The Wired Child

Do you really think kid spends much time playing on swings and slides?

NOTE: I wrote this in 1997 and everything I predicted has happened.

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 Hexametaphosphate anyway? 

We live in the 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.  Out 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 misses the point and does nothing to help us 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.  I stopped at Burger King, and all the kids got a free action toy from 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 would see the show.  Later she will log on to and play and chat with other kids from across the world about the next film.

In most of its elements, this is very real and 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 from a “native peoples” life in the “village” where mythic stories are told, dances act out the scenes, and toys are crafted that embody the protagonists’ magic qualities. 

No, the multimedia 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 their 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 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 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 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 as the most sophisticated consumers in the world.)

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

  • Jeans are custom-made for 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 web sites 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 in your machine and just needs to be unlocked.

Within a decade, you will be able to buy an electric vehicle that is 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 scaleable, 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.  Some conceptual characteristics 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 thousandfold.
  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 from 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.

Smart Playgrounds

Smart Social Games – So much fun!

Here’s a question for you.

How does an organization dedicated to creating inclusive playgrounds and getting disabled kids outside and gaining a sense of belonging with their peers also accommodate all kids whose differences are not physical?

Let’s look at how the playground industry currently answers the question of inclusive design. Then, for fun, let’s also suggest some solutions that are possible by adding Smart technology.

Kompan has made the most progress towards a smart playground. While theirs is a good start, it is hampered by being locked to their product. This is a universal defect with the other attempts at solving this issue by other companies. Their solution is also hampered by the focus on children’s books for themes.  

In contrast, the Metaverse uses smart technology that is open source and interoperable across any environment where children play. The only limitations are the supportive connectivity infrastructure.

Biba Ventures made a good run at this idea a few years back. They had a lot of content and packaging, right … if a smart playground is a product. Which it is not! They got support from Playpower, but the exclusivity clause came back to bite them. BCI Burke and Playground Center in Australia may continue to hold the fort, but Biba Ventures is now vaporware.

What is an Inclusive Playground?

These days, it is unconscionable not to make playgrounds inclusive. Playworld has a very well-developed Inclusive Design Guideline. While not as comprehensive as Playcore’s ME2 – 7 Principles of Inclusive Playground Design, the Playworld Guideline is far more useful to the typical playground developer.  

Looking at the Playworld Guideline in the way we are proposing for the Metaverse, the following are a few examples of how adding connectivity will solve the glaring inadequacies of the common hardware-only approach.

Wayfinding – Kids need to have multi-sensory signals and cues in the play space and surrounding environment. The standard solution is handrails. Well, what if you use a walker? Wayfinding can easily be done with sound cues or just use a map app.

Sliding – Sure, nearly every playground has a slide, and many can be accessed, sort of. But if the child uses the slide, how does she get back to the top? Instead of a caregiver recovering the chair, how about a robot chair that they can ride back up to the top. The point is that playgrounds should be a place that is safe enough to try out being independent and having fun with your peers without too much supervision. Unfortunately, the current best practices still don’t address this obvious shortcoming.

Cooperative Play – A spinning net climber is a great event where children play with each other. But for kids on the spectrum, this is way too intense. Smart toys and devices can be a more accessible solution to stimulate cooperative play by helping socially awkward kids make connections.

Symbolic Play – Symbolic is particularly important in language development. Other than themes like castles, ships, etc., today’s playground does little to support symbolic play. Adding Augmented Reality, as in the Metaverse, turns this issue around 180 degrees.  

Loose Parts – “Oh, we can’t have loose parts on the playground. People will steal them.” Wha-wha-wha! Come on, every store in existence solves this problem. Today we have smart technology to do this even without a shopkeeper. We can do this for playgrounds as well. An easy place to start is by providing Smart Toy Lockers with digital looks and inventory control technology. This stuff is available off the shelf.

Game Play – The new electronic playground games such as Yalp, Kompan, and Playworld are great and a step in the right direction. They are, however, limited by cost and lack of player control of the gameplay. It’s time to harness the ubiquitous and ambient computer power that exists in the pockets all around the playground. Can we say “Flash-Mob-Play?”

Height – Multistory play structures are all the rage. The idea is that height adds challenge and excitement. Both are true. The problem is that they exacerbate many of the goals of inclusive play. They are the coolest thing on the playground, and difficult to make wheelchair accessible. In addition, the long access routes are a challenge to populate with engaging play activities.

In contrast, a Smart Playground can use AR, add excitement and challenge along the accessible route at no cost. Kids having to duck under the grasp of a fire-breathing dragon will make a standard slide as engaging as a multistory slide. Virtual challenges mean projects with limited budgets can be as appealing as a destination playground. 

The conclusion?

The notion of children playing with phones is antithetical to the goal of getting kids outside and off their screens. And that’s a huge barrier to the wide adoption of the Metaverse on inclusive playgrounds.

My point is that by not accommodating millions of kids whose lives are already lived in the Metaverse, we are exclusionary, which goes against the goal of play for all everywhere.

The Smart Playground addresses this conundrum. Pokémon Go is a great example of using tech to get kids outside. The problem is all that observers see is folks walking around with a phone in their face.

By changing the intent of virtual games to focus on social connectedness and leveraging the computing power in phones, and connecting them with sound and AR, playground play will look much as it does now, but with invisible playmates.

The design and programming of the Metaverse can turn any playground into a smart playground.

Gamification is the Enemy of Play

Between the climate crisis and political issues, there is no doubt that things are getting serious—likely, more serious, faster than we can imagine.

When times get tough, children and play suffer. While our current scenario is truly existential, there are precedents. One need only to look back on other crises to see children as workers or soldiers. In the world today, there are more children in these “occupations” than ever before.

The justification is always the same, “It’s time to get serious.” Since child labor is ostensibly outlawed in first-world countries, getting serious means learning things like Career Technical Training (CTE).

Dr. Peter Grey has made it his life’s work to campaign against the authoritarian nature of education. The more “enlightened” approach to reach the same goal is gamification. If you doubt me on this, just Google the title of this article, and you will get pages of links that provide advice about using games to make learning “fun.”

Gamification is not play-ification

Let’s start with the locus of control. From Wikipedia – “The Locus of control is the degree to which people believe that they, as opposed to external forces (beyond their influence), have control over the outcome of events in their lives.”

In play, the locus of control is in the child. Gamification, as it is most commonly employed, is the opposite. The goal of cyber games is to commodify and monetize attention. Game designers use well-established tools such as triggers and rewards to literally “hook” players.

Those in ECE should know better, but even the best of us can fall err to some of this thinking. For example, take the way we present the quintessential play activity, loose parts. While few of us would present something as highly structured as this “sensory” example, we often have a pretty clear idea about how something will be used. The kicker is that, by golly, the kids do just what we expected; all is good. But who is in control?

Teacher Tom Hobson is the true guru at poking holes in this adult arrogance. His many stories of children upending the predictable use of materials and making play in unexpected ways. While Tom is certainly not a no boundaries kind of guy, he loves the use of “junk.” He sees in junk what the play master, Bernie De Koven, prized, i.e., complexification. Gamification, in contrast, doles out more game elements as rewards for deeper engagement.

What is your intention with my child?

Every day we seem to have to relearn the wisdom of “follow-the-money” as the best tool for finding corruption. This is as true for things children are subjected to as it is for politicians. Digital games are only two decades old but are already a bigger industry than movies or sports. So we have to ask ourselves, what is being corrupted to turn a profit?

Is educational gamification any better? While we don’t see the enormous growth or profits in education that we do in gaming, “making learning fun” props up an equally enormous industry. Ironically, parents are very pleased when their children spend more time in school and on homework than playing Grand Theft Auto, both of which steal time from play.

To figure out the intention of a game, it is useful to look within the category of casual gamers; researchers see four quadrants or Bartles’ “types.”

  • Killer:         Scores matter.
  • Achiever:   Levels drive retention.
  • Socializer: Seeking friends or new experiences.
  • Explorer:   World Building.

Many of the popular games, such as Grand Theft, tend to be of the Killer type. Pokémon combines all four categories and includes “shooting” opponents and conquest. Minecraft, in contrast, is based on the Achiever type and uses both Socializer and Explorer themes.


Often when studying an issue deeply, we find that more research is required. Such is the case here, and in the coming days, as we delve into the implications of cyberspace on early childhood and play, we will continue to follow the money.

Introducing the Metaverse Playground

An apology to the followers of this blog, as I have not posted for a couple of weeks. In my defense, I have quite literally fallen down the rabbit hole.

Those of you who have checked out my history will note that I have moved progressively through several phases:

  1. Play Sculpture
  2. Build Your Playground (book, DeYoung exhibit)
  3. Wood play systems (BigToys, Kompan)
  4. Metal play systems (PlayBoosters, Kid Builders)
  5. X-game type challenges (BoldR, Rocks, and Ropes)
  6. Indoor (Gymboree)

I have been an advocate for inclusive play throughout this journey. I contributed to the Play For All Guidelines and hugely supported the Magical Bridge Foundation.

Over the past couple of years, I have been exploring and advocating for loose-part play systems, especially those exemplified by Anji Play.

I had hoped to launch a loose-part play product and came up with a system that is a large-scale version of Magformers. That product is viable, and I’d be happy to share the details with any company interest in bringing it to market. However, at 80, I simply must pick my projects carefully and don’t have the time to pioneer another product. I must select the most impactful project possible.

Play in Cyberspace

Here’s the deal. The playground business is likely worth a billion dollars annually. Cyber gaming is worth at least a hundred times that much. That means if you are serious about the value and importance of play, you must look closely at what is going on in that realm. I have been studying this, and it has been a real Alice in Wonderland adventure. Let me share some of what I’ve found.

While the whole subject is mind-boggling, my focus is the impact on children, especially those between 5 to 10 years of age. The reason for this emphasis is that these years have clearly defined and well-established critical periods. When designing play systems, we must use these inflection points to select and configure physical apparatus that will trigger specific behaviors to elicit vestibular, balance, proprioceptive and sensory stimulation that builds connections and integrates the child’s brain and body. The concern is that video games designed to maximize kids’ engagement are likely disrupting some aspects of normal development with unknown effects.

As a society, we are concerned that young children are shielded from spending too much “screen time.” Unfortunately, the reality is that cyber-play has greatly overtaken physical play. While there is handwringing about this issue, play advocates have a real lack of concern. That is not to say, and there has been no work in this area. It is just not coming from those who are close to the playworker community. I have been reaching out to my friends in this area with the notion of forming a “Play Advocates Cohort.” More on this effort in a subsequent post.

The Facebook Syndrome

The cyber-world in general and digital games are dedicated to “hooking” users in order to monetize their attention. While this is not a big concern for those older than 15 years, the younger the children are when exposed to digital games, the more potential for damaging impact.

Unfortunately, the genie is out of the bottle on this. There is just no way a family with two working adults will completely control kids’ access to multimedia entertainment.

Since 2003, Common Sense Media has been doing yeoman’s work in curating children’s media. As a resource for parents, it is unapparelled.  That said, they don’t address the deeper issues about the developmental impact of media in general.

If you would like to drop down the rabbit hole with me, I want to recommend several deep dives into this subject:

This is the most accessible article on the impact of Augmented Reality (AR) that I have found. Furthermore, it is the entry point for my current project, creating a Metaverse to overlay physical playgrounds.

Read this to understand the ethical and cultural impacts of virtual gaming. I guarantee you will be transfixed with the complexity of this discussion.

Finally, this article shows why it is not so much the content of cyber gaming, as it is the issue that Marshall McLuhan articulated so well; “the Medium is the Message.”

So, dear reader, hop to it and do your homework. Over the next few posts, we will continue to explore what is involved in creating the Metaverse Playground.

Biden’s Preschool Problem

New York Times

There is a lot to like in President Biden’s – American’s Family Plan. Better pay for teachers, tax cuts for families with kids, paid leave, school lunches, etc. All well and good.

The problem is it looks like the same approach that doomed Head Start to mediocracy.

When you drill down to the studies used to bolster the term “high-quality preschool,” you find articles like this: Boosting school readiness: Should preschool teachers target skills or the whole child?

Here’s the contention of the authors. They found that most preschools have deficient educational content. So, they propose to inject literacy and math skills. Because they acknowledge that little kids like to play, their curriculum will be designed to be fun.

I hope I am not the only one who perceives this as another top-down imposition on children’s right to play. Developmental, evolutionary, and neurological science has established that children learn through play because they have a biological drive to explore the world. In that interaction, they configure their bodies and minds to maximize performance.

The Biden plan appears to mean that the “new” curriculum will once again push letters and numbers ahead of executive function, self-confidence, and sensory integration.

The Alternative

Head Start began in 1965. Today we have a wealth of science and many thriving models of real play-based preschools. Anji Play in China has the most rigorous program operating at a nationwide scale. There are many Parent Co-ops, Montessori, and Regio Emilia programs as well. We know what works.

We also know what doesn’t work. Dr. Peter Grey has chronicled with meticulous detail in his books and articles, the harm that forced education causes. Tom Hodson does the same in his blog, and books. In addition, a quick internet search will result in dozens of introductory books on child development, each of which will site many studies were done in the last decade that provides irrefutable support for child-directed play and the harm that adult-directed academic content causes.  

What can we do?

The challenge is that POTUS has a huge bully pulpit. The educationalists have enormous resources, access, and political clout. 

Play advocates, on the other hand, are viewed as mud pie enthusiasts, which we are. But, on the other hand, we now have the science above and proven programs to bolster our arguments. But, of course, that assumes we can create a movement and a vehicle to make the case.

The first step.

I have recently reached out to a dozen play advocates to begin a discussion of the issues. The criteria I used was, ten or more years of play advocacy, one or more books, and active blogging.

I have already received several positive responses. If that trend continues, I will share the direction the group sees as the best path forward. If it does not gain traction, I will reach out to those I have contacted to see if there are common reasons for inaction. In any case, I will share what we learn.


Babies Don’t Think – Part Two

More that a playground, Magical Bridge is an inclusive community

Let’s make that claim even more outrageous. Without words, Adults Don’t Think!

The claim that babies don’t think is based on the theory that they need words to create the internal dialog that sometimes verges on schizophrenia for those of us on the spectrum. Without the appropriate words, adults can’t think about nuanced concepts either.

In my freshman year in college, we were given a writing assignment in which we could only use “simple words” contained in a small book in which there were some 270 words. I was amazed to find that one can write reasonably well using such a limited vocabulary. While instructive, this exercise did little to reduce my passion for vocabulary. As a kid, I read the dictionary for fun.

Bucky Fuller took a vow of silence for over a year, and this is why: “I must really from this point on just stop talking ’til I learn what the meaning of meaning is — what do I think, and which words do I wish to use?” He went on to coin many words, such as tensegrity and geodesic, that allowed us to think about complex ideas.

Words permit us to think about extremely complex ideas about the world and discover things about ourselves. In my lifetime, the terms dyslexia and Asperger’s helped me understand my academic and social challenges.

At eighteen, I discovered Eric Goffman’s wonderful works. In The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life, Goffman’s thesis is straightforward; all participants in social interactions are engaged in practices to avoid being embarrassed or embarrassing others. His essay, Encounters: Two Studies in the Sociology of Interaction – Fun in Games, deepened my understanding of play behaviors. Finally, his book Stigma: Notes on the Management of Spoiled Identity helped me better understand and deal with the challenges that I, and so many others who think, look, or behave differently than “normals” experience.

Goffman’s sociological approach is extremely fruitful to our understanding of child development. From this perspective, we can see that much of a child’s behavior is driven by trying to fit in. Failure to gain social acceptance is an existential threat of the highest order. Fundamental to this is the use of words. Parents get this issue intuitively. Few things will panic a parent more than that their child is slow to speak or read.

Our child-rearing practices and educational system pay little heed to the social underpinnings of child development, preferring to focus on products that can be measured by tests rather than on each child’s success in being comfortable in their own skin.

There are hundreds of explanations of why play is “fundamental.” Still, in my experience, the best examples are those that look first to the child’s ability to integrate socially and use terms like “play-based,” “true play,” and the newest entry by Suzanne Axelsson, “original learning.”

Another example of putting social integration as the top priority is the focus on inclusion as expressed by the term “kindness,” used by Magical Bridge Foundation in their play space designs, Kindness Ambassadors, and Kindness Kits. Their goal is simply to help children overcome the stigmatization of their differences through play.

The common thread here is what Mihály Csíkszentmihályi, referred to as “flow.” Martin Buber gets at this idea in I and Thou, in which he posits the notion that the world can be experienced as objects and experiences or as relationships in which one is not separated from the whole. Johan Huizinga talks about play in Homo Ludens, as the foundation of culture and where we learn the fundamentals of freedom and democracy.

It is through play that our individual differences cease to cause others or ourselves embarrassment.

Thank you for reading this far and allowing me to point to why I am such a critic of most existing playgrounds and campaign for a higher standard.

What these sources tell us is that a true play space must put social integration as the top priority and the entertainment value of the experience second. Many designers get this right when choosing wide slides for side-by-side play and looking for other features supporting group play. Likewise, educators are on the right path when they emphasize play, especially outside, and allow it to happen organically rather than looking for “teaching moments.”

We can do more to enhance play spaces by looking for where the most words are spoken, what features support long play episodes, when we see eye contact, etc. Such a study is long overdue.

Babies Don’t Think

Like many simplistic pronouncements, this claim is both true and woefully incomplete.

It is true if you consider the internal dialog we all carry in our heads. Babies don’t think like that. They don’t have words.

In a series of Radiolab podcasts, psychologist Charles Fernyhough makes the case that infants simply don’t have words, and so they can’t think in that fashion. I’ve listed some references below if you want to dig more deeply into this fascinating area of child development. My intention in this short post is to point out why this applies to play and play-based learning.

If, for the time being, we can accept that thinking requires language, some problems emerge. Looking in the animal world, we see all sorts of very interesting issues. It is well accepted that dogs can learn up to 250 words. You can see them use word on YouTube, pressing buttons to demonstrate their understanding. Koko the gorilla understood some 2,000 sign language words. So, do they think as we do, with a constant voice in their heads?

What about bees? The dance of the worker bees that communicates about nectar sources is only one example of bees “talking” with each other. Surely, they don’t have a constant interior monolog.

The science is inconclusive about the benefits of teaching sign language to babies. I think this because the studies look for the wrong indicators. The image from the article illustrates this mistake eloquently. To illustrate the subject of internal thought, the child is surrounded by letters. This is what we do in “educating” children as well. We don’t think in letters! We think in words. Kids need to be read with, not schooled with flashcards. (Note: I read a book so I can say I “red” it.)

The push for kids learning their letters is constant and strident. Yet, the way babies think is fundamentally different from that of adults. In the article What Are Babies Thinking Before They Start Talking, the authors point out that children hear sounds adults no longer hear as they adapt to a specific language. An example of this when you enter a Japanese restaurant and are greeted with “irasshaimase” shouted out in a high-pitched voice. Westerns take this to mean “Hello.” For the Japanese, it is used to rise above the ambient noise of the restaurant to signal, “Here I am, and I will be happy to serve you.”

Why is understanding how babies’ brains work important?

America is about to embark on yet another attempt to “school” Pre-k children. The push for learning letters and even STEM will become a well-funded tsunami. This will be happening just as China is embracing the Anji Play approach of play-based learning. The administration claims that the new investment will make America more competitive. Should my prediction come to fruition, the exact opposite will happen.

Teacher Tom Hobson is hosting his second Play Summit that starts June 20th and runs through the 25th. The expectation is that something on the order of 100,000 early childhood educators will attend the free sessions. This is a movement to be reckoned with when it comes to setting policy and curriculum.

You should join in as well.

Baby sign language: An evidence-based guide

How Babies Think

When is There Too Much Stuff?

An example of limited abundance at Anji PLay

As we continue to explore popularizing loose part play and making it available everywhere, we are presented with the question of how much stuff is required and when is too much a detriment to play?

I’m not a trained researcher, and I try to keep my compulsive nature in check, so I can’t claim to have done an exhaustive search of the literature. Besides, it would break my budget to pay for all the papers in which the abstracts hint at relevance. That said, this is a critical issue for parents who want to use loose parts to maximize play-based learning. Answers should not be hard to find.

Absent good research, we can begin to tease out some insights into this subject. One need only look at how loose parts are managed in programs such as Anji Play, Montessori, and Regio Emilia to recognize how the loose parts are presented. There are three commonalities to note:

  • There is a certain sparseness to the affordances. When there is abundance, this tends to be of similar things, such as blocks.
  • There is also diversity such that the various play modalities such as pretend, constructive, active, tactile, discovery, and creative are offered.
  • Finally, the role of the adult is very carefully choreographed, so additional materials are introduced into ongoing play episodes at critical moments.

One of the most cogent discussions I have seen on this subject is a paper by Diane Kashin, A Thinking Continuum: A Search for Complexity in Early Childhood Education Practice. Her discussion of the loosely structured vs. highly structured classroom is instructive, and I urge you to take a few minutes to read it.

My point here is this. We can design a community-accessible loose part play system that meets the first two criteria. Helping parents develop the sensitivity to manage loose part play in a communal and public setting is a challenge of a whole different order and kind.

First, there is the issue of training. Parents simply can’t try to become early childhood educators. Even if they went back to school, most critical skills are not imparted by the academic curricula but by the practicum. They can observe master teachers interact with children.

There may be a way to make some of this hands-on learning available. While being physically present is ideal, one can learn a great deal from video. In this video, Anji Play founder Ms. Cheng Xueqin describes the important role of the teacher with Jesse Robert Coffino, Co-Chair of the True Play Foundation. This is a great introduction to the practice. In addition, Anji Play has posted many YouTube videos that are extremely instructive.

A unique element of the Anji Play method is the emphasis on reflection. This is a very subtle technique that most harried parents will overlook. Trying to stuff the practice into an online platform seems insurmountable. Can it be done? Maybe.

The approach I’d like to establish is “best practices” for the loose parts. These follow well established and effective early childhood education norms they are:

  • Storage – The way loose parts are stored for easy access by children is well thought out.
  • Clean up – It may seem crazy to many Americans, but kids want to be useful and participate in maintaining their living space.
  • Schedule – Parenting is so much easier when the child’s life falls into regular eating, sleeping, and play periods.

The system we are contemplating can follow the bike rental technology and establish procedures to ensure the loose parts are checked out and put away in an orderly fashion. The accompanying app can also provide a scheduler to assist parents in establishing and maintaining a rhythm to family life that accommodates their needs and normalizes their child’s life.

While this is a very brief discussion about the challenges of making loose part play available in public places, it suggests a path forward. Success will require a very well-thought-out physical system combined with an online portal for parent support.

The Virtual-Physical Playground

Fairies, Leprechauns, talking animals, and other imaginary creatures have been the foundation of children’s stories for eons. While unseen, they are devoutly believed in by children and far too many adults.

That something invisible can nonetheless be real is the world of childhood. For example, did you know that things, even people and pets, have names? You can’t see them, but those names are very real to everyone around the child.

In the 1950s, Children’s Fairyland was created at the Oakland, CA zoo. It was a huge hit and copied in many locations. Walt Disney toured Fairyland and was so impressed he was inspired to create Disneyland, and hired the director to lead youth programs in his first park.

The core concept of Fairyland and later Disneyland was to make the virtual world of children’s stories into concrete reality. Literally concrete.

Disney, of course, realized that he was already making children’s stories real through the magic of animation, so it was not unexpected that he would want to physically embody his characters so children could interact with them.

This trend continues today. Angry Birds has a hugely popular virtual playground game as well as several activity parks. KOMPAN recently introduced a play series based on the tales of Hans Christian Andersen. Indeed, most playground companies have several “theme” products that relate to children’s stories.

Today’s children are fed a constant diet of fantasy reinforced with toys, board games, costumes, animated movies, and physical environments. While most kids can tell what is and what’s not real, this constant blurring of the line between the unseen and the physical sets up an opportunity to develop counterfactual reasoning in children between 6 and 12.

It is believed that humans tend to think of counterfactual ideas when there were exceptional circumstances that led to an event, and thus could have been avoided in the first place. We also tend to create counterfactual ideas when we feel guilty about a situation and wish to exert more control.” – Wikipedia

We can’t do a deep dive into counterfactual thinking here. However, that work needs to be done if the notion of a Virtual-Physical Playground is to be actualized and address the technology’s ethical issues.

What are the possible benefits and challenges of a Virtual-Physical Playground?

Since homo sapiens evolved, the child’s world has been filled with an ambient soup of words heard but not seen or touched yet connected to real things. The huge change for today’s children is being surrounded by an ambient soup of unseen digital connectivity. Consider the child’s experience. How does unlocking the front door turn on the house lights? How does talking to the TV change the channels? For our children, this is not the magic it is to us. Rather, it just is.

Like the beloved Labrador is Ruff, there is no magic the dog has a name, and since it is an unseen fact, it is hard for a child to imagine Ruff with a different name. Such matured counterfactual thinking is why so many children change their name at 6 to 12 years. By this age, they realize that the names of things are a just community convention arbitrarily applied, and names can be changed to better reflect the person she is becoming. What is reality now could have been different in the past and can be different going forward.

Engaging in augmented reality (AR) offers the possibility of learning through trial and error without the threat of injury. Indeed, AR is a rapidly developing area in risk management and training. Creating a virtual-physical reality platform in which children merge their digital playground with an actual playground allows children to explore both environments in fascinating and safe ways.

Or, at least, this seems intuitively true. But that’s why we need a proof-of-concept test.

Playgrounds – Nothing new here! – Part Two

The Galaxy System introduced climbing on the outside of structures and revolutionized playgrounds.

Hap Parker commented on my last post,

“It’s true, there’s nothing new out there on the playground, just lipstick on the same old pigs.”

There is a core truth in this observation. I don’t take the “old pigs” comment as a pejorative. Rather, that play is universal to all creatures with complex brains. I’ve provided slides, swings, and monkey bars to all kinds of animals, including countless children, and they all play the same way. So, it is no wonder that today’s playgrounds are composed entirely of these “old” elements.

The problem that confronts to diminished popularity of playgrounds is twofold. Gross motor play is well and good, but it is not enough to overcome the attraction of other entertainments.

The other issue is far more fundamental. Today’s playgrounds can’t compete with other entertainment precisely because they are entertainment! The difference between entertainment and play is the locus of control. Play comes from the child, not from equipment.

A well-designed integrated play structure with accessory elements such as spinners and swings does provide kids choices about physical play but only within very limited challenges. However, the climbers are a pale imitation of real trees or mountains. The swings can hold a candle to a rope that ends up with a drop into the lake.

Another limitation is physical play is just one part of what kids do. As Hap pointed out, “the most developmentally crucial play involves constructive play, play that has the child problem-solving.” If playgrounds are to become more relevant in our digitally obsessed era, they must go beyond the same old, same old.

The notion of adding challenges is gaining some traction. The problem is that the way it is being introduced is with height. An adrenaline rush is a cheap shot that only increases the entertainment value while also further restricting the child’s choices because of all the added enclosures.

A few years ago, KOMPAN, to its credit, introduced the notion of climbing around the outside of play structures. As a strong proponent of free climbing, I’d love to see that concept extended to the multistory play structures that are now all the rage. Sure, like that’s going to happen.

As a fan of boldering, I love the Kompan BLOQX

There are ways to introduce more challenges to playgrounds. But that will only happen when producers are motivated to do the work needed.

We are mired in the “good enough” dilemma in what products being made, how they are marketed, and the choices presented to customers, all conspire to kill innovation. This same issue has prevented the radical changes needed to address today’s existential crisis in transportation, housing, energy, and education.

As generation Z begins to enter their childbearing years, they will bring their profound understanding of the need for systematic change to parenting. They are joining the growing trend in homeschooling motivated by recognizing that traditional education fails to adequately address the range of learning styles, or the core skills children need.

The path forward to playground innovation will not come from the existing producers. It will only come from consumers who demand better products and force change. This is the lesson that Elon Musk has taught us.

I, for one, intend to follow his strategy. Watch this space.