thus, I always perk up when I see kids laughing. When it comes to using words, there are two types that do this, nonsense words like those used in Dr. Seuss and scatological words like poop.

Most parents tolerate the occasional bathroom humor from their kids but begin to draw the line when these are repeated incessantly much to their consternation.  I suspect this tendency to wear out the joke is one reason that teachers askew their use by children in the classroom and the loss of control that can subsequently result. But I wonder if we can’t try a few experiments to see if these can be used educationally. But why bother?

One of the things that psychology teaches us is that words with heavy emotional impact tend to be written indelibly on the brain. This suggests that a book or game that has an element that states P is for Poop will be more effective in teaching letter and sound association than P is for Puppy.

Screen Shot 2020-04-10 at 9.05.09 AM

I think it’s important that the whole lesson or book is not made up of these no-no words and that they only come up as surprises. Some of the words that I find that kids think are hilarious include the following:

  • A is for Ass
  • B is for Bugger
  • F is for Fart
  • S is for Stinky
  • And of course, P is for Poop.

Can you think of a few others?

I wonder if I can modify a set of standard blocks that have a letter on one side a word on the side and a picture on the bottom. Then I can add a few of the “naughty” blocks to make block play a whole lot better.

Can you think of other letter lessons we could “improve”?

The Power of Intrinsic Play

close-up of ant Cataglyphis velox/Formicidae

As a child, I was fascinated by ants. I loved watching march across the sidewalk in perfect lines. I took note of the fact that each ant would often greet another as they passed and wondered what they said to each other. Watering the garden would sometimes cause them to swarm out carrying their pupae, and I felt responsible. When we move to a new house further south, we had different ants. Instead of little black ones that seemed to like grease, these were many times larger and brown. They built significant mounts and harvested seeds. They didn’t form liens either but traveled as hunters. Other kids knew a lot about dinosaurs, but I came to know about the fantastic diversity of the ant world from mushroom farmers to armies.

Now as try to tease out the workings of the developing brain, I look back on my ants with newfound wonder. All of that complex behavior is controlled by a minuscule bit of neurons a fraction of the size of the period at the end of this sentence. I recalled, that some of the ant behaviors were only on display when there was a large nest or in certain environmental conditions arose. This observation allowed me to visualize what is sometimes referred to as a “hive mind.” This turns out to be a phenomenon common to bees, schooling fish and birds, and many other creatures.

The wonderful book by Gordon M. Burghardt, The Genesis of Animal Play, explores the role of play across the animal kingdom. In it, he looks backward phylogenetically to see how far back play behavior emerges. It turns out VERY ancient species, such as fish, can be shown to play.

I’ve written previously about the discoveries that have been made using fMRI imagining. This work supports what we have known through earlier studies; that is, that the brain is structured such that its base has functional areas that are similar to animals like fish. On top of this base are ever more complex structures that support such behaviors as our ability to talk.

I won’t go into all of the brain physiology. I bring this up to just note that the microdot of a brain that an ant has was sufficient to allow them to be fully functional. It is also noteworthy that the simple brain of a fish is complex enough to support play behavior. From this, it is easy to understand that the human embryo grows a process of development that replicates this path from insects through fish and to humans.

Splish-Splash-Baby-Bath-Time-resMost of us who took biology or psychology got an introduction to the idea that physiology replicates phylogeny. As one would suspect, this Biogenetic Law, formulated in the 1800s, has been shown to inadequate to explain the complexities of development. Still, for those of us who advocate for play, it holds a profound truth. We should not be trying to bring forth the next Einstein. Instead, we should be providing an environment where fish can play.

Ok, that may seem like an absurd statement. But put a baby in a tub of water, and what do you get?  More to the point. From the ant to the human, many, if not most, behaviors are triggered by features in the environment. This means that play evolves in each child from very primitive behaviors to those that are increasingly complex and refined through repeated interaction with the environment and that this development is intrinsically driven.  The corollary to this hypothesis is that environmental features that do not trigger the player are ignored as inappropriate or having already been learned. For teachers this means very simply, follow the lead of the child. It also means that the role of the teacher is to monitor and refine the environment to provide appropriate quantity and quality of play triggers.

The Neuroscience of Preschool Play

TakomaOver the past two decades, the advent of fMRI brain imagining has transformed what we know about how children learn. The ability to look inside the living brain and see how it reacts to various stimuli has provided us with a vastly clearer understanding.

One of the most important findings is that children’s brains dramatically respond to play. We also understand that movement is extremely important as well. Finally, it is clear that much, if not all, of the learning in early childhood is intrinsically motivated.

Most of these scientific findings only reinforce what we already knew. Kids love to swing, slide, and spin around. The real benefit of the research has been that we can now draw a bright line between specific play behaviors and mature capabilities that are essential to optimum development. For example, spinning helps children become good readers in several ways, from being able to sit at their desks to be able to have their eyes track written words.

We are now able to establish a fairly comprehensive inventory of the many stimuli that the brain responds to. I refer to these as “triggers” in that when children encounter these environmental features, they will react in very predictable ways. Hang a rope from a tree, and kids will swing on it. Come across a fallen tree, and children will climb and balance on it. Since these behaviors are so universal, spaces are generally filled with apparatus that elicit these recognized behaviors. Great! This means that science reinforces common practice. Or does it?

Unfortunately, the reality is that today’s early childhood playspaces have been so sterilized by supposed safety regulations, impoverished by inadequate funding, and pushed aside by the rush for academic learning, that they have become more like penal colonies than the Garden of Edan. Despite these trends, there are many ways we can turn this trend around. How?

We can start by using current science to redirect the priorities. Here’s an example. If you simply enacted the rule that no more paper or plastic would be allowed on the school premises, your program would revert to the environment in which children’s learning has taken place for millennia.  This is not as outlandish a proposal as it seems. After all, once kids begin to grow up, their world will be dominated by paper and plastic so that they won’t miss a thing.

OK, I know you’re not willing to “go native” just yet. So, let’s look at what we can do to ensure that as many play triggers as possible are present in your playspace.

Let’s start a quick assessment. Here’s the checklist:

  1. Slide
  2. Swing
  3. Complex climbing
  4. Balance
  5. Spinning
  6. Jumping
  7. Construction
  8. Pretend
  9. Enclosure
  10. Hill
  11. Dirt
  12. Water

Most preschools will have four of these. A few will have six. Less than 1% will have all twelve.

Almost all schools have slides, and these have very little developmental value after the age of four. Yet, they predominate both space and budget since they typically are the main attraction on a “play structure” of dubious value. We can fix this by rejecting, i.e., removing these monstrosities. At the end of this article, we will let you know how to provide sliding at very little cost or space.

Ah, the swings! Since the safety standards require ginormous space for swings, they have all but disappeared from preschool play spaces. We can bring this activity back.

What, you may ask, do I mean by complex climbing? Almost every piece of play apparatus that we refer to as a climber is actually a set of stairs. Now, if you are a toddler, stairs are a real challenge, and negotiating them is a big deal. If you are three, such climbers are developmentally useless. We can introduce complex climbing economically and safely.

Are you beginning to see a pattern here? I’ll bet that few of you will have balance, spinning, and jumping opportunities, and yet the science shows that these are hugely important for maximizing development. As for the last six environmental features, most preschools will have at least two, and many will have four.

Yes, I could go on to give you specific design solutions for providing all twelve features, but that is not the best way to transform playspaces. Instead, we need to change how we see our role as teachers. For far too long, we have seen the playspace where we provide is based on our training, which is shown in catalogs or required by education code. We need to turn this paradigm upside down.

But wait, you say, I have to follow the rules. Well, not exactly. You see, there are great examples of preschools that create kid paradises and don’t run afoul of licensing. At least not too often. Let’s look at some cases.

Check out the Facebook page for Takoma Park Cooperative Nursery School.   Not only is this an extraordinary program, but they are so generous with sharing images of the children in action.

Another superb example is Teacher Tom’s Facebook page. Not only is the playspace at Woodland Park Cooperative exemplary, but Tom Hobson is a philosopher with a deep understanding of the impact of early childhood on society in general.

anji yard2Finally, last and by no means least, there is AnjiPlay in China. While not being encumbered by dysfunctional regulations is an advantage, there is nothing hazardous about what they do, even though the pictures may give you pause. Indeed, they are now beginning to allow their apparatus to be bought for use in the USA; all be it in a somewhat sanitized package.  The core philosophy as established by the founder, Ms. Chen Xueqin of Love, Risk, Joy, Engagement, and Reflection is profound and universal.

What quality do these three programs all share?

First, these schools put control in the hands of children. Rather than act as “educators” they are facilitators. They respond to children as an improvisational actor with Yes! … And?

Second, the environment is comprised mainly of loose parts. The genius of this is multi-dimensional, but for this discussion, it solves the problems as mentioned above of providing the needed play triggers while not running afoul of the system. You see, if the kids take a wooden board and put it on a box as a ramp or a slide, it doesn’t have to comply with the ASTM standards. If children learn to roll a barrel, it doesn’t have to meet engineering requirements. If kids put a piece of fabric on a tree limb and swing on, it doesn’t have to have six feet of landing zone around it.

And finally, you will be amazed at how little the schools depend on plastic and paper. Sure, there are some, but it plays a minimal role in their programs.

Think about it. You can do this. The transition will be more about the changes in you than anywhere else.  Take little steps, and the children’s response will show you that it works. Build on this, and you, too, will be providing what Ms. Chen calls “true play.”



Sense and Sense Ability


If you ask someone to name the senses, it will not take them long to list hearing, seeing, smelling, and tasting. Remembering the tactile sense might take a bit longer.  These are the classic definition of the senses. In the literature on child development, as a group, they are referred to as the “exteroception” senses since they inform us of the world around us. NOTE: The categorization of the senses is evolving and still in flux.

Over the past couple of decades, due mainly to the emerging field of sensory integration, early childhood development has paid increasing attention to the body’s internal senses. In particular, the senses of proprioception and vestibular system. Proprioception is the muscle and joint sense. It allows you, for example, to know where your hand is when you can’t see it. In my work as a play systems designer, I create environments with lots of complex climbing challenges to help develop this system.

The vestibular system includes the organs of the inner ear and their connections to the eyes and is responsible for balance and eye-tracking. On the playground, we add balance beams, slack ropes, and spinners for children to use.

The vestibular and proprioceptive senses are sometimes included in exteroception or as part of the “interoception” system. The primary use of the term interoception is for the sense of our organs.  Hunger, breath, heart rate, pain, and elimination are all part of this sense.

The organ-sensing aspect of interoception is different from all other senses in its subtlety. We often have to ask children, “How do you feel?” to draw their attention to their internal conditions. This lack of discernment on the part of children is actually one of parent’s biggest challenges. Let’s look at an example in detail.

bonoboParents often have trouble with fussy children. They generally see this as indicative of an internal need and offer water and food. When these options fail, they will conclude that their child needs a nap, but getting this to happen can be a challenge. The recommended method for getting a child to calm down is rocking, which stimulates the vestibular system and, when done slowly, is often sufficient. Using a pacifier, what a great name, and swaddling, both of which stimulate the tactile system, are also great aids. When none of these are effective, the last resort is to rock the baby while standing up. Why would this approach be practical?

The new information coming out from neuroscience, especially with the advent of fMRI technology, as well as studies in evolutionary biology are adding tremendous new insights on child development. When it comes to the efficacy of standing and rocking, it turns out that infant primates have a build-in response to being carried that causes them to become still. The reason for this is that the mother needs to be able to move about, and more importantly, flee if needed, and their infant must be inactive for safety. We see the same in other animals. For example, you can move a unrulily cat by picking them up by the scruff of their neck for the same reason.

Young primates cling to their mothers a great deal of the time. This close bond leads to some amazing interactions. For example, it is not uncommon to see a mother hold her child away when they need to eliminate. This behavior is not only true of monkeys and apes but also humans in hunter-gatherer societies. This intimate bond that allows the mother to sense the child’s interoception state is normal. What is not normal is the general lack of this maternal connection in modern society. It is no wonder that parents have a challenge when it comes to potty training as they have not had the chance to set their child down on the potty just at the right moment, so the child makes the natural association.

I have dedicated my career to providing environments that support the development of the vestibular and proprioceptive systems.  It is now time to look at the organs of the interoceptive system.

Watch this space for more soon.

Here’s a great overview of the 8 Senses

Kid’s Culture Trap


I’ve recently had the opportunity to do some observations of preschoolers at play. The program serves children predominantly from Latino families. In particular, I watched six girls as they sat around a table with various toys. As I have been reviewing my recollections and impressions, I suddenly came bolt upright and exclaimed, “They are becoming their mothers!” You may think that’s not a shocking insight, but let’s look at that observation in more detail.

Not long ago, I was on the site council for our junior high school for three years, and we struggled with the low performance of our Latino students who make up a large percentage of our school population. I learned that the problem was a combination of many things, such as language challenges and economic issues.

One area where we saw success was addressing the dropout rate for girls. It seems that as these children began to become young ladies, their attention was diverted away from learning to social interactions and acceptance. Many of these girls turned that pattern around when they became engaged with sports. The biggest successes came when each student was paired with another girl who was already successful in sports.

It seems evident that different cultures value education in different ways, and this bias can be seen in patterns of academic achievement. Cultural disparity is apparent not just in middle school but in elementary as well. My epiphany was that, if we want to allow every child to reach their full potential, we need to address the issue of cultural bias in preschool where a child’s fundamental personality is primarily developed.

So, back to my onsite observations. What I was watching was very sweet. The girls were all chatting away in Spanish. The group was inclusive, allowing other girls to join in. They spent the whole outdoor play period in this activity, which I saw repeated often over subsequent visits. It was easy to envision them doing the very same activity for many decades to come. They are becoming their mothers. What’s wrong with that?

What’s wrong is that any one of these children, who come from low economic circumstances, could become a doctor, artist, philosopher. However, the high likelihood is that they will marry young, raise children, and have a minimum wage job, if and when they find employment. What I find disturbing in these children is the passivity, the lack of curiosity and exploration. While such children are a comfort to their parents and a joy to have in the classroom, they do not display the take-no-prisoners attitude that I associate with a child who is truly thriving.

As I have been mulling over these impressions, I began to reflect on how different the Latino children I observed and those I see in other programs such as Takoma Park Cooperative Nursery School, or AnjiPlay where the children are full of energy and inventiveness. What makes for this dramatic difference? These programs and others like them, focus on promoting free play. They nurture this independent spirit as a freezing man nurtures their campfire.

This line of thought has made me aware that the core change has to be with the school staff and environment. Teachers must become alarmed when their children are docile and obedient, quietly going about their assignments. Red flags should be popping up when we see children coming what their culture expects instead of who they truly are.

Throwing Shade on Play – Part Two

kids in desert

Here is our reader’s response to Throwing Shade on Play – Part One

Hi Jay,

Thanks for sending me the draft of the blog post. I appreciate your points on mitigating sun exposure with sunscreen and protective clothing, and I agree these can help.

However, a primary issue I have with a lack of shade at playgrounds is the direct sun causes little kids (and caregivers) to face heat exhaustion, which then limits play. In an ideal day, I would be able to take my child and play outdoors for 2-4hrs/day. But even when dressed with hats, sunglasses, sunscreen, spf rated clothing, and armed with plenty of water, we both end up weary within an hour of being at the park. Not to mention sometimes the equipment becomes too hot for kids to touch.

Sure, play can be achieved inside in an air-conditioned house or indoor playgym. But these are usually much smaller and limit how much kids can run around, climb and get the sensory feedback of interacting with nature.

I see shade as promoting the following:

  • protecting kids and caregivers from UV and sunburns
  • letting kids play longer outside and interact with nature
  • keeping the equipment from being too hot to play on
  • prolonging the life of the equipment by protecting it from the elements
  • attracting more people to parks by providing a cool space to gather

I sympathize that following building codes are challenging and expensive, I used to work in construction for the federal government. Adding a standard describing how much direct sun is acceptable during the peak sun hours may be helpful, but it could sound like extra overhead to a parks department or builder.

Would it be possible to incentivize the inclusion of shade structures somehow? Longer warranties on play equipment that is protected from the elements? Matching funds for playgrounds that have shade from health departments or local hospitals?

It’s definitely a challenging issue to build cities with shade, even outside of playgrounds. 99% Invisible did a great show on why shade is so hard to find in the city of LA which you might find interesting:

Thanks for the discussion,



Nisha raises many valid points. Let’s look for some solutions.

The first and most obvious idea is simple – TREES. Trees not only provide shade, but they also drop the ambient environmental temperate by 10 to 20 degrees. They even are able to drop their leaves in the winter when we want sun exposure. Chosen carefully they are adapted to the local climate. And let’s not forget that they can offer climbing opportunities and many other play benefits.

For too long, have maintenance departments, risk managers, and attorneys ruled playground design and facilities. I suppose we can blame the parents of injured children for bringing the lawsuits that resulted in the sterilization of play spaces. Rather, I contend that it is a lack of universal health care that forced families to seek a way to pay for injuries, and that fight continues to this day. All I’ll say on the matter is that voting matters.

I can attest to the value of trees on playgrounds from experience at Magical Bridge Playground, where the founders, Olenka Villarreal and Jill Asher, insisted on bringing in mature oaks at great expense. I can attest to the fact that these additions addressed the comfort issues that Nisha raises.

Magical Bridge Foundation

The problem with trees is, of course, that the ASTM playground safety standards require ridiculous amounts of fall zones around equipment. Of course, we could use trees as integrated structural elements. Oh, wait. We can’t do that because those pesky standards mandate engineering standards that can’t be realistically achieved with trees. Never mind that treehouses have been part of children’s play from forever.

In a recent post on this blog, Barefoot Playgrounds, I discussed the issue of shade. California Education Code now requires shade on playgrounds. Unfortunately, these have not made a significant improvement as both the placement and size requirements are insufficient to the need.

wt_large shade

I hope that I can work with a client in the near future to use a shade system that is common in nurseries that is inexpensive. Using shade cloth that allows the wind to flow through reduces the structural requirements quite a bit. I’d also like to install a misting system to reduce the temperature as well. The only downside of this is one of aesthetics as these are anything but attractive.

This discussion has brought up many valid concerns that will become increasingly important as we continue to adapt to climate change. Even in this belief overview, we can see that there are interesting possibilities that we can explore. That may require some changes in code, standards, and maintenance requirements, but these are things that can be changed when we begin to adopt the idea of creating play ecosystems.

Please, join the conversation and add your ideas and concerns here. Visit us at Constructive Play Design.


Death by Plastic

bag plastic

Photo Saverio Truglia

I want to say one word to you. Just one word.

Yes, sir.

Are you listening?

Yes, I am.


Exactly how do you mean?

There’s a great future in plastics. Think about it. Will you think about it?

This was 1972 in the movie The Graduate, and already plastic had come to become a major force in American society. Today, it has become increasingly clear that plastic is becoming a threat to the oceans, soil, and planet.

It turns out that children are one of the biggest, if not the biggest, consumers of plastic. They are literally cocooned in plastic almost from the moment of birth. That pretty pink blanket is likely made with synthetic fabric that washes thousands of micro-plastics into the waters with every wash. The teething ring? Sippy cup? Car seat? Toys and their packaging? All plastic.

The preschool environments are as bad or worse. Check out the catalogs from the two major school supply houses, Discount School Supply and Lakeshore, and the only pages without plastic are the ones with books. How about the playground? Today the most popular equipment is made of plastic.

OK, plastic is cheap, can be easily sanitized, and is durable. Great. But from the child’s perspective, it is all the same experience. Plastic robs children of the complex sensor experience of natural materials. Even metal has more going for it on a physical level. At least it varies temperature with the weather. And, yes, there are some things that plastic does better than other materials do only with great difficulty. So, we are not advocating for no plastic, just less.

It turns out that the real problem isn’t so much that plastic is a pernicious solid waste. The problem is that it is made of petroleum. Oil is only cheap when you don’t factor in the environmental costs, which we are now coming to understand are unbelievably huge. There is a better way.


It has long been known that very good plastics can be made from alternative materials and that such plastics biodegrade in reasonable time frames and cause negligible damage to the environment or to children’s health. This is the future. For example, Lego is in the process of converting all its products and packaging to sustainable materials. They are even considering hemp-based bricks. Other materials such as bamboo, mushroom millicium, algae, and organic cotton are already becoming viable alternatives.

The big oil companies can be expected to fight the loss of their market tooth and nail. It is our responsibility to our children and the planet to stop buying products that are primarily petroleum-based plastic.

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