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.

Playgrounds – Nothing new here!

The first PlayBooster, Roller Slide with plastic spiral slide by Henderson Recreation, 1983

All play equipment is derivative.

Do you doubt that assertion? Show me one piece of playground apparatus that isn’t a twist on something that preceded it. Having worked to invent new stuff for six decades, I know intimately how hard it is to come up with any playground innovation.

True confession time. While I have significantly improved the design of play apparatus and contributed to popularizing these improvements, none of my designs are particularly original. Rather, I was inspired by things I saw that looked like fun and adapted them for public playgrounds.

Here are some examples:

  • While designing for BigToys, I added banister slides. These were inspired by handrails on the stairs to the Conservatory at Golden Gate Park, which my daughter loved to slide down.
  • The Roller Slide we introduced with PlayBoosters was derived from an art exhibit of play sculptures in New York. The art piece we drew from used an industrial roller conveyer that we refined, so it didn’t have entrapments.
  • The NYC exhibition also had a rotating barrel that was fun.  We added it to the Mexico Forge catalog, but it never took off. Probably because it was a stand-alone event, I see that the idea is back on the market.
  • How about the Track Ride? We started with standard barn door hardware and redesigned it to fix its safety and durability issues.
  • I saw a Curly Climber on a trip to Japan. We added them to PlayBoosters as soon as I got back.
  • The BIG revolution in the ’70s was the modular integrated play structure concept that I introduced first at BigToys and then at Mexico Forge with PlayBoosters. The “innovation” there was a clamp combined with the newly developed 5-in tubing from Allied Pipe. Using a clamp to attach a horizontal pipe was inspired by visiting my volunteer-built wooded play sculptures. I was stunned to see how quickly the wood was aging, while the steel turning bars at the same school had been there since the turn of the century and looked great. The combination of clamp and tubing provided the visual density of the wood systems with the tinker toy ease of configuration we had popularized at BigToys.
  • I must also admit to taking inspiration from Miracle and their rotationally molded spring toy. I gravitated to plastic to replace the steel barrels I had been using.

The one innovation that I hoped for that didn’t catch on was bending the five-inch tubing into more pleasing shapes. Bending pipe has only caught on as arches, but so much more can be done. For example, I’ve pitched a system using bent tubing that replicates the climbing challenges of an ideal tree complete with flexibility. I know kids will love it. Existing playground companies, not so much.

The first integrated play structure – Schoolyard BigToys Model 1976

What’s my point?

I’m baring my soul and sharing all this history to address a personal concern. Playgrounds are losing their customers to digital games, commercial entertainment centers, skateparks, etc. There are just too many other places to play. Why go to a park that the same old, same old?

In my next post, we will look at the decline of playgrounds as a center of children’s lives.  Will they continue to exist? Yep. Will there be more created. Sure. But the same can be said for cemeteries. Let’s do something that attracts a few more visitors, shall we?

Loose Parts from Preschools to Playgrounds

KitCamp UK – Foam and fabric loose parts on a playground.

Most successful early childhood educators are masters at presenting loose parts. Some because they have a natural intuition for children’s play, others because their student teaching was under a master teacher. Unfortunately, too many new teachers in today’s rapidly changing world of early childhood education find themselves at a loss of how to begin.

When creating a loose part play space, a teacher who has no background with play-based learning will tend to use a criterion for selecting elements ranging from “Kids like to play with this” to “It’s recommended in the catalog and fits my budget.” We can do better.

Let’s start at the beginning. Children’s spontaneous play follows three steps, 1) Discovery, 2) Practice, and 3) Expression. The initial presentation of loose parts should be paced to mirror this sequence, introducing new elements progressively as children master the possibilities of the parts.

There are also fundamental play modalities, 1) Constructive, 2) Active, and 3) Social. As children play with different intentions, we often misread how they use loose parts in their play. For example, children may construct forms and use them for active play or social play.

It is critical to observe the children’s intent, so when the play idea has been mastered, it is clear what sorts of loose parts to introduce. For example, if the children have built a tower and are jumping from it, this play pattern suggests adding parts that support challenging movements such as ladders and planks. However, if the children are engrossed in a story they have created, then costumes are more appropriate.

Establishing a successful loose part play area requires setting up “norms” for the space. If all the possible add-on elements are immediately accessible, the play will tend to be chaotic, unfocused, and frustrating for the kids.

By presenting the basic loose parts and introducing new elements as the children’s play dictates, teachers model the three steps mentioned previously. In practice, this means initially keeping the augmenting elements out of reach in the play area. Children quickly learn to bring out the parts they need without supervision. The parts can be presented, so they have free access. New children learn these norms from “old-timers.”


While neuroscience in this area is still in its infancy, it is becoming increasingly clear that children learn through pattern recognition. While the best studies have looked at language acquisition, it is reasonable to extend the findings to loose parts, as such systems constitute a physical “language.”

As we consider the presentation of loose parts from a language standpoint, it brings up some interesting questions. For example, what if we have one setup containing lots of wood blocks and another with some blocks and various other stuff? How is the play different?

Thinking about the ideal loose parts play setup brings up another question. How much complexity is needed to support long-duration play episodes? In my experience working in zoo environments, there is a point at which there is sufficient complexity for the animals to exhibit normal behaviors. I have been unable to find any research that addresses the minimum. Since we have limited space and budgets, it would be helpful to know the ideal number of parts needed to maximize play-based learning.

As we begin to rollout the Toy Box program, the issues addressed in this post become central to success. In the Toy Box scenario, supervision is by parents rather than teachers. Children will engage with the loose parts irregularly rather than daily. This use pattern means that most play will be focused on discovery and suggests that the complexity of the parts should be kept to a minimum.

When looking at the three types of play constructive, active and, social, each will have distinct use patterns. For example, social play with elements such as costumes will be the easiest to implement with the least negative consequences. Portable obstacle course components can promote active play. Constructive play will be most successful when designed for the specific fixed equipment on the playground or when limited to soft elements such as cardboard.

This discussion also highlights the need for the Toy Box program to include a robust parent information platform to support them as they introduce loose parts onto playgrounds. Not only will they want answers to their questions, but they will also need support to address the inevitable concerns of other parents sharing the playground. While developing and testing such a platform will be challenging, the educational value for the whole community is substantial.

Upgrading Playground Infrastructure to Ensure Children’s Right to Play

First Lady Dr. Jill Biden speaks on the playground at Samuel Smith Elementary in Burlington City, N.J. (Emma Lee/WHYY)

Simply put, we do not know the condition of the Nation’s Playgrounds. Of course, municipalities do inspections. However, this information is not collected, collated, and analyzed. What do we know?

Since 1995 the National Program for Playground Safety (NPPS) has been gathering data on playgrounds, including generating report cards on 6,045 playgrounds. Since NPPS’ was founded during a rising awareness of the need to improve playground safety, their primary focus has been on fall surfaces and maintenance. They have also looked at an “appropriate environment,” again within the context of standards for age and accessibility. Their work has been, and continues to be, needed and relevant.

KABOOM has been doing a superb job of championing play for underserved communities. Their goal is for every kid to have access to incredible places to play. Not only a worthy goal but also one that they have worked tirelessly to achieve. In recent years they have expanded their focus to look beyond playgrounds to the community as a whole.

Recently it occurred to me that even though I’ve been creating play systems for over five decades, I have no idea how many there are. From what I have been able to glean from population and planning statistics, there is about one public playground for every 5000 people. That is roughly the same ratio for elementary school playgrounds. The nation’s population is a bit over 330,000,000 people / 5000 playgrounds x 2 = 132,000 playgrounds. My previous estimates were off by order of magnitude, but this is an enormous community investment and asset. Roughly 550 kids of ages 2 to 11 have a playground at school and in a park.

The NPPS program and other studies show an alarming rate of safety, non-compliance, and maintenance issues. There is, however, no systematic assessment of these problems. In addition, if the goal is ensuring that children have a right to play everywhere, it would also be great to how many communities lack adequate play infrastructure.

Currently, play infrastructure is not considered in the Biden Administration’s plans to Build Back Better. 

I propose a unified lobbying effort to Contact Pete Buttigieg’s office and request that playgrounds be included in the forthcoming legislation. Portions of the bill that can apply to playgrounds are the plans to modernize public schools and improve public housing. The section on Remediate and redevelop idle real property, and spur the buildout of critical physical, social, and civic infrastructure in distressed and disadvantaged communities offers a good opportunity.

Several organizations can join this effort and help make a case for assessing and upgrading play infrastructure. We could start by asking IPEMA to get a ballpark number of playgrounds. They tend to be very circumspect about sales, but there are easy ways to anonymize their information. The industry can also inform the issue of jobs created, which is a cornerstone of the legislation.

As the experts in addressing underserved communities, the team at KABOOM can provide invaluable expertise. Their nationwide network of community organizations and their capacity for organizing and training are unparalleled and can help provide the infrastructure for the program.

NRPA should certainly weigh in, and the Certified Playground Safety Inspector program will play a huge role. Ideally, CPSI inspectors will have their training upgraded to go beyond compliance and to look for opportunities to improve playgrounds to be more inclusive and appropriate.

Finally, the International Play Association can and should play a central role in promoting the Child’s Right to Play. It is important to note that when China signed the U.N. resolution and required early childhood programs to comply, it spawned Anji Play, transforming their entire preschool program. Putting the Right to Play as the lead message is critical. This emphasis might even expand the initiative to consider children’s play in all the infrastructure programs.

We might want to talk with Jill Biden. Hey, Pete! How about a plan for safe streets for play?

Empowering Playgrounds with Gamification

Watto Chess Set by Peter Kingston

If you give children a chess set at the age of two, they will play with the pieces like toys and put them on trucks and dollhouses. However, if you wait until they are in the second grade, they will be ready and eager to learn the game. At this age, the game pieces have very little play value as objects. What is interesting is the game.

It is also around this time that playgrounds start to become “kid’s stuff.” It is possible to maintain some engagement by older kids by infusing the playground design with higher challenge activities. While this works to some extent, these activities are generally accessible for those with mobility impairments.

Augmented Reality (AR) games like Pokémon, for example, do not have this limitation. Such games only get more interesting as kids mature.

Suppose we begin to think of the playground as a 3-D game board, all sorts of possibilities open. For example, a child could be alone and still play with virtual playmates. Teams can be formed for group play with virtual opponents. Such teams can include players of very diverse ages and abilities, supporting truly inclusive play.

AR holds out the promise of greatly extending the appeal of playgrounds to much older children than is currently the case. Current studies indicate that it also extends the level of exertion and the length of play episodes.

A design goal of such games is to use smart devices while not constantly watching their screens. Heads-up play can be achieved by populating the play environment with many wireless beacons that trigger the devices to give audio instructions or visual clues that appear for a limited time.

In the near future, AR glasses will become commonplace. In the meantime, if we want to have kids get outside, playing longer, and playing harder, we need to take the games they now play indoors, sitting down, to the millions of playgrounds that are getting lonely.

Empowering Play with Kindness

Parents may be reluctant to bring their children into situations likely to trigger their children to behave in ways that are outside the norm. Complexifying playgrounds with loose parts can be reasonably be perceived as a cause for concern and caution. Let’s unpack this issue.

What are the benefits of complexification?

There is a school of thought that children learn best when their learning environment is simplified. This idea assumes is that learning is additive, i.e., start with the basic and then elaborate.

Neuroscience, however, tells us that learning is about pattern recognition in which the highly complex patterns of the natural world and social interactions are compared; by observing complexity, the unique elements stand out. For example, the forest is all green, but the lion’s face is not.

The early years of any animal are devoted to subtracting information rather than adding to it. Learning by subtraction means that children will acquire more in a complex environment than in a simplified one. While the studies on complexification focus primarily on language acquisition and understanding systems, they support this contention.

The Freedom to Play

If complex environments cause sensitive children to trigger, therapeutic rooms that can be filled with loose parts like the one pictured here will frighten these children. Why don’t they?

Few things stimulate play behavior more than that the child is in control. That means the power to say no is critical. Indeed, it is the basis of selfhood. All kids go through a stage where “NO!” becomes their favorite word. Being able to control elements in the external world sets the stage for self-control. The lack of external control is often the underlying cause of childhood tantrums. This “misbehavior” can often be observed in overprotected and overscheduled kids.

A complex environment can certainly be overstimulating for any child. A parent who visits a Toys R Us store with tired and hungry kids is just asking for a meltdown. One reason that the apparent chaos of the therapy room is not triggering is that children know they are safe and have the choice to be there.

Kindness on the Playground

A second reason that the therapy room is not triggering is that the adults present are dedicated above all else to kindness. It starts with empowering the child by allowing them control within boundaries. This intention is extended to listening and encouraging rather than expecting and judging.

Just as a therapy room requires an adult, adding loose parts to traditional playgrounds requires supervision as well.  Magical Bridge playgrounds have demonstrated the effectiveness of this approach. They have developed a Kindness Ambassador program for teen volunteers that works on their playground and in schools.

The curriculum for supervision of play-based learning is well developed, for example, at Anji Play and Reggio Emilia. Such an established program can readily be integrated into a program to support loose parts supervision on playgrounds. The challenge comes when the program scales up to thousands of sites. Fortunately, such systems to ramp up “boot-on-the-ground” already exist as well.

Adding loose parts to playgrounds provides an opportunity to help thousands of teens acquire the essential skills of good parenting. Increasing the number of great parents is a not so inconsequential benefit to the Empowering Play initiative.  

The Future of the Playground Equipment Industry

During my five decades of designing play systems, I have watched the playground equipment industry proceed through the predictable product life cycle.

When I started, small mom-and-pop shops were making play equipment in nearly every region of the county. These folks had been doing business for decades very comfortably. That all changed starting around 1950. The cause of this was the rise of the automobile and specifically drive-in theaters. At their peak, there were over 4,000 of these across the country. To make the entertainment more family-friendly, they began to add play apparatus. This trend, in turn, gave rise to the first national producers, primarily GameTime and Miracle.

In the ’70s, the composite play structure was introduced. The success of this concept was fueled in large part by a campaign for playground safety. Since the then dominant players were primarily relying on traditional swings and slides, the pitch for change was compelling. The ADA guidelines initiated a second major wave of growth.

The profitability in the industry attracted the attention of what we now call hedge fund managers. The acquisitions trend led to the consolidation we see today with two massive conglomerates and two independent producers.

The play equipment industry has the same problem as light bulb producers in that they have improved the durability of their product so much that they are running out of customers. This has led to the rise of two trends, mega-playgrounds and bespoke products.

Playpower and Playcore are at a handicap to adapt to the new market as their major asset is the production capacity of a product range with rapidly diminishing returns. This will inevitably lead to shrinking capacity in both production and distribution.

Some companies seem to be pivoting well to this trend. Kompan has completely reinvented itself. Smaller companies and imports are finding niche markets and will survive.

It will be interesting to see how the conglomerates manage the transition. Will they be able to maintain their overall structure or sell off their smaller producers?

The core question is, what does this mean for children?

While the future is challenging for the industry, there is some good news for kids. The mega-playground designers and clients now find themselves in a buyer’s market. This allows them to request innovative products. We have already seen this in the availability of surface mount spinners that have become a standard.

The downside is that millions of playgrounds will sit with fewer and fewer visitors as kids are drawn to skateparks, entertainment centers, and screens.

Park departments are now saddled with major investments with just enough patronage to be required to maintain them. Those in affluent communities will install a mega-playground or two. The bottom line is that the average child in the typical community will grow up with inadequate and outdated play infrastructure.

The story doesn’t end here. Today, there exists a massive opportunity to revitalize the playgrounds in every community. And, yep, you guessed it. This is exactly the mission I’ve set for my current project.


This is a first pass at what a smartwatch app kid-interface could function and might look like.

Current project assumptions


  • What is your Dream?
    • Start screen
  • Stronger
    • Measures heart rate
  • More Fun
    • Tracks location over time
  • Be My Best
    • Compares with pervious performance
  • Be a Friend
    • Ops in to sharing
    • Tracks proximity to others
  • Find Friends
    • Sets up links
  • Join a Team
    • Pikachu
    • Squirtle
    • Raichu
  • Choose Your Game
    • Designed Games
    • Kid created games
  • Meals Given
    • Reward system