Creating a Barefoot Preschool

There is a buzz about Forest Schools and getting kids more access to nature, and there is of lots of science pointing to the benefits. The question is how to make this a reality in more preschools. Nature is complex and ever-changing, and trying to duplicate it is a real challenge. The good news is that we don’t have to replicate the forest precisely to deliver most of nature’s benefits. What are those benefits?

  • Trees – Shade
  • Trees – Climb in
  • Rocks – Climb on
  • Hill – Roll and Run Down
  • Grass – Soft path
  • Bushes – Hiding place
  • Dirt – Dig
  • Sand – Build
  • Water – Flow and float
  • Loose Parts – Perhaps nature’s greatest gift to children

The goal of the Preschool playspace creator should be to come as close as possible to giving children the same experiences and benefits as are to be found in nature. The following are suggestions about how to accomplish this when space, time, or budget mitigate against their inclusion.

Barefoot Preschool Playspace Design Suggestions

Landscape Considerations

  1. Pathways – Limit the use of concrete and asphalt as much as possible

The routes of travel must conform to ADA guideline for accessibility, but that does not mean they have to be tricycle freeways. Trikes and wheelchairs can negotiate grass, decomposed granite, wood decks, and other surfaces just fine. Consider using as much grass as possible. Using a rubber turf protecting mat system will vastly improve the durability of the grass by reducing compaction and protecting the roots while enhancing drainage and also reducing maintenance. Trikes are a means of transportation and are not of themselves play activities. Wheel toys that allow more than one child or hauling stuff is best.


  1. Shade – Should be where children play

Unfortunately, most playspace shade falls where the children are not playing. The best solution is to just shade the whole playspace just as plant nurseries do. Heck, if it is good enough for plants it should be good enough for kids.

Slide shade 1

  1. Plant Materials – Editable as much as possible

Select plant materials that produce fruit smell great can be harvested for loose-part play, or attract birds and butterflies. The very best information on plant selection comes from Robin Moore, Plants for Play: A Plant Selection Guide for Children’s Outdoor Environments.

  1. Fixed Elements – Only those elements that are used every day should be fixed permanently in place.

Anchoring to the ground limits flexibly and increases the cost. Limit fixed elements to sandboxes, hills, trees, shade structures, and the like.

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  1. Hills – Needed but are problematic.

Hills are one of the best ways to enhance the playspace. Unfortunately, they come with problems of their own. When we use the grass-everywhere rule, then grass at the top of the hill will tend to die. One could cover that spot with a play feature, but that will trigger the ADA ramp requirement which requires far more space than most preschool yards will provide. The best solution is a four-foot circle of decomposed granite at the top.

Apparatus Considerations

  1. There should 1½ play opportunities per child.

Most playground problems come from boredom and competition. Ensuring play opportunities are abundant is the best way to have the playspace truly become the third teacher

  1. Only introduce plastic when no other material is available to perform the function.

Plastic is the least natural material that we find in the playspace. Almost all functions can be performed by wood, glass, fabric, or metal.

  1. As much as possible, elements within the play space should be able to interoperate.

While each feature, like the sandbox, has a specific function, many of the loose parts associated with that function can become play objects in other elements. For example, a simple plank can be used almost everywhere.

  1. Every element should have two or more functions.

The plank mentioned above can become a bridge, a balance beam, a teetertotter, or a slide.


  1. Climbers should be both inside and outside

Climbing outside is mainly the same movement as walking, whereas trees allow for inside climbing that requires very complex movements and strength.

  1. Active play areas should also contain places or materials for quiet play.

Kids play hard and then need to catch their breath and self-regulate. Perches on climbers, nooks next to blocks and other cubbies for withdrawing from the more intense play should be in as many places as possible.


  1. Children use loose part accessories in direct proportion to the proximity of storage.

Designing a playspace should be very similar to designing a kitchen with the arrangement of the work surfaces and the storage of tools carefully laid out for maximum efficiency.

  1. Storage should be designed or selected to match the items to be stored.

For example, sand toys should be stored in wire baskets.

  1. How elements trigger play behavior, and how that behavior changes over time, should be known and integrated with the curriculum so that teachers can initiate desired play episodes and manage transitions.
  2. Where possible storage can provide space definition, look for opportunities to place them back to back to separate functional areas.

For More on the benefits of nature play see:

Playing with Intensity

kids dancing

We tend to see what we expect to see. When we watch children often the first thing we notice is whether or not they are engaged and what they are doing so we can go about our business or be ready to intervene if needed. I propose this sort of caretaker mentality prevents us from truly seeing what is happening. What we do not attend to is the intensity of play in children. Why is this important?

It is now well supported scientifically that play is the main vehicle for brain development in the early years. This implies that the more intense the play, the greater the learning. While there is a lot of research that is very suggestive that there is a relationship between play intensity and neurological development, I have been unable to find a study that directly measures this relationship. But could this be true?

If such a direct relationship were to exist, then it would stand to reason that children would play with full intensity nearly all of their awake hours. As a parent, I know it sometimes it actually feels like this is so, and studies do demonstrate that children have more stamina than elite athletes. On the other side of the coin, the child’s brain consumes 43% of their energy. Indeed, this energy demand is so great that children’s growth slows dramatically during periods of most brain development. It stands to reason then that there is some sort of direct relationship between play intensity and brain development.

Clearly, the most physically active children are not necessarily the smartest, so the observed levels of stamina and high energy use must be used for learning in general. However, the high energy use and intensity suggest that we should be able to observe this development in action.

A great place to start is to listen to the play, not to make out specific words but rather to get a sense of the frequency and length of utterance; the more talking, the more learning.

Next, count the number of children involved in the play episode; the more players, the more learning. Finally, look for complexity and scaffolding. What does that mean?

Educators talk a lot about scaffolding, and we have many pedagogical elements embedded in that concept. For the developing brain, however, scaffolding means just one thing; starting with simple things and getting more complex. Recently the blogosphere was all abuzz about the finding that kids who obsess over dinosaurs tend to be smarter. Well, duh! This is just another example of parenting click bait because most kids get obsessed with something at some point: vehicles, insects, fairies, whatever. The point is that the brain seeks to find complex things to compare, contrast, and categorize. The brain tends to want to engage its ever-evolving complexity.

While having lots of these three components; words, kids and complexity, tells us that the play is progressing in a way that maximizes brain development, none of this will happen without one other key condition. That essential requirement is safety. For adults, we think safety means preventing harm. From the brain’s perspective, that is irrelevant. Surprisingly safety for the brain flows primarily from a strong parental bond. Children who are securely bonded tend to play more and to thrive. While teachers can help insecure children, this is a very sensitive subject with families and is one of the most challenging aspects of the early childhood education profession.

Classrooms and curriculum in early childhood tend to be highly siloed. We have block corners, pretend play areas, and play structures, etc. These are set up largely because this is always the way things have always been done. This environmental plan functions because the contents of these areas trigger the brain to deploy specific play patterns, kids play because there is stuff to play with. However, this pedagogical structure can only maximize child development when the children can choose where they want to play and to move freely from area to area. It is important to note, that there are many ways to create a learning environment and some ways may be superior to the current, often legally required, pattern and we are seeing new concepts arise such as AnjiPlay and Waldorf that show promise.

Finally, the brain will find a way to experience what it needs to develop. The good news is that there is a lot of flexibility and robustness to child development. The downside is that this very adaptability can mask less than optimal conditions. In the centers, I observe there is often too much of some elements and not enough of other components to ensure that all of the children’s potential will be realized, but as long as the children playing more or less contentedly improvements do not get made. The area that is generally most deficient is the outdoor play space which seldom affords sufficient opportunity for high energy motoric play and messy experimentation.

The beauty and power of children’s play are undeniable. Learning to observe it in action and recognize when things are proceeding as they should is one of the most critical roles the teachers and parents. It is a job worth doing well.


Play Can Save the Planet – Part Three

Bamboo play space

So far, we’ve covered giving children a direct experience with an ecosystem at preschool in Part One. In Part Two, we looked at how bringing animals into the classroom can expand on that understanding. Here, we will discuss how Vygotsky’s notion of instructional scaffolding can be the basis of seeing the whole school as a sustainable planet-friendly environment.

Over my 50+ years of creating play systems, I’ve used nearly every material imaginable from hay bails to stainless steel. This experience has allowed me to explore the limits of durability and cost. Lately, most playgrounds are on the outer edge of this spectrum with durability that far outlasts their play value as society changes and cost that are astronomical.

In early childhood setting, this balance of cost/durability has led to a proliferation of all plastic systems which are cheap and all but indestructible. Lately, we have come to understand better that the very durability of plastic has resulted in ubiquitous pollution that will last thousands of years. As we come to better understand the consequences of our bargain for high durability and low cost, we will need to seek better alternatives.

An alternative material option we have recently been exploring is bamboo. Here the cost factor of materials is competitive without the damage to the environment of petroleum-based plastic. The durability factor is good enough, by that I mean that it is comparable to other wood species that are not chemically treated or exotic and therefore not sustainable. Bamboo has a long life indoors and five years outdoors when natural weathering begins to take its toll. This means that it is an environmentally balanced material that does not trade the health of the planet for unnecessary indestructibility. Since our discussion so far has been about exposing children to natural systems, how can we use bamboo in this scenario?

Since young children develop at different rates and have different learning styles, it is essential to present information in many different ways. Lev Vygotsky is often seen as the leading advocate of the notion of scaffolding, which in simplest terms means creating an environment that presents information in ways in which children can best relate to the material. I like to add the idea of a real scaffold which allows us to start at the bottom and climb up. Let’s look at how these ideas can be modeled in an early childhood center.

bamboo in water

Let’s start with the notion that bamboo is a plant. We show this with a simple pot of Lucky Bamboo, preferably set up so children can see the plant’s roots. Outdoors bamboo can quickly be grown in pots, and children can harvest the stems periodically. Kids can also play with bamboo either as classroom toys or as construction materials outdoors. Finally, bamboo can be used for playhouses and climbers. There are children’s books about bamboo and its role in the development of Asian cultures. Children can paint with bamboo brushes. And on and on.

bamboo toy

This whole scaffolding process may seem like overkill but remember each child is encountering the bamboo one at a time during their play and so it is encountered in a very natural way where the child can feel the irregularities of its shape as well as the strength and weight of the material. Now that you have a sense of the power of scaffolding let’s take this to the next level.

Full and comprehensive understanding comes not so much from learning discrete information but from being immersed in complex systems. How would an early childhood education environment look if it became a real natural ecosystem? First, nothing would need to be subtracted. Well, except those things that are not sustainable such as all of the plastic! That alone will be transformative as plastic cups are replaced with glass and the play structure is removed. The outdoors will be the most changed as gardens are established, compost systems, and a water feature installed. Loose part play collections that use natural elements will be acquired and presented to children in ways that allow creative discovery.

The educational result of this transformation is that children will develop a deep and comprehensive understanding of natural processes and an emotional attachment to them … just as humans have for millions of years. Far too many children today have none of this vital connection. As we become increasingly urbanized and densely packed, we cannot assume that kids will get this grounding in nature when they are not as school as their home environment is likely to be as sterile as are most of today’s schools.

Schools that wrap children in a green environment help them to adopt earth-friendly behaviors. Early environmental awareness increases resilience and will allow children to better cope with the psychological impact of climate change.  What’s good for the planet is good for children and vice versa.




Play Can Save the Planet – Part Two

G Pig

In Part One, we looked at the idea that kids should learn about ecosystems and illustrated what that might look like in the classroom. The example used was tiny, short-lived brine shrimp as their lifecycle comes close to matching children’s attention span. While these little swimmers are interesting for children, bigger animals are much more engaging. They are also much more challenging to administer. Let’s look at the options.

NOTE: I have excluded dogs and cats from consideration as most children have ample opportunities to interact with them. I have also excluded exotic animals, such as parrots, as the ethical considerations of keeping such animals needs to be carefully considered.

To maximize their engagement, kids should be able to handle and ideally cuddle with, the animals that we bring into the school environment. This requirement severely limits which animals are appropriate. Even within this narrow range, there are undesirable traits. Snakes, for example, are easy for kids to handle but, as carnivores, feeding them may create questions such as will children be allowed to observe feeding or will this be done during non-class time. Turtles can certainly be picked up, but they may not be ideal in that they often try to run away, they are generally taken from nature rather than being bred in captivity, and on rare occasions, can be contaminated with salmonella. Tortoises don’t have this problem but are still not all that engaging, their slow movement may, however, can be perfect for certain children who find them calming.

I think you can see where this discussion is headed.  Two main species have been very successful in ECE programs, rodents and chickens. In the rodent family, rats and guinea pigs are the best choices as mice and hamsters are less robust and cannot be handled as much. Although not in the rodent family, rabbits can also be very successful, especially does as they are calmer than bucks. The larger, heavy bodied hens are a great choice. Roosters for obvious reasons should be avoided. Whatever you choose, the animals should be obtained as young as possible and handled frequently. If the outdoor yard is well fenced, most of the animals in this recommended group can be allowed to roam freely, which is ideal from a learning perspective. Now that we’ve narrowed the field to those animals that have the best chance for successful integration into the school environment let’s consider the more challenging issue, livestock management.


Let’s face it; having animals at school can be a hassle. Although this added work is a pain, all of the challenges are really where the most learning for the children can be found, so the more that children are engaged in the safety, feeding, and clean-up the better. Let’s take these issues one at a time.

A frequent cause of school pet mortality is improper feeding. Generally, death is caused by overfeeding, but it can also be from contamination or even neglect. Teaching children proper diet and food presentation is a great way to build emotional intelligence.

Animal safety comes in two primary forms. The first is proper handling. Kids instinctually tend to be very gentle when first handling animals. Indeed, the most frequent problem comes from the children not being able to secure the animal, which results in escapes and possible injury. Teacher’s need to show proper handling techniques and as soon as possible, to turn this instruction over to the children so that this becomes a social norm amongst the children and empowers them to be vigilant guardians of the animal’s care.

Proper enclosures are another key to animal safety. It should be noted that it is pretty easy to contain the animals that are recommended and for animals in kept indoors, a standard cage is all that is required. Outside enclosures are a whole other issue in that the goal is not just to contain the animals as much as it is to keep other animals out. While there are many sources for outside cages, these are generally not explicitly designed for the school environment. For example, they do not consider that the caretakers will be children, so the dimensions are not ideal, and access-egress is not well thought out. We hope to address this need with suggested designs for schools in the near future.

The process of maintenance and cleaning up can provide children with very impactful lessons. All of the waste product such as cage litter, excess food, and excrement can be combined with lunch scraps and garden waste and put into compost. Learning how to handle these materials correctly and how to aerate the compost is a core ecosystem lesson. Indeed, it may be the most compelling justification for having animals in the classroom.

In Part Three, we will look at how Vygotsky’s notion of instructional scaffolding can be the basis of seeing the whole school environment as a sustainable planet-friendly environment.


Play Can Save the Planet – Part One


Ok, it’s a pretty outrageous claim, but bear with me for a bit, and I think I can make a compelling case that, not only is this true, but it may well be the best and perhaps the only way forward.

Recent studies show that kids are potent advocates for taking decisive climate change action in both their families and in the larger communities. The more kids know about the environment; the more effective they will be. Other studies show that just over half of our students receive instruction on the environment. Finally, we know that the earlier and more hands-on kids get exposed to information, the deeper their grasp of the topic.

Thus, my proposition is simple; we should allow preschool children to learn about ecosystems in early childhood. This is certainly not an outlandish suggestion since most adults learned about the environment in just this way by playing outdoors, exploring creeks, rescuing bugs and animals, etc. The thing is, fewer and fewer children are allowed, or have access to, free-range play in nature, so this knowledge that we picked up as a natural part of being kids is just not commonplace anymore.

My first inkling that this notion could be true was discovering how hard it will be to accomplish. Let’s look at the issues. To understand the core principles that drive ecosystems, kids need to be able to interact with living things and what is required to keep them alive. Few preschool environments have anything alive in them. To make an emotional connection, kids need to have responsibility for the upkeep of living things. Indeed, one of the greatest things most of us learned as kids is that when you keep a bug in a jar too long without seeing to its needs, it dies.

Water is the foundation of any ecosystem, yet preschoolers only know “tame” water that comes from a tap and have, in nearly every case, no experience with water that things live in. Lucky are the kids who have an aquarium in their classroom, but for all the hands-on learning these provide, they might as well be a video played on a screen. I don’t want to belabor this point anymore as I think you can see that we have a long way to go before most children have meaningful exposure to the fundamental elements of an ecosystem and how these work together dynamically.

I firmly believe that every early childhood program should have a closed ecosystem aquarium. The reason this is important is that such displays pose for children a great mystery; Since nothing can come in or out, how do the fish breathe and what do they eat? This is the fundamental question facing our planet today and for children to be able to see this in a microcosm can be profound. For kids, it can become a meme that drives their orientation to the environment lifelong.

Closed aquariums are commercially available as Ecospheres, and they can also be made from materials readily available locally or online. Ideally, there is an example present on the first day of class. This is followed by assembling one with the children as it takes a while for them to become stable, and this is a powerful way for the children to see the dynamics of how the system works.

brine shrimp

To further these lessons, it is great to hatch and grow brine shrimp. Brine shrimp require a lot of attention. As continuous filter feeders, they must be fed often; but at the same time, they are sensitive to poor water quality. Through trial and error, children will learn how fragile and complex the narrow range of conditions are in the shrimp will survive. As they succeed will be all the more rewarding as they directly experience life and death.

From this brief discussion, you can see that helping kids learn about the environment is doable. The problem is that so few programs prioritize this subject or a hands-on approach to learning. As parents and as a society we must demand that environmental education becomes a priority.

So far, this has been a relatively easy discussion. In part two, we will look at scaling this concept up, so children have the opportunity to have hands-on interaction with living systems on a daily basis which is much harder. Part three will look at the early childhood environment as an ecosystem and who it can play a crucial role in saving the planet.

A Play Designer’s Manifesto


A recent report on the speed and scope of the onset of climate change just gave us a gut punch. Eoin Higgins wrote in Common Dreams,  ‘Existential’ Risk of Climate Crisis Could Lead to Civilizational Collapse by 2050,

“The world is currently completely unprepared to envisage, and even less deal with, the consequences of catastrophic climate change.

Even by the standards of the dire predictions given in climate studies, this one’s extreme: civilization itself could be past the point of no return by 2050. 

That’s the conclusion from Australian climate think tank Breakthrough National Centre for Climate Restoration, which released a report (pdf) May 30 claiming that unless humanity takes drastic and immediate action to stop the climate crisis, a combination of food production instability, water shortages, and extreme weather could result in a complete societal breakdown worldwide.” 

A child born today will, over their preschool years, learn about all the wonderful animals on this planet. All too soon; however, she will begin to learn of their existential peril. Unfortunately, the bad news will only continue to get worse. This is unprecedented and deeply concerning.


In a recent article in The Nation, Parenting in a World Hurtling Toward Catastrophe, Frida Berrigan wrote:

I’m almost 45. My kids, Seamus and Madeline, are 5 and 6; my stepdaughter Rosena is 12. They are part of what journalist Mark Hertsgaard calls Generation Hot, “some two billion young people, all of whom have grown up under global warming and are fated to spend the rest of their lives confronting its mounting impacts.”

The phycological impacts of this reality are profound and pervasive. One of the primary responses to climate change is grief. Already we see programs to address this issue spring up around the globe. Avichai Scher reported to NMC new on Climate Grief: The growing emotional toll of climate change.

Young children do not have the emotional development to grieve. How then are they to deal with this tsunami of pain?

I believe that the most effective strategy going forward is to begin immediately to surround children to the greatest extent possible with what we know are the changes that must happen if we are to blunt the impact of climate change. Preschools must become uber-green, solar powered, minimalistic examples of the way all of us will be living a decade from now.

This means my practice as a designer must change drastically. I cannot substitute Robina wood for powder coated steel but must go all the way to bamboo. I cannot use redwood for garden boxes but must use hempcrete. I’ll have to abandon all polyethylene and hope that algae-based plastics are good enough. I will need to find ways to support teachers conducting climate action projects such as a way to use single-use plastic in the play environment, so children learn about “upcycling.”

The idea here is simple. When children grow up living in a world full of solutions then when they ultimately do discover the extent of the crisis to the planet, they will be less likely to despair and much more likely to grab what they know can make a difference and see to it that those solutions become ubiquitous.

This is not only good for the children, but such a design manifesto will be a very effective agent of change. In the May issue of Scientific America, an article: Children Change Their Parents’ Minds about Climate Change reviewed a study that showed that when children learn about climate issues, they are powerful agents of change.

The results suggest that conversations between generations may be an effective starting point in combating the effects of a warming environment. “This model of intergenerational learning provides a dual benefit,” says graduate student Danielle Lawson, the paper’s lead author. “[It prepares] kids for the future since they’re going to deal with the brunt of climate change’s impact. And it empowers them to help make a difference on the issue now by providing them a structure to have conversations with older generations to bring us together to work on climate change.”






No More Cookie-Cutter Parks

This article was written around 1986. Most of the points are still valid … except for the idea that there would be no more cookie-cutter parks.

California has a long history of playground innovation. The 1960s and ‘70s were a particularly creative period in playground design. During this time, literally hundreds of totally unique award-winning parks and playgrounds were created. These often included experimental equipment designs which essentially laid the groundwork for the commercial products of today.

Artistic creativity, conceptual advances, innovative use of materials, and attention to detail, characterized the playgrounds of this “golden age”. The landscape architects who devoted themselves to these projects found them very time consuming but also enormously gratifying. Much of the play equipment in these playgrounds approached the quality of sculpture. Characteristically, hundreds of hours were spent in community meetings developing plans which were sensitive to the neighborhoods in which the playgrounds were placed.

The play areas from this era became the focus of community recreation patterns and the source of considerable neighborhood pride. When visiting a new town one could find the location of these playgrounds by asking almost anyone on the street —they were community landmarks.

Losing a Legacy

Now, these original creative playgrounds have aged, most of them with considerable grace, and with the passage of time hard decisions have to be made. Can they be maintained? Do they meet current safety requirements? Are they accessible to people with a wide variety of disabilities? Usually, the answers are no.

In just the past couple of years, an unexpected pattern has emerged. Across California (and in many other parts of the country), park departments are tearing down these old playgrounds. With few exceptions, these heritage playgrounds are replaced with the ubiquitous new modular pipe and plastic systems.

Granted, the modern integrated play structure has many advantages over older wood and concrete play sculptures. These new products provide greater durability and are easier to maintain. They also assure compliance with safety and risk management guidelines. Many new play activities have become available such as track rides, curly climbers, and all manner of plastic components.

While real improvements have been made, something has also been lost. We are now entering a new era: the age of the “cookie cutter” playground where one play area looks just like all the others. This pattern is largely due to the fact that the diversity in available commercial play equipment is basically limited to a choice of colors and the scale of the structure.

What is Really Going On Here?

Is it true that these older playgrounds are dangerous? The history of accidents does not support this contention. There have been relatively few claims filed against these designs and they have excellent safety records. Is it true that they have been unreasonably difficult to maintain? To the contrary, they have endured for decades with little but routine servicing.

During the “golden age,” landscape architects were required to be creative, work with the neighborhood, and design environments that would be a source of community pride and identity. Today they are frequently being told not to experiment and are told exactly what play equipment to specify. Sometimes they are limited to a particular vendor or product model.

Play area design and renovation is under the control of maintenance directors and risk managers rather than of landscape architects working with the community. Is it any wonder that the results are stale and cliched? Ask any landscape architect. They will tell you that playground design just isn’t fun anymore. After you’ve visited any one of the new playgrounds, going to any other is not as much fun either. Considered on a site by site basis, we may be providing good playgrounds, but overall, we are failing the public.

If all that was lost was a matter of aesthetics it would not be a big concern. But the issue is far larger. The playgrounds of the ‘60s and ‘70s provided for many different types of play. The new playgrounds provide only for active play. As a primary designer of the modern modular play system, it was never my intention that it should be considered the total answer to all children’s needs in a play environment.

“PlayBoosters” and “Kid Builders” were designed after five years of observation of over 250 experimental play structures to determine the correct size and play activity requirements of children from 5 to 11 years of age. Manufacturers have taken this modular system and reduced its scale to sell it for use in tot areas. However, the smaller versions of these systems provide only a fraction of the play needs for younger children because they do not provide good support for social, dramatic, or constructive play. To limit equipment selection to such active play systems makes the playgrounds poorly suited to the play needs of younger children. Proving only active play equipment also makes accessibility to play by many children with disabilities impossible.

Society is Changing

In the last two decades, there have been startling changes in our society. A recent book, “Childhood’s Future” by Richard Louv, details and discusses many of these changes. To effectively plan for the recreational needs of our society we must be aware of the changing demographics. Here is a summary of just a few of Louv’s findings:

Increased Poverty. Young families are under considerable economic stress and this will have an impact on their need for and use of leisure services. One out of three American children now lives in poverty. In the past twenty years, the percentage of income spent on housing has doubled. One-third of the new jobs created pay less than $12,000 per year. These entry-level jobs are being filled, in many cases, by people just starting families. Most children will experience a divorce in the family. When couples separate, their earnings are cut by a third. The financial condition of young families impacts park departments in a variety of ways. For example, if people do not have money to take a trip, they will tend to drive to the nearest quality playground. These visitors are sometimes seen as “outsiders” invading the local park by the neighbors and a variety of conflicts can arise.

Time for Leisure. Economics has also had an impact on the use of recreational services. The typical workweek is now closer to 50 hours per week than it is to 40. This added time at work is taken away from leisure time. The amount of time parents spend with their children is down 40% since 1973. It is no accident that McDonald’s Restaurant play areas are so popular; they are convenient, clean, and safe. A parent can stop at “Playland” and get a low-cost meal and play for their children in less than ten minutes. Can, or should, park departments be concerned with such competition from the private sector?

Health and Fitness. Societal changes have also had an impact on community health. By far the most leisure time is spent in front of the TV. As a nation, we are not as active as we once were. This shows up in the children’s fitness levels, which are drastically lower than just ten years ago. Studies show that the activity levels of children are very strong predictors of life-long patterns. We are currently raising a generation of future couch potatoes. The problem is especially acute in California, where schools have eliminated most physical education specialists. Quality parks and play environments can draw people out of their homes and into positive physical, social, and affective interactions.

Perceptions of Safety. Marshall McLuhan’s concept of the Global Village, as put forward in his book, “The Medium is the Message,” has come true and it has implication for recreation. The constant barrage of news about violence in our communities has parents completely paranoid. Children are no longer allowed to play in the street or even the front yard. The experiences we had growing up are no longer part of the everyday lives of children. Few children now build treehouses or “dig holes to China.” Parents need a safe place for their children to engage in these important developmental experiences. The typical park, with its manicured lawns and island of sand filled with metal equipment, is too formal to allow for discovery learning, which is the primary way children learn about the world. At least some of our parks need to have places where it is OK for kids to pick flowers, to dig in the dirt, and generally engage in natural play.

Study after study shows that far too many young families and children are in desperate situations. As professionals in parks and recreation, we have daily personal experience with these trends. But as professionals, we are also among the more fortunate in our society. Our personal comfort makes it all too easy to overlook the real needs of our clients. When, for example, was the last time you had a staff retreat to discuss emerging societal trends and how to design facilities and develop programs to meet these changing patterns?

Just the single issue of learning about the financial condition of young families can have important implications for the management of your programs. For example, many park professionals feel threatened by what they see is a “lawsuit-happy” society in which the get-rich-quick mentality has become pervasive. While this may be true in a few cases, it is far more often the case that most people don’ have sufficient medical insurance or savings to cover the cost of hospitalization. They have to sue just to survive the economic impact of an accident to a family member. We should be dealing with the root cause of lawsuits with risk management policies which quickly compensate for medical expenses incurred in playground accidents. Instead, we have become defensive and started to design parks for the lowest possible liability as the prime criteria instead of designing for the needs of children and families first.

We should consider the lives of so many of our young families, living in poverty or close to the line. Working long hours for little pay, frightened for their safety, largely physically unfit and with few recreation skills. What kind of park, what sort of playground, do these families need?

A New Paradigm: Playscapes

It is time we reconsider the wholesale removal of the significant playgrounds from the “golden age” and their replacement with “cookie cutter equipment. We must resist the liability hysteria. We need the courage to advocate for creativity and innovation in the creation of new playgrounds. We can and should return to the idea of the park as the focal point of the community. We must develop a better understanding of the recreational needs of all of our citizens regardless of physical abilities. To create playgrounds that meet these needs, we must develop a new paradigm for playgrounds a new model with clear ideas and workable solutions around which people can rally.

Over the years different types of playgrounds have been given unique names to help people identify their special design characteristics. We have seen adventure playgrounds, creative playgrounds, tot lots, mini parks, and theme parks. Playscape is a term which has been used in the past but is poorly defined. The term was coined by merging the terms “play” and ‘landscape” in an effort to emphasize that the total environment can contribute to play value.

The term Playscape is precisely the name we need for this new model for playgrounds. Its historical meaning links it to our past traditions and yet there is no impediment to adding to the definition so that it could include the best of new technology which has become recently available. We need to fully define the term playscape and develop design standards to make it a powerful tool for creating more functional playgrounds.

This new definition of playscape should balance the benefits of our contemporary understandings of liability and low maintenance with the developmental needs of children. The successful adoption of this new model will depend on how well it meets the needs of three groups. Park departments must have environments which are durable and safe. The realities of funding require that a playscape include design features which make it appealing to philanthropic organizations so that parts of each project can be supported by grants and funding sources other than general funds.

The playscape concept must include a comprehensive process for community participation. When the neighborhood is actively involved in the planning process, Playscapes will become a source of community pride and identification.

This playhouse is one of the few products available which provide
for social-dramatic play in a form which meets the standards of
durability and supervision required today.

Finally, the needs of children must be the foremost playscape design criteria. It is necessary that the definition of a Playscape start with an acceptance of the standards imposed by parks for safety, maintenance, and budget but the definition cannot stop there, the developmental needs of the children must also be included. If a playscape is to meet the needs of park departments, neighborhoods and children, the following elements must be included:

1) Active Play. The new modular play structures are very successful at providing for the active play needs of children. This is a proven concept that rightfully belongs in any park. The way these systems are configured, however, could be improved. We need to do a better job of including upper bodybuilding events, interesting climbers, and dynamic balance events.

2) Constructive and Manipulative Play. The essence of play is the freedom it provides children. A good playscape would empower children to create and change it. In the “old” days we believed in the value of the “adventure playground” which children could build themselves. Concerns for liability, maintenance, and aesthetics destroyed the few experiments that were tried in the U.S. In many other countries the idea is alive and well and has evolved into a practical program easily included in many park settings.

Perhaps we can’t go as far as the adventure playground, but we can and should include, at a minimum, sand and water play. Note that the criteria are sand and water. Dry sand under an active play structure may provide a good fall surface, but it does not provide for constructive play. Sand must be moist if it is to be used in the building of sand castles. Just because it is difficult to design a low maintenance water feature doesn’t mean that the function should be abandoned. According to Kazuo Abby, of Royston, Hanamoto, Alley, and Abby, “Water features within the total play environment are extremely important. The wet sand provides unlimited creativity and it’s safe, simple, and fun.”

The first “manipulative” piece of equipment was the steering wheel. Recently we have seen the development of a variety of game boards, like tic-tac-toe panels. Some companies have been adding a variety of controls, levers, binoculars, etc., to their theme play equipment. This greatly expands the play value of what is essentially static equipment.

3) Social Play. To create social play areas only two basic criteria need to be met. First, there should be a “transaction interface.” This is simply a window, counter, or storefront that creates an “inside” and “outside Such an arrangement literally sets the stage for all sorts of dramatic play.

Second, a sense of enclosure is necessary. It is possible to provide small semi-enclosed spaces which offer a sense of intimacy but also allows for supervision. When properly scaled, such spaces are too small to provide cover for vagrants.

4) Uniqueness. Communities need and value unique features in their parks. Playgrounds with trains, ships, sculpture, and other special features create a sense of identity. The photo on the next page illustrates a successful recent installation of such a feature at Peacock Gap Playground. While it was thought that theme equipment would inhibit children’s play, it is now known that such equipment can stimulate rich imaginative play. Children are not particularly troubled by playing “Star Wars” on an old-fashioned looking ship.

Currently, the major obstacle to fulfilling the uniqueness criteria is the requirement that projects be bid and that three vendors must submit proposals. Certainly, there are other methods of ensuring competitive pricing in the creation of playgrounds. These methods will have to be clearly defined and made available to our communities.

5) Accessibility and Integration. As many advocates have brought to our attention. integrating all citizens is not only ethically correct, but it is also the law. There is every indication that the federal government is going to actively enforce the new Americans With Disabilities Act: this means playgrounds will have to be made accessible. While it is not easy, we can design play areas for those who have restricted mobility in order for them to be integrated with the general population. The problem is that there are a few really satisfying design solutions to this problem. The manufacturers of equipment have generally offered only ramps. A few provide low horizontal ladders or ground level steering wheels.

Only a few manufacturers have addressed the problem of creating transfer stations so that children may play out their wheelchairs.

Most advocates for accessibility say that ramps have a very small role in providing for the needs of people with various disabilities. Despite what most equipment manufacturers have concluded, wheelchair access is not the only issue to be addressed in creating an integrated environment. Putting a ramp to an active play structure on which there is nothing appropriate for the child who is physically disabled to do is insulting and can even be dangerous when used by skateboarders. On the other hand, providing access to wonderful places for social, constructive, and imaginative play, like the ship at Peacock Gap, is right, and realistic.

“When children arrive at Peacock Gap Park, they head straight for the ship. It’s a fairyland, a pirate ship, a playhouse, and a lookout. It promotes hours of creative play. Oodles of children are on it all the time.”— Sharon McNamee, Recreation Director, City of San Rafael

In the ‘60s there were few solutions for providing creative structures so we designed and built them ourselves. We cannot wait for manufacturers to develop solutions for integration — their agendas are completely different from ours. It is not just an equipment problem but an issue which involves the total design of the playscape.

6) Involvement. Neighborhoods have the right and responsibility to be involved with the design of their parks and many park departments already work hard at getting user participation. These departments know that just letting neighbors choose equipment from a few catalogs do not qualify as real community involvement. Park design budgets must allow sufficient resources for educating the community. Citizens should be provided with information about the developmental play needs of children as well as current safety requirements. Community participation needs to be facilitated and nurtured. However structured, community input is essential in creating a play area that reflects the unique character of the site. This public relations work also builds a sense of identification with the park that will significantly increase utilization, reduce liability, and lower vandalism by removing the park as a symbol of external bureaucratic control.

For many years volunteers have been used in the installation of play equipment. With the supervision of a trained and licensed installer, this form of community involvement produces substantial savings and a sense of ownership in the neighborhood. The playscape concept should include guidelines for such volunteers.

7) Programmability. An example of a programmable feature would be an informal stage area where small groups can make presentations. Daycare, latch key, populations with special needs, sports, and other programs use parks on an increasingly frequent basis. Future park designs should consider programmed use of the facility in a systematic way. Defining design opportunities for the programmed use of the park would be one of the most important aspects of the playscape model. For far too long, recreation programming considerations have been ignored in the design of parks. Current times demand that they now are included. Designing for the programmed use of the playscape is one of the most powerful tools available for meeting the play needs of all children.

8) External Funding Opportunities. Californian’s have been very generous in providing general obligation bonds for parks. Unfortunately, most of this money has been for acquisitions rather than operations. We must recognize that there will not be a sudden increase in funding through governmental sources. A playscape should take this financial situation into consideration from the very start. Playscapes will cost more, if only because there will be considerably more of the budget allotted to the planning process, to say nothing of the programming aspects or special features. Therefore, planners need to be constantly alert to identifying elements of their plans which can be broken out as separate components which may be attractive to a variety of funding sources or sponsors. Creating an adopt-a-park program can increase funding and lower maintenance costs.

9) Low Liability. The obvious first step in lowering liability is complying with the Consumer Product Safety Guidelines. But just putting a compliance requirement in a bid specification for equipment is a very small step indeed. The playscape concept should be based on a fully-developed and integrated approach to risk management. For example, providing other kinds of play opportunities (like social and constructive, rather than just physically-challenging active play equipment) will reduce exposure to losses because children will not be solely engaged in high-risk play. Providing playground safety fitness programs to schools, using the park as a focus, is another element in a comprehensive risk management program which can pay handsome dividends and justifies the design criteria of programmability.

10) Low Maintenance. A chief benefit of the new modular play equipment systems is their ease of upkeep while providing bright colors and bold shapes. Currently, there are few products available for social and constructive play that provide this same level of durability. As the playscape concept becomes widely understood and accepted, market demand will force more products to become available. But until that happens there is much that can be done in the same way we have done it since the ‘60s do it ourselves. Since the features we are interested in, like good sand play experiences, do not present a liability exposure, they can be designed by landscape architects and built by contractors. But ensuring the correct design is only half the solution. Correct installation must also be assured. This may be difficult without the traditional support of equipment manufacturers. The playscape guideline will have to provide standards for a quality installation.

11) Kid Friendly Plants. The selection of plant materials in and around the Playscape should be carefully chosen for benefits to children. Plants can provide a sense of enclosure, loose parts for constructive play, flowers for decoration, herbs for smells, and changes in the patterns of light and shadow.

Community Gardens have been around for years and their management and operations systems are now well developed. As the photo on this page illustrates, these gardens can be integrated into a playscape and provide a positive visual contribution to the park. Community gardens will help fulfill the criteria of programmability, accessibility, and integration. They offer a place where children can, with proper supervision, dig in the earth and cut flowers.

“Community Gardens can coexist within the playground environment and become a very important element of the urban playground experience. The San Francisco Community Garden Program has been an extremely positive experience for the whole community, including people of all ages and abilities.” – Ron DeLeon, Assistant Superintendent, Neighborhood Parks, City and County of San Francisco. Photo by Perry Nenning

12) Multi-cultural. California has been a multi-cultural community since its founding. The golden age playgrounds reflected this diversity. The new playgrounds have a post-modern industrial appearance devoid of any cultural connotations. Resistance to celebrating the cultural heritage of particular neighborhoods in park design stems from the political content which has been included in some of these efforts in the past. While a radical La Raza mural may have reflected the cultural identity of the barrio, it also made a political statement which some members of other communities found offensive. A dragon play structure in the Chinese Community; a ship in the harbor park, or a Spanish-influenced site are all appropriate expressions in public facilities. The playscape concept needs to define what are the proper limitations for ethnic expression and the proper venue for particular political points of view.

13) Age Appropriate. While the modern multi-functional modular play systems are great for kids from six to nine years, they are less appropriate for other children who need more social and constructive play opportunities. Adolescents have been a particularly forgotten age group. While they do, of course, use the ball fields, they are also interested in free play. One need only watch them on their skateboards to confirm this. They are also interested in just “hanging out” in small groups where boys and girls can “check each other out. ‘Adults have concerns about such groups of teens; are they going to do something dangerous to themselves or others? The playscape concept can help reduce these concerns. A playscape, because of its rich array of unique attractions, will be used by more concerned citizens over a longer part of the day. This high-use brings with it increased adult supervision which, in turn, will help reduce inappropriate behaviors. Welcoming in adolescents makes the playscape a place where they feel they belong and removes it as a target for vandalism.

14) Comfort. It seems obvious that a playground should be a comfortable place for people to visit. But it is surprising how many parks are built without even a bench close to the play area. The issue of a clean, safe, and open bathroom is also central to the comfortable use of the playscape. Park benches can be selected which offer real comfort, but do not encourage people to sleep on them if this is a concern. Shade and shelter from wind should also be considered.

Balanced Design

These fourteen criteria should be the foundation of the planning process when designing a playscape. Expanding these preliminary design concepts into specific guidelines will provide powerful design and planning tools. As an example of how this will work, the figures below illustrate how the application of the age appropriate criteria would produce a budget for play equipment that would be different for children ages 2 to 5 and for those 6 to 9.

Playscape Equipment Budget
(Ages 2 to 5 Years)
25% Active Play
30% Constructive Sand Play
30% Social Play
15% Accessibility

Younger children are predominantly interested in constructive and social play. Active play focuses on swings, slides, and climbers. The cost of accessibility features is modest for play areas for younger children because there is less emphasis on active play and the structures tend to be lower.

When designing for this age group, a space guideline of 75 square foot per child and a budget guideline of $500 per child served is an appropriate standard (75 square feet per child is used by the California State Department of Education). Site preparation and provision of fall surface will add approximately $250 per child. Combining these together results in a target budget of $750 per child or $10 per square foot. If we are designing a space for 25 children, the planning goal for the project would be 1875 square feet and equipment and sand budget of $18,750. Of this budget, only $4,687 should be devoted to active play.

Playscape Equipment Budget
(Ages 6 to 9 Years)
40% Active Play
15% Constructive Sand Play
20% Social Play
25% Accessibility

The school-age child is primarily interested in active play equipment. While swings, slides, and climbers continue to be used, a greater variety is required to sustain their involvement. Upper bodybuilding events like horizontal ladders, ring treks, and track rides are extremely popular with this age group. A large, complex linked structure provides graduated challenge and ensures use by all children.

The budget guidelines for this group are different than those for younger children. The space requirement increases to 125 square feet per child and the budget increases to $750 for equipment. Add $500 for surfacing a larger area, and the same $10 per square foot guideline is obtained. If we are designing for the same size population of 25, then the area required would increase to 3,125 square feet and equipment and surfacing budget of $31,250. Of this budget, $12,500 would be used for active play equipment.

The Elementary School as the New Community Center

The trends and solutions proposed here suggest a very surprising future trend. Given the need for programming and the general lack of funding available both to schools and park departments, out of necessity, we will see increasing cooperation between schools and park departments. There are many communities which currently employ joint-use agreements to mutual benefit. These programs will expand. There have even been cases where parks have sold small, poorly used, sites they could not afford to maintain and used the money to develop improvements to the neighborhood elementary school play area. The playscape concept would be an ideal model for such a cooperative venture. It may be that the most interesting new parks will actually be connected with schools.

A Call for Action

The playscape concept is an idea which is right for the times. This approach can solve the seemingly mutually exclusive issues of liability, accessibility, play value, and cost-effective operations, in an integrated fashion. Expanding this concept into a fully-developed standard would create a new design tool useful for designers throughout California. We need to preserve the successes of the past. We should bring together the designers from the golden age with other concerned designers and those park departments who have lived with their play environments for two decades to discuss the successes and failures.

We need to review the Consumer Product Safety Commission Guidelines due out in October and the forthcoming American Society for Testing and Materials Standards so that our future play areas will conform. The hard work of developing design solutions for integration beyond ramps for children with mobility disabilities needs to be done by experienced designers and park professionals working closely with accessibility consultants. Practical solutions for providing social and constructive play need to be explored.

A sensible strategy would be for the California Park and Recreation Society to join with the California Society of Landscape Architects to co-sponsor a task force to detail the playscape concepts proposed here. With the passage last year of Senate Bill 2733, which mandates that all playgrounds in the State be brought into compliance with the Consumer Product Safety Commission Guidelines by the year 2000, we desperately need this new vision. Without the creation of Playscape Design Guideline, all the playgrounds in California will be as uniform as peas in a pod. It’s not too late to preserve the idealism of the ’60s while making a bold step to provide recreation diversity which can truly meet the needs of the future.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Jay Beckwith has done just about everything one man can do to improve play environments for children. He created School Yard BigToys, PlayBoosters, and Kid Builders and is currently retained by Kompan, of Denmark. He has authored three books and dozens of articles and is currently writing “Vanishing Play,” a pictorial essay on the disappearance of traditional play. He is known for his advocacy for safer play equipment and most recently developed a comprehensive risk management program with the School’s Insurance Authority of Sacramento. Information on Senate Bill 2733 and a bibliography of readings are available from the author by calling (707) 887-7954.



Discussing Adventure Playgrounds

The following is an email discussion between Penny Wilson, one of the premiere Playworkers in England and me. You can follow her


Jay – Have you ever wondered that, while it seems many people think adventure playgrounds are great, there are so few of them? I suspect this has a lot to do not doing a deep dive into what works and what stands in the way of broader acceptance. Let’s try to see if we can tease out some of the issues.

Penny – There is always an underestimation of the cost of a sustained project. It demands a huge amount of adult work and constant fundraising to run an Adventure Playground to the demanding standards, regulations, innovation, and support for the staff team.  The difficulty with getting suitable land to rent and build something so extraordinary upon in just the right location is a real headache. And when you have done all of that, there are very few hours that the playground can actually be open to children.

Jay – Perhaps we can start by looking at the term “playground.” The vast majority of the public has a very different idea about what a playground is and should look like. Had these projects been called “urban adventure camps,” I think there would have been more acceptance of the idea. The notion of a campfire even begins to make sense. Another issue is that playgrounds don’t require staffing while camps do. Positioning these as a recreation program rather than a public park playground may have made the whole idea more palatable.

Penny – I think that language has changed so much since Lady Allen coined the term Adventure Playground.  At that time it was a fresh new idea.  ‘Recreation Grounds’  and municiple playgrounds were dull and lifeless places. This concept fizzed and bubbled with inspiration.  We need to remember that most households used fire, that there were many bomb sites and that children were allowed a huge amount of freedom in postwar years and right up to the 1970s. Of course, it’s also worth pointing out that language carries different weight and meaning on either side of the pond.

Jay – What is it that we are trying to provide children when we promote adventure playgrounds? I contend that their real value is loose-part play. If this is at least one to the major benefits, then is the current format the only way to do this?

Penny – for me the most powerful thing about Adventure Playgrounds is the community in which the site and the community of children (and Playworkers) which grows in them.  They always were and still should be a neutral space within a neighbourhood, aware of its needs and talents and playing a role within them.

Jay -One thing is clear; most adventure playgrounds are not suitable for younger children. This is too bad, since children of all ages benefit from loose-parts, even the youngest, as this great article from Community Playthings points out.

Penny-  we always used to have the broadest possible age range of children attending Adventure Playgrounds. It was only ill-informed inspection and regulation which put an end to that. Since that time in the UK, children have been segregated into quite tiny age groupings. (There is seldom any inclusion of children of any age with disabilities within play settings now.) Bob Hughes introduces us to the notion that children treat an adventure playground as they do the natural world which it mimics. He points out that little children find adventures to suit their size and abilities, gradually building up to more demanding risk and challenge that suits their age.  He calls this Graduated Access.  Playworkers also feel that play is catered for in very early years and that older children’s play needs tend to get sidelined by educational and other agendas. We would argue that it is still of vital importance for older children to play.

Jay – Another term I’ve always had a problem with “junk” playgrounds.

Penny – I guess junk makes sense if you are worried about the theft of materials.  The term “junk playgrounds” was very much of its time and in relation to the rich history of the brilliant idea.  Reclaiming junk was a brilliant twist on mass destruction and multiple deaths in one’s neighbourhood. Here is a crux of the subject. It was a community initiative.

Jay – But giving kids junk instead of well-designed construction systems is to my mind unprofessional and demeaning. The notion of giving things that they can manipulate to their own ends is amazing. Letting them do the creating is unique in current childhood experience. To my mind, it is the quality of the support that is offered them is where the quality is. OK, so kids get a chance to use hammers and nails which I suppose is worthwhile.

Penny – I am not sure that I agree. It is great to find children creating a purpose and meaning for objects that they find around them. Their lives are so filled with adult manufactured objects that this is one way of handing back the inspiration and creativity to them. Hammers and nails are interesting and fun. However, adventure play seems to me to be about a great deal more than physical challenge and construction. It is about discovering the world and the fascinations it unfolds within the playing child.  For some of us, this world is one that is filled with dressing up, or acting, with digging, den building,  making daisy chains, standing on your head or quietly watching and daydreaming. We should be very careful not to mistake gross motor skills for play. They are only one tiny little part of the panoply of what playing is. The Gasamstkunstwerk, (total artwork) of play is a mash-up or life without boundaries of interest. That is what an ideal Adventure Playground has to offer. In this current financial climate, it is our responsibility as play literate adults to be finding as many ways as possible for as many children as possible to have as much access as possible to free play experiences over which they have control.

AnjiPlay 2

Jay – A better approach to my mind is what we see at AnjiPlay in China, where the whole curriculum is based on loose-part play. Yes, these are fenced in school environments, and the apparatus is put away each day. But look at the level of challenge presented, extraordinary. In this picture, what first catches one’s eye is the leaping girl, but if you look at the ladder behind her, you can see that it is tipping over, likely because she has pushed off from the plank which supported it. One wonders what will happen next. Will the whole assembly tip over, spilling her playmates to the ground or will they react in time to right the ship? What I don’t anticipate is that anyone will be hurt as these kids know exactly what they are doing and how to react. They have essentially built their own Parkour. And they built that today and tomorrow they will build something entirely different.

Penny – The issue is that adventure playgrounds are not about equipment, they are about the community of players and their families. This community involves, in fact, depends upon the playworkers. Pogo Park is a great example. I ran an inclusive adventure playground all based on loose parts and playworkers. That is what I am doing now essentially. The project creates a community around play. (Hence my request that you look at loose parts rather than depending on a kit!)

Jay – While I have dedicated the bulk of my career to public playgrounds with fixed apparatus, I now believe that loose-part play in combination with trained supervision is what is best for children on a daily basis. Agreed AnjiPlay, Blue Blocks, Snug, and Rigamajig are the pioneers in this field, and there is so much more yet to be discovered, especially as we look at what will work for even younger children.

Penny – My point is that it works just as well with no cost low-cost stuff and people.

Jay – Oh, and let’s come up with a better name?

Penny – That is an age-old argument… Lady Allen’s memoirs struggle with it.  Community playspace works

Loose Parts as Curriculum


As followers of this blog have no doubt noticed, I am not a big fan of preschools that focus on academic learning. I come to this opinion not just because I attended Pacific Oaks College where we learned a different approach to early childhood education but also from over fifty years consulting with ECE programs and designing their play spaces and apparatus. While I have shared in this blog many of the studies that address the problems of an overemphasis on academics, I have not shared my personal observations and I will do so now.

I can walk into a classroom and know instantly if the teacher is an academician. The walls will be festooned with “art” which show the children are all doing the same project. The letters of the alphabet will be prominently on display.  A quick trip outside will show lots of trikes, a play structure which is essentially a set of stairs leading to a slide, and occasionally a sandbox. While being with the children during their outdoor play time, the staff’s behavior will be predominately correcting kids actions and chatting with another teacher. They react in horror when I suggest that they not put out the trikes for the play session. At such times I have to force myself to continue to work with the center and console myself that I can only make things better, not do a complete makeover.

For several decades now, we have known that children have different learning styles. These styles are generally identified as logical, physical, verbal, aural, visual, social, and solitary. Most kids are not one style but a hierarchy that ranks these in order of preference the child has for each style. Academic preschools generally support a very narrow range of learning styles.

ECE teachers often complain that their job is exhausting. That’s how they justify using the children’s outdoor as a break time for themselves. Perhaps they should consider that the reason their job is hard is that they are working against the child’s interests and learning style. Give children to freedom to choose what they are interested in and how they want to explore those interests and what was once work becomes play.

Not that changing from an academic curriculum to exploratory learning is easy or that once transitioned that the teacher’s role is reduced, rather it is changed as well. In this model, teachers are resources and mentors for the children. Their role is now observation and knowing when, for example, the addition of some props will allow the intense interaction of the children at play to continue and deepen. An often unseen and underappreciated new role the teacher finds herself in is as materials collector to find cool stuff to feed the voracious curiosity of early learners.

In no way do I mean to suggest that the educational goals get thrown out the window. Instead, there is now a different, and substantially better way to achieve those goals. Nancy Dougherty, in her article, What is ‘Curriculum’ in the field of Early Childhood Education? writes:

Although there are many definitions for curriculum, they all include this concept:

goals and plans for children to acquire skills and knowledge through activities, experiences, and opportunities.”

She goes on to identify the various domains that are typically included in an ECE curriculum such as social and emotional, language and literacy, and cognitive development, etc. The change is NOT in the goals of ECE. Rather it is a change from trying to teach these, to establishing an environment and a relationship with the child that allows these domains to emerge.

Now that I’ve gotten that off my chest let me share what I suggest teachers do to implement this transition to active learning. I will use the active playspace as my example, but these suggestions apply equally to the classroom.


The first is scaffolding. I use this term in both the physical and metaphorical senses. In the playspace, the children need a sense of place and they need elevation. This can be, as we see in the AnjiPlay centers, as simple as ladders or in the above picture a constructive play storage unit with tons of elements.

My second recommendation is, to the greatest extent possible to use loose parts. This works with the ladders in the above example, and it will work in any other functional area of the playspace.

My last recommendation is to consider the presentation of the materials. Children love serendipity but they struggle with chaos. Learning how materials are best stored and presented is one of those invisible skills a master teacher possesses and works continuously to improve her skills.


Serendipitous Design for Play

I so clearly remember the first play sculpture that I did in a school. I had a very clear idea about how the kids would use each feature of the piece. As is generally the case, there was a ceremonial “opening” in which all the students were released all at once to mob the structure. Within five minutes, they did everything I had imagined and then went on to invent so many more that I lost count.

One of the play events I introduced on that day, and nearly all subsequent designs was the banister slide. Adults would often ask me, “How are kids supposed to use that?” My response was, “Exactly the point, it’s up to them to figure it out.” Indeed, when I would join a class for P.E. I would have a group of kids join me at the banister slide and give them the following instructions, “You can do anything you want to do, except something that has already been done.” We typically spent the whole period on that one event and never ran out of innovation.

Throughout my five decades of play design, I have followed this simple rule, the less I can anticipate how kids will use the designs, the better they are for play. Of course, there is generally some push back from adults who have definite ideas about what playgrounds and toys should do and look like, and I’ve had to learn how to design so that those expectations don’t create too much rulemaking on the part of adults who expect their children to behave “appropriately.”  The balance is to appear to be normal and safe to adults while including as much oddball open-ended stuff as possible. I’ve learned to add serendipity to my designs.

This image of the little girl hanging by her hands is an example. The arch at the top rail was added to provide an entrance-like detail and head clearance for older kids climbing onto the fourth and highest platform. I anticipated that it would become a spot for children to hang by their hands and was delighted that not only does this occur regularly, but parents are generally permissive of this very beneficial activity.

hang by hands

This image of two climbers side by side illustrates the idea of serendipity perfectly. The climber on the left uses shapes that mimic rock climber holds and is part of my original design 20 years ago. We replicated them for the new system to honor the success of that design and maintain our traditional appeal. The Peg Climber in the center is something else again. I had no idea how exactly this design would be used. It turns out that each age approaches climbing it differently. Toddlers simply ignore the pegs all together and just swarm up. A year later, and they go up trying to avoid using the pegs to assist them. By three they will try to go up using just the pegs. The most advanced children will go up, stepping only on the pegs.


The Play and Music system has a huge advantage when it comes to providing serendipitous play. All of the elements can be moved and the experience reconfigured. That means what was once a climber can become a bridge. What was used as a slide can become a climber. Perhaps the best illustration of this is the Net Climber that can be removed for the frames and set on the floor where it can be a rocker for five babies or a spinner for two preschoolers.


As we noted in another blog a few days ago, toys and play equipment currently available for children are predominately one dimensional and support very specific and limited play opportunities for creative and unexpected play. We can do much better than this as designers and as consumers. For example, parents and teachers can help by selecting playthings that have some ambiguity about them. Look for loose part systems that are complex. Allow kids to mix systems. And if at all possible, find ways to introduce magic.