You Know It When You See It

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For more from other sources see:

As I continue my review of the play literature over the past two decades two things strike me, how complicated creating a comprehensive theory of play is, and conversely, how straightforward play is. I won’t go into all the academic stuff here, primarily because as a parent you don’t need to know that. I will, however, list the essential points these scholars generally agree on.

First, and perhaps most important, is that parents can relax and not work so hard at child rearing. It turns out that nature as embedded drives in kids that cause them to seek out the activities they need to develop. These child driven behaviors are very compelling and can be trusted to have the child seek challenges that are best for their maximum growth.  In a way, this is a self-evident truth because kids have been growing up in all manner of places and cultures for millennia and, by and large, they do just fine.

The logical conclusion from this observation is that many of the well-intended activities that parent schedule for their children are less beneficial than free play. The ballet class or soccer practice may be stealing time away from an adventure in their kid-made cardboard fort or creating a Heffalump trap in the backyard. Not that organized activities are bad in and of themselves but when they replace natural play they can be detrimental. When selecting structured activities, it is best that the children have a voice in what they want to do and that the program is playful rather than highly directed. It is even better if the programs include mixed ages rather than just limited to same age peers. See:


Of course, the question is how is a parent to know if their child’s self-directed play is what nature intended? It turns out that, while scholars may struggle to define what play is and cannot agree that “You know it when you see it,” for all practical purposes we can not only discern the play of our children but of most animals as well. It seems that not only has nature hardwired kids to play, but it has also given us the ability to spot it unerringly. They are a lot of elements to play that give us clear signals. A “play face” is typical. Bouts of intense play fighting are broken up by timeouts. Punches and bites are moderated. The players tend to be extremely focused, and the play sessions are often of long duration. During play, there is more communication, both verbal and non-verbal.

In addition to being what’s best for children, free play also gives parents a big reward as well. To see how that works let’s look at the sequence of play from birth on. For the first several months, almost all play is between mother and child. During the first couple of years, most play is within the family. By the time a child is out of diapers the play should become increasing among mixed age peers if possible. Parents benefit in two ways by allowing free play to follow its natural course during these years. First, and perhaps most importantly, your child will be happy and self-confident. Many of the difficulties we have with our children are merely because we are asking them to behave in ways that they cannot, i.e., be quiet in a restaurant, go to sleep quickly and for long periods, etc.

Another benefit is that your child will become independent and require less direct supervision which means that your role is more of a monitor than as a director. General household life will be more comfortable. For example, fights over their use of smart devices will be less volatile because your child will have a storehouse of interests that give them as much, or more, pleasure as screen time.

I realize that parents want to give their children the very best chance to be successful. That’s a good thing and admirable. The simple idea in this article is just to let nature help you achieve that goal. It works, and it’s fun!

Play and Survival of the Fittest


I am about 1/3rd through reading all of the play literature published over the past two decades. Some of this review is reacquainting myself with authors that I have long admired, and it has been a delight to reread works in light of my experience.  While I do try to stay current, much is new in the field and extremely informative. So, while my studies still have a long way to go, I’ve already uncovered enough important insights that I’ve decided to give you a preview of some of what I’m learning.

Discovering the writings in evolutionary psychology has been especially exciting. The most revelatory insight has been the extent to which nature goes to ensure reproductive success. Here is the evolutionary challenge homo sapiens face. We are the most successful large animal inhabiting virtually every part of the globe. To accomplish this, we must be very smart, but we also have to be extremely adaptable. There’s the problem. To combine brains and flexibility babies are born with the enormous potential to learn but are completely helpless. Think about a baby chick who can mostly fend for themselves minutes after hatching and you get a sense at just how vulnerable infants are. Most other animal babies can be independent in a year, or at most two years. Our children require at least a decade before they can fend for themselves. The age at which reproduction occurs is similarly extended for humans as compared to other animals. From an evolutionary perspective, this presents a real challenge. What mechanisms has nature put in place that gives the best chance for our children to survive to become parents themselves?

The first obstacle to be overcome is maternal rejection. Having a baby hurts … a lot. It would be logical for any mother to get as far away from the source of pain as possible. To counteract the possibility of rejection, new mothers are loaded with hormones that foster bonding. Babies do all sort of things to make themselves adorable and less likely to be rejected, and nature helps out by making them cute. This natural protective process continues through the first few years as, for example, a mother will be awakened from a deep sleep in a noisy environment with the barely heard cry from her child.

Like most other primates, humans rely on friends and family for child rearing. Maternal grandmothers will help by, for example, preparing baby food and childcare. The mother’s mother is more likely to do this than the father’s mother since the grandmother has an interest in supporting her own offspring’s child.

Both siblings and other children have a significant role in helping toddlers become successful adults. It has been shown that children who frequently play in a group of mixed age peers gain skills sooner than children who do not have a chance to play with older kids.

What an evolutionary perspective gives us is to look at life as a cost/benefit dynamic. If resources are scarce what is the impact on the family? As harsh as it sounds, parents will preferentially support their older child as they represent their most substantial investment and, being older they tend to be less prone to disease. Likewise, a community will tend to be inclusive in times of abundance and less so when resources are lacking.

Play tends to occur most robustly when resources are abundant primarily, and the environment is reasonably safe. This means that a playful household or community is a healthy environment in which children will thrive. It is also the case, and heart endearingly so, that play will try to emerge even in challenging circumstances as is famine or war. This is a measure of how important play is to children’s development

For more on this subject see:

The Origins of Human Nature – Evolutionary Developmental Psychology, David F. Bjorklund and Anthony D. Pellegrini

The Play of Girls


Xiong Jing Nan (Courtesy of ONE Championship)

Search the web for gender-neutral toys and you will get back a ton of option and advice. This brouhaha has been going on for a couple of years and shows little sign of abating. The driving energy behind this discussion is twofold. We have come to recognize that sexual identity is a mixed bag, if you will, with all sorts of expressions. Second, we have also begun to understand that women have been conditioned to take a subservient role to their detriment and that of society. The one positive outcome of this debate has been the rejection of gender-stereotyped marketing as, for example, large chain stores like Target get rid of the pink and blue aisles.

At the core, this discussion of the role of sexual stereotyping boils down to a much longer and older debate about the influence of nature versus nurture. From a physiological standpoint, a baby is a boy or a girl at about nine weeks from conception, that is, very early on.  For a baby to become a boy the presence of androgen hormones, specifically testosterone is required. Indeed, the amount of testosterone during gestation largely determines the range of sexual expression in the baby and its later maturation; thus, sexual identity is a range rather than a binary result.

What does this mean for parents and society at large? The implications are that a child’s sexuality and its expression is fundamentally “hardwired” from a biological standpoint

The following fact may come as a shock to some, but boys and girls really are different:

  • Boys engage in more rough and tumble play than girls
  • Boys tend to be more aggressive than girls
  • While boys and girls show the same interest in infants, by the age of 6, girls are more interested
  • Boys are more interested in object-oriented play and use more tools than girls
  • Girls develop earlier, and more, language skills than boys

What is difficult is to sort out how biology and culture influence these tendencies. Let’s look at rough and tumble play for example. Fathers engage in more of this type of play than mothers and when they do they give more and rougher play to boys. Such vigorous handling conditions the child to aggressive behaviors in a playful way. As children begin to play with their peers

How is a girl to learn to become a winner if she never wins a play fight? Coming out a winner in play is not only possible, but it is also part of what makes play fun. First, the players have to be able to read each other’s faces and actions so that they know that the “fight” isn’t for real. Such combatants will often change roles with the dominant child “pulling their punches” so the other player gets to win. If the dominant child doesn’t turn down their aggressive responses, then the game will soon be over, and nobody wins. This sort of generosity builds social bonds of trust and respect and play is the perfect venue for such learning.

The bottom line?  Dads, it is OK, in fact, it’s great, to play rough with your girls. Moreover, it is time we accepted as a society that it’s really is OK for kids to play fight.

Our child-rearing practices regarding vigorous play is just one example of how we get child rearing wrong. So, when people talk about women having equal stature in society, we need to take a very critical look at our child-rearing assumptions and practices. In my next blog, we will examine the role play and careers in technology.

For more on this subject see:

Play Triggers


The only way we can see what is happening in the brain without an MRI is watching for the smiles that happen reflexively when the brain is getting the experiences it needs to learn and function optimally.

When I was a little kid, I knew about two “triggers.” One trigger was on my cap gun, and the other was, the famous cowboy, Roy Roger’s horse.  As a dyslexic, it drove me nuts that the same word could mean different things. By the time I was in college I had learned that, in addition to mechanical triggers, they are also completely different biological ones.

Our crazy practice of using the same word for different things has serious consequences. In this case, when we discuss the idea of triggers nowadays, most people imagine that both mechanical and biological triggers are much the same. This leads to gross misunderstandings. Let me explain.

A mechanical trigger initiates a series of actions; levers move, gears turn, the hammer trips and the shell fires. When applied to organic systems the term “trigger” covers a spectrum of mechanisms. Basically, it is used to describe a saturation or critical load at which a new or latent condition emerges. We might think of the term triggers applying to behaviors, like blinking when something flies into your eye, but these reactions are in actuality, a “mechanical” reflex that is initiated by the brain stem without the signal reaching the brain until well after the actions are completed.

To get a comprehensive picture, we need to understand a bit more about brain development. At birth, a baby’s brain contains 100 billion neurons, roughly as many nerve cells as there are stars in the Milky Way, and nearly all the brain will ever have. The problem is that these neurons are not connected, so the baby’s brain goes into a frenzy of creating links, a process called synaptic overproduction, which causes synapses to develop exceptionally rapidly. A pruning process refines these connections based on experience and is the critical process that shapes the brains of young children. With pruning, those connections used regularly become stronger and more complex. Connections not used are considered non-essential, and the brain eventually prunes them away to increase efficiency.

What do triggers have to do with play?

Did you notice the phrase in the above paragraph, “refines these connections based on experience”?

But wait just a minute! Play behavior is complex and encompasses behaviors ranging from swinging to peek-a-boo and changes dramatically over the early years. How can one mechanism possibly be responsible for all of this dynamic process?

I’m glad you asked. In the simplest terms, the baby’s brain has lots of different sub-parts and capacities that are latent potentials. This means that the nascent brain is just licking its figurative chops for experiences that will put those pruners in action to help it reach its capacity. A capacity, by the way, which is uniquely adapted to the child’s environment.

Here’s a great example. To be able to walk and run, movements called bipedalism, balance, technically the vestibular system, has to be given a thorough workout. This experience requires a lot more than just a few drives around the block. Indeed, it will be activated repletely thousands of times throughout childhood. This means that play triggers do not stimulate specific behaviors as much as they initiate a leaning program that matures over the first seven years and gets combined with other play patterns in increasingly complex ways. For the baby it starts with just moving her head, it gets a boost when dad tosses her in the air, and beings to come into its own with the first steps.

Have you noticed a family on a walk and the younger ones are balancing on the curb and twirling around the posts holding up street signs? Have you wondered what drives these behaviors?  These drives or urges arise from the limbic system, sometimes referred to as the lizard brain because it is so old. Essentially children’s limbic system will be triggered by environmental stimuli, and they MUST respond. As parents know all too well, often the only way to stop the play behavior is to intervene physically.

Here’s the plain truth, kid’s higher brain functions have not matured, so we need to relate to them in ways that they can incorporate. All too often we try to “reason” with children, we become exasperated because they behave in illogical ways, we can’t explain to them why they don’t need to cry. In other words, we are using our logical cerebral cortex trying to talk to their emotional lizard brain.

4 brains

Modern science has begun to realize that we actually have four “brains.” Our thinking brain (cerebral cortex), our emotional brain (limbic system and heart), our reflex brain (brain stem and facia) and our feeling brain (the gut). Good early childhood education programs recognize this, at least intuitively, and support the total child’s development.

How can you use this information?

We have identified 16 Play Patterns that are initiated by specific triggers. Our organization is based on observable environmental stimuli and the child’s responses. The organization could just as easily be based on various parts of the brain and how they reward the child with the so-called “feel good” chemicals. We have chosen this organization because that is how we as adults can most easily see the learning that occurs through play. The only way we can see what is happening in the brain without an MRI is watching for the smiles that happen reflexively when the brain is getting the experiences it needs to learn and function optimally.

As you begin to see more deeply into how play promotes brain development you can increase your ability to maximize its benefits. For example, it is very unlikely that your environment supports all of the play patterns. By knowing about how these patterns are triggered you can supplement the environment in various ways. Say your play space is at a place that doesn’t allow swings, a temporary hammock can work just as well. Perhaps you are not allowed to have sand. Many other small loose materials will suffice.

As we have pointed out, the play triggers and patterns change over time. This means that as a teacher or parent during the child’s early years your reaction to their being triggered will model the transition from being reactive to becoming centered again. In the later years when children become more verbal, you can teach kids to manage their triggers. Simple things like reminding them to take a deep breath will work wonders.

There are few more essential gifts you can bestow upon a child than helping them learn to recognize that they have been triggered and how to bring themselves back down.


What Triggers the Brain?

Modern Research Reveals Your Heart Does Have a Mind of Its Own

 The Brain-Gut Connection

A Thinking Person’s Guide to Going With Your Gut

5 Strategies for Maximizing Your 4 Brains

Scary Play


I had to get away from it all and so went to Yosemite to find peace. Once there I took my bike and road for hours to find just the right spot. It had to have easy to access and be high enough to do the job. My meditation walk calmed me on the way up to the top. At 90 feet in the air, it was too high for me to look down, so I backed up to the edge. Two deep breaths later, I bent my knees and jumped!

Fortunately, my rappel knot and rope held and it was great fun bouncing my way down the face of the cliff and dropping 10 feet at a time instead of 90 all at once. The feelings that I had that day are very close to what a toddler feels as they approach their first trip down a slide. Like me, their amygdala is on overdrive and flooding their brain with noradrenaline. Ah, but once fully into the adventure our brains are flushed and dopamine and oxytocin, the so-called “pleasure chemicals,” take their place.  So, here is Mother Nature’s problem when she is trying to get us to do something that will help develop our competence but is, at the same time, potentially really dangerous.

To answer this question, I’ve gone back to one of my most used references,

The Playful Brain: Venturing to the Limits of Neuroscience by Sergio and Vivien Pellis. A little confession here, I have used the text at least once a month since it was published in 2013 to find specific support for assertions that I make in my writings. Here’s a case in point. The book goes into great detail about the role in calibration.

“… to a large extent, improvements in motor, cognitive, and social skills arise indirectly through play acting on the improvement of social skills, or more accurately, in refining the calibration of one’s emotional responses to unexpected events in the world.”

In a practical sense what this means is that to become a challenge seeking child, it is best to sneak up on the scary stuff a little it at a time. Small steps allow us to adjust our fears incrementally.

An interesting parallel observation from Why We Sleep: Unlocking the Power of Sleep and Dreams  by Dr. Matthew Walker is that our REM sleep provides the brain with a great “fear eraser.” A good night’s sleep, which is for toddlers like 12 hours, sanitizes the day’s experience, so we don’t have to relive the scary stuff we go through. Without this wonderful capacity, we would, like those suffering PTSD, have to repeat our traumas nighty.

So, dear reader, this is the where, for lack of a better term, “mindfulness” comes in. Intuitively we sense the child’s stress when they are approaching a new challenge and want to ease their fear. We need to be sensitive to this moment for, while it may seem trivial to us as adults, we have to feel in our gut as if we too are standing at a precipice. I use the term “gut” here with special emphasis. Too often when playing with our children we are completely in our head, while the child is using their sympathetic nervous system, literally the brain in their digestive system. This means that we have a real emotional disconnect with our child that does neither of us much good.


Our colleague, Lenore Skenazy, at writes daily about the evils of helicopter parenting. Her blogs are very worth checking out as she deals with the everyday fears and challenges that come with raising children in a society that will lock you up for letting your kids play in the front yard without you standing over them with an umbrella in one hand and a first aid kit in the other.

Over the next month, I will return to more of the discoveries that come out of my reading of the Playful Brain. I figure that’s one of my jobs, to read the studies and bring you their insights, so stay tuned.

Play and Nurture Space


Curious creatures that we are, humans seem to be able to make anything into a “science,” empty space, cow farts, literally anything. Did you know that there is a science of how close we stand to each other? It’s for real, and it’s called Proxemics, which is a part of Kinesics, the study of body language, I kid you not. These disciplines may seem obscure but, because they enable us to make visible the otherwise hidden, they can tell us something significant about child development and parenting.

Why is this important? Over the last several decades, early child development experts have established that there may be no more critical parental task than ensuring a secure child/parent attachment. Children with insecure attachment can be disruptive, destructive, controlling or attention-seeking. At the other end of the spectrum, they may be withdrawn, rejecting or clingy. And here’s the thing, these days about 50% of all children come to school with attachment issues, 50%!

Now, for many of these children, their lack of a secure attachment may not become a significant disability but just be one of the many challenges they face in life. But as a parent, you will want to know how your child is doing in this regard and how to ensure a secure attachment. To do this, you will have to become a bit of a scientist yourself.

Let’s see what tools the science of proxemics can offer us.

6127-09035002elevator 2

Humans are supremely social animals and being able to successfully navigate among all the people we encounter takes very sophisticated social skills. Proxemics looks at the space that surrounds us and identifies four different types of space, public, social, personal and public. The images above illustrate the all too common challenge of moving from public space to intimate space with total strangers. While this is uncomfortable for almost everyone, individuals who have insecure attachment find this highly distressing.

The issue is control. We generally don’t object to other people being in our intimate space if we give permission. Thus, the elevator is uncomfortable, the doctor’s office somewhat less, and nursing our baby actually pleasurable.

Children who have secure parental bonds are able to move from public space to intimate space effortlessly. Insecure children will struggle in various degrees. This puts them at a distinct disadvantage socially, and eventually academically and professionally.


Antonio Damasio (1999) The Feeling of What Happens: Body and Emotion in the Making of Consciousness

 What does this have to do with play?

I’ve made promoting rough and tumble play something of a personal campaign as I believe that play in all its forms, but especially those types of play that involve personal contact, act therapeutically for that 50 % of children who are insecurely attached.

If children do not have close and trusted bonds with their parents and siblings, how do children learn to express affection in appropriate ways? How do they learn their boundaries and communicate them?


The good news is that there are great ways to overcome the lack of social competence that results from insecure attachment.  Babies, of course, break down all of our barriers and this shows us that the earlier we address the issue, the easier and more natural it will be. I’ve tried to get adults to give each other a big group hug and, believe me, you can cut the initial discomfort with a knife.

I am committing the last few years of my career to Gymboree Play and Music because one of the highest priorities for Play and Music is to create a safe place for parents and children to play, and through play to develop and enhance the child/parent bond.

Oh, and have fun too.

Play and the Thinking Body


Ice cream sunday

When it comes to educating children, we seem to be stuck with what I call the “ice cream Sunday” model. That is, we focus on the cerebral cortex as if this was all there is to thinking. Imagine if all there was to desert is the over processed cherry on the top, ugh.

Our fixation on stuffing more facts and learning into the brain ignores how we really think. It’s as if the only thing that counts on a computer is the microprocessor, when in fact, the display, mouse, memory, keyboard, and most fundamentally the connection to the internet is what turns a lump of silicone into a thinking machine.

I like the Sunday meme, let’s go with that. If we think of the cerebral cortex as the cherry, what lays below is the limbic system, or so-called “lizard brain” because it is so old, which controls most of our emotional life. For the for first few years babies are almost entirely controlled by this area of the brain. A lot of the function of this organ is to regulate all of the various chemicals that modulate and control emotion. In our Sunday meme, all that whipped cream.

Most of the information processing is conducted by neurons, also known as nerve cells.  These are electrically excitable cells that receive, process and transmit information through electrical and chemical signals. Surprise! Neurons are not just located in the head.  They are also found in the heart. If you’d like a deep dive on this subject and learn about the parasympathetic nervous system, there is a great film, Of Hearts and Minds, that goes into the science in great detail.

But wait there’s more! How about the old saying “Go with your gut”?

Hidden in the walls of the digestive system, this “brain in your gut” is revolutionizing medicine’s understanding of the links between digestion, mood, health and even the way you think.  Scientists call this little brain the enteric nervous system (ENS). And it’s not so little. The ENS is two thin layers of more than 100 million nerve cells lining your gastrointestinal tract.

also see:

OK, that’s it, right? Wrong. There is a whole other system you probably know very little about. You see, every muscle, every organ in your body is held in what is, in essence, a bag. These bags are made up of collagen and are called fascia. It is said that skin is our largest organ, but the facia is many times larger, and yes, in a way it thinks. Facia contains neurons and participates in the chemical soup that is part of the whole process.

So back to the Sunday. What we are talking about is the mind. That mysterious entity that has confounded philosophers from time immemorial. We literally think with our whole Sunday of body parts.

As impressive as all this is, what does it have to do with play?

Children spend the bulk of their first six years learning through play. Play is a whole-body curriculum and does a truly astonishing job of turning a baby into a functioning human. And then just when the kids are getting ready to take flight, we send them off to school where 99% of the curriculum is about only one part of the brain.

Just think about that.  No wait, feel about that, use your whole body-mind and ask yourself, “Is there a better way?”

The Power of Play Manifesto


There are three elements to realize the transformative power of play. These elements form a self-reinforcing system that is sustainable and adaptive.


To understand why play is fundamental, we need to understand play itself.  The core characteristics of play are:

·       Play initially is biologically driven and literally creates the brain and our perceptions of reality.

·       Play cannot be externally driven and is, therefore, the essence of freedom.

·       Play is purely social even when it seems to be solitary such a baby playing with their fingers.

·       A society base on the natural patterns of behavior and thinking laid down through play will be progressive.


There is a saying often used in military circles, “quantity has a quality all its own” that too few of us give the importance the notion deserves. The same concept is reflected in modern life as when some idea, image, or meme is said to “go viral”. The idea is that, like a virus, its spread is exponential.


Inclusive means that differences such as race, gender, class, religion, ability, wealth, generation, and geography are discounted. This ensures inclusion of all persons. It also results in equality of opportunity and the capability of all members of a group to determine their agreed set of social norms.

Play + Scale + Inclusion = Transformation

Adopting the characteristics of play for all results in a society in which all benefit, that is progressive and just.

Why I am a Play Advocate


Father’s Day, 2018

In my writings I usually don’t get all philosophical on you, but as today is Father’s Day, forgive me if I go a bit afield.

At his trial for questioning the official deities of his community and asking his students to question authority, Socrates said, “An unexamined life is not worth living.” Since this was essentially a political trial, the meaning of this statement in its context points out that living under the rules of others without questioning is to live an empty life. However there is surely more to life than analysis.

In contrast, the philosophy of Epicurus sites three components. As with Socrates he holds that thinking things through is important. But he goes on to include freedom and companionship as also essential.

What does this have to do with play?

Play is the wellspring of what we know as freedom, for as children, our play is intrinsically driven, children cannot be forced to play. Play is where we learn to be social and have the capacity to form deep connections with others. And it is through play that we begin to develop the mental tools for self-reflection.

I can count on the fingers of one hand the number of play advocates. Note: I said “play advocates” not, advocates for play, as there are many of people who, on occasion, promote the benefits of play. No, I mean people like the late Bernard DeKoven, who devoted their entire career to play. One would think that the subject of play, as the foundation of happiness and conducting a meaningful life, should be top of mind for the whole of society, but is sorely lacking. I am proud to be a member of this tiny club and I’m taking this subject on today as the opportunity to, once again, speak for the transformative power of play.

When we play together there is no bullying, no hate, no them and us. And, hey, it’s also great exercise for the body and the mind. I’m not being factious here, I cannot think of any circumstance that is not improved with playfulness.

Imagine reaching back to those childhood times at play. What’s to prevent you from bringing that same state of being forward into your life today? Does “taking life serious” make it any better, any richer? Are you more or less successful when you engage with life playfully?

I first painted “flying Jamie” on the wall in my bedroom when I was ten years old. The picture above was done when I was in art school. This has been my talisman throughout my life. I’m sorry to say that the pains encountered in life all too often made it seem like I had to be serious. But when I deviated away from being playful I lost my power.

It’s never too late. Play On! Bbbrrrrrooom!

The Wired Child

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Tony Centicola – The New York Times

I wrote the first draft of this article in 1997 and later updated it to apply to the BOLDR climbing systems I designed.  Two decades later the predictions are uncanny and yet to be realized on today’s playspaces.

Jay Beckwith


Talking to today’s parents about their children is a little like trying to explain frogs to fish.  Most of us are unaware that we swim in the “sea” of the Information Age so explaining is difficult.  We think nothing about eating a “Pop Tart” which contains dozens of ingredients derived from sources throughout the world, which we can only vaguely recognize.  What in the heck is Sodium Hexametphosphate anyway?

We are the supreme result of materials and production sciences that have produced a world of plenty and specialization.  We vaguely recognize that we have “lost touch” with nature but don’t even really understand what that means.  Our total immersion in this materialistic wonderland makes it hard to see that our children are moving into yet another world, the world of information.

To begin with, as soon as I say, “the Information Age” you think “computers.”  But computers are only the most concentrated form of information.  Computers are information creating itself.  In our industrial age, the equivalent is the mass production of the means of mass production.  But equating computers with information misses the point and does nothing to help us really understand today’s child.

Consider the preschooler coming home from her birthday party where she and her friends had just seen Hundred and One Dalmatians.  She loved the movie.  Stopped off at Burger King and all the kids got a free action toy of one of the characters … yes, they actually had 101 different toy puppies!  She can’t wait to play the interactive game on CD that Grandma sent knowing she was going to see the show.  Later, she will log on to and play and chat with other kids from across the world about the neat film.

This is a very real and, in most of its elements, a very common scenario that makes most adults uncomfortable. Grown-ups see it as exploitative and manipulative and long for the days of simpler play.  But is it?  How different is this than a “native peoples” life in the “village” where mythic stories are told, dances act out the scenes, and toys are crafted which embody the magic qualities of the protagonists.

No, the multi-media experience of today’s child is experientially not too different from that of our long lost tribal upbringing … except in one very important way.  The stories of the tribe are not the same as the stories of Hollywood.  Adults feel out of control of the content of the movie storyline and thus disconnected from our child’s developing psyche.  The deeper the child connects to this “invader” world the more uncomfortable we become.

What giving Hollywood control over our communal myths means to the long-term health of modern society would require considerable thought and research and is far beyond the scope of this paper.  Here we will only explore the aspects of the modern “wired” experience that bear on what the child needs and expects from their play experience.

Most people think they know what the “information age” is all about.  How wrong they are.  We are just at the edges of the transformation and can see the future about as clearly as those who saw the first steam driven boat.  Today the fruits of the industrial age sit side by side with those of the information age.  We can easily see the today’s automobile as a pinnacle of mass production, and the desktop computer as the embodiment of the future.  But in fact, it will be the combining of these two that will truly transform the world.

When mass production merges with global information the world, as we know it gets turned upside down.  In the past economies of scale dictated uniform products.  You can go into Hertz and rent any car in complete confidence that they will operate nearly identically.  The differences between products are so small that it requires constant consumer training to be able to detect the subtle differences in brands.

(Note: I suspect that TV commercials impart more “environmental” education to children than any other source.  Kid’s ability to distinguish between breakfast cereals compares well with the Eskimo’s 16 different words for snow.  American children are the most sophisticated consumers in the world.)

As information merges with production, products will become personalized and adapted to the user rather than the user adapting to the mass-produced product.  A corollary to this is that as the means of production and made smarter they become smaller and decentralized.  Consider the following existing examples:

  • Jeans custom made to your body.
  • One-hour photo processing in the drug store.
  • A Saturn car made to your order with your name on it.

“If you went to Coke’s headquarters, would people there be fussing about bottling?  Or about media and media buys?  See, really, what Coke is selling is media, a picture of itself.  Coke is really a media company – it just hangs its revenues off bottles of Coca-Cola.”  Joey Anuff, founder of Suck! – a critical guide websites by Wired Magazine.

Increasingly products in which the normal channels of distribution are also turned on their heads will surround us.  Already you need not go to the store to buy software, your new PC comes with a compact disk on which there are many programs.  You need only to make a call to “buy” the software and a code is provided that locks access.  Newer PCs are shipping with advanced hardware that you can upgrade by software. Again, this “new” capability is already on your machine and just needs to be unlocked.

Within a decade you will be able to buy an electric vehicle that is absolutely unique to you and your personality.  Yet it will be able to reconfigure itself to suit the needs of the “typical” driver or another unique driver instantaneously. Cars already have some of this capability with memory settings on seats.

Intelligence is rapidly becoming “embedded” in nearly all everyday products. We already have smart brakes on our cars, smart ovens, etc.  This intelligence will become smaller and in the near future, they will be completely linked together.  Our environment will be “encrusted” with information and we will swim in its web.  Much as today’s child swims in the multimedia world of the Lion King.  For her, this new “wired age” will seem totally natural.  For those of us who still live in the industrial age, it will be a weird world…one which we do not understand, and which is largely invisible to us.

“The Web Dream is what smart kids across America – smart kids across the world – are dreaming.  They might not trust in God or Family and they sure as hell don’t believe in Country; they believe in themselves, and in the power of their cleverly customizable, infinitely scalable, robust and ubiquitous, interactive, pull-down-menu Dreams.” Josh Quittner, Web Dreams, Wired Nov. ‘96

So, what does a playground for a “wired child” look like?  Well, it does NOT look like a big computer.  There are some conceptual characteristics that are “natural” for the wired child has come (and will increasingly come) to expect.  A few of these are:

  1. Layered – think about the hidden levels in the game called Doom.
  2. Linked – one thing leads to another, the Net/web.
  3. Non-linear – envision the child exploring information like a dog on the beach.
  4. Configurable – car seats with memory profiles taken a thousand-fold.
  5. Virtual – I am “me” except when I’m online, then I’m Doctor Play.
  6. Interactive – when physical constraints and consequences disappear in the virtual world I experience unlimited behaviors and come to expect a very high level of responsiveness to my environment.
  7. Recordable – The sense of time begins to change when I can record the weekend football game for later replay or record my actions and then return to a point in the process and take a different direction.
  8. Embedded; intelligence leaves the computer and enters the environment. Consider the “information” packed into the McDonald’s Logo.
  9. Real-time – waiting will increasingly become obsolete. Entertainment increasing becomes live (sports) or interactive (movies with various endings). As kids increasingly, live virtual lives they will consequentially also seek more “real time” direct experiences.
  10. Operating Systems – the surrounding intelligence will be controlled by various operating systems, the control of which will be power and status.
  11. High-tech, high-touch – when I am in my virtual self I am out of body. When I am in the physical world I am intensely in my senses.

In the Renaissance, a strange worldview was adopted.  We began to perceive the world as separate from ourselves, and the self as separate from our body.  This worldview gave rise to the objectification of nature and to the scientific method. All this is very different from the ancestral or tribal perspective in which we are an indivisible part of the world.  The “new” wired child’s consciousness is closer to the tribal than it is the Renaissance man. For example, it is very popular to develop our human potential by learning to focus on our sense of self as a global and undifferentiated state of “being.”  Not a very Renaissance way of thinking … much more like the tribal mind.

What do these insights tell us about the design of a playground for the wired child of today and tomorrow?  Here are some logical conclusions that can be drawn from these ideas and as the can be manifest on the playground.

  1. Layered – the physical playground should only be a small part of the total play experience; it should contain elements within elements. The BOLDR sign linking to the website does this
  2. Linked – there should be elements on the playground that connect to the “real” world. BOLDR connects to real climbing and climbers not plastic fake rock.
  3. Non-linear – most play is non-linear, but more can be done with designs to support this idea. There is no “direction” in BOLDR climbing
  4. Configurable – can’t do much better than a sandbox. BOLDR allows the changing of holds.
  5. Virtual – there are obvious applications of electronic games but there are also some less obvious things that can be done with both the design and presentation of the equipment. BOLDR now has a sound effect option for the holds.
  6. Interactive – again play is intrinsically interactive, but my thought here is that by tying these ideas together we can make a compelling story why users preferentially choose equipment that is interactive as opposed to “stimulating” high slides. Users of BOLDR create small groups that work on “problems.”
  7. Recordable – here’s an area ripe for development. With climbing the “routes” are graded and recorded so they can challenge others. BOLD allows this as well.
  8. Embedded – BOLDR is thick with all sorts of symbols that link to stories, that allow myth to return to the child culture.
  9. Real-time – you don’t get more real-time than on BOLDR.
  10. Operating Systems – BOLDR climbing follows sport climbing rules and techniques and as such is the start of an operating system. A use manual is provided.
  11. High tech, high touch – when not linked to the web (playing Lion King) kids will want the most intimate and direct experience possible. BOLDR provides this.

There are some clear advantages to BOLDR over typical play structures because it uses the principles listed above:

  • BOLDR is a sport not just play. It is part of the whole new wave of “X-Games” types of athletics. This is not just “kid’s stuff.”
  • BOLDR challenges across a much wider range of ages and abilities.
  • BOLDR is layered with rich detail in both its surface and the attached holds and it has “realness” about it that plastic/metal can’t match.
  • BOLDR is unique – and “unique” will increasingly become a highly prized quality when more and more playgrounds are just the same old thing.
  • BOLDR embodies an intelligence, savvy, and vision that steps into the future and understands what the wired child will respond to and what they need to stay healthy.

In conclusion, we should not be afraid of the “wired” world and the children who inhabit it.  As McLuhan pointed out, the information revolution is creating the Global Village.  Instead, we should try to understand this inevitable change and prepare children to live in it.  One of the central issues is to look at the moral tales as presented in the media to ensure that the “lesions” they teach are ones we support.  We must be proactive.  We should begin to reclaim our right to acculturate our children with the values we believe are appropriate.  We cannot leave it to Disney or Hollywood to tell the stories of the Tribe.