How can a Toy Box Empower Play?

Using the expensive fall surface for play between units

Let’s assume that there at least one playground for every 600 people living in the USA. That’s probably conservative at a half-million playgrounds. Let’s also consider that 25% of these welcome the idea of significantly increasing the play value of their existing playground for less than $10,000. This back of the napkin estimate gives us a reasonable expectation of 125,000 playgrounds that can substantially increase the benefits of their investment.

The above estimate makes it clear the project is worthy of exploring. The next step is to look at how to maximize the scale and velocity of the proposed Empowerment upgrades adding connectivity and loose parts.

The Biba smart playgrounds project, while impressive, failed to demonstrate a business model that will achieve the sort of hockey stick growth of adoption that is needed. Rather than follow a proprietary, the Empowerment Project will use an open-source approach. Going open-source is strategic since there is very little about play with intellectual worth trying to protect. Even those patents that are acquired generally protect minor products with marginal impact on play overall. What we seek is transformation, not recovering the development cost of R&D.

 The Empowerment Project goal is to grow by sharing and collaboration. The overall philosophy of the Empowerment Project doesn’t focus on children exclusively but is embedded in every aspect of the initiative. This rule applies to the Toy Box in that the loose part apparatus can be purchased from recommended vendors or any other suppliers. Likewise, the connectivity tags for the loose parts can be sourced directly from various vendors. Some parts are better sourced locally, and wherever possible, plans are provided for such DIY fabrication.

An important part of the Empowerment Project is collaborating with playground equipment producers to develop products specifically designed to be compatible with their equipment. We anticipate that, while retrofitting will get some traction, the main product development will be motivated by loose parts that can sell new products. For example, attachable “skins” to impart temporary themes such as seasonal or birthday parties. They will also be interested in play activities that link play structures and take advantage of the major investment the required resilient surfacing, and offer an affordable way to offer softer play elements that are used temporarily.

Going Beyond Inclusion

In 1979, I was in the process of creating dozens of community-built playgrounds in schools across the San Francisco Bay Area, which brought me in contact with physical and special educators. The hot topic at that time was the new book by Jean Ayres, Sensory Integration and the Child.

The book and collaboration with teachers provided validation of the work I had been doing creating play spaces. From the very beginning, I sought out opportunities to observe children with disabilities on my designs. While I was concerned that all kids could play on the playgrounds, my main motivation was that when disabled kids first encountered the environments, they slowly engaged them. The neurotypical kids would do everything I expected in the first twenty minutes, and the special ed kids would take days to explore the challenges in the play space fully. These observations allowed me to deeply understand the learning taking place.

The other benefit to Sensory Integration is that it used equipment to engage very specific neurological functions and was my first concrete connection between play and the brain, which has subsequently been the foundation of my work. Given this background, you will not be surprised that my suggestions for the loose parts for the Toy Box look like an occupational therapist’s studio.

Since we are also concerned with the cost and size requirements for the project, we need to look at the number of pieces required. I suggest that we follow the rule of three, which says that things arranged in odd numbers are more appealing and memorable than even-numbered groupings.

Suggested Toy Box Loose Parts

In the next blog, we will detail the equipment that we customarily recommend and explain what we look for in each product and the benefits children derive from playing with them. It is anticipated that most communities will collaborate with local educators and recreation professionals to develop their own kits.

  • Hoop Tunnels with enclosure
  • Snow Disks
  • Balance
    • Slackline
    • Teeter Popper
    • Balance Set
  • Inflatable Ride-on
  • Fabric
    • Parachute
    • Silks
  • Obstacle Course
  • Planks
  • Blocks

Augmented Realty Playgrounds -Articles

Perkins School for the Blind

The follow are just a few articles to provide background as we continue to explore the notion of an Augmented Playground layer of digital resources to welcome the assertive devices children use and empower them.


James Sinclair

Here’s how he describes his website: “Autistic & Unapologetic is an autism awareness site founded by one lad on a journey to find out what makes him (autis)tic.”

Below is quote from a Feb 2021article

Why Pokémon is GREAT for Autistic People?

While I could go on and on about the different ways autistic people have benefited from Pokémon, such as therapies which have helped with facial recognition or how the games themselves seem to reduce anxiety and stress, it’s unquestionable that one of the series newest entries: Pokémon Go, has supported autistic people with, well, everything.

This can be seen in how the game not only requires outdoor exploration to find success, but in that it encourages collaboration to achieve the best result – something which, upon release, erupted in many local communities of likeminded players. Subsequently, these gatherings have come to serve as hotspots for autistic people to learn valuable life skills, like communication, teamwork and improving motor functions (all whilst soaking up that sweet, sweet Vitamin D).


Larkin Babbitt & Sophie Chank April 2, 2021

This article in Spellbound on the ways augmented reality can impact autism spectrum disorder lists three that are relevant to an Augmented Playground:

  • Increase Attention Span

AR experiences result in increased engagement, enjoyment, motivation, and attention. One particular study designed to teach object discrimination revealed a 62% increase in on-task participation and happier, more determined students.

  • Increase social interaction

An AR app called MOSOCO was developed for public schools in California to help children with ASD practice social skills like eye contact, initiating interaction, asking questions, and sharing interests with their peers. The app allows for users to pair up together and then supports them through each step of the interaction exercise. Students reported that the app was fun, engaging, and had notable teaching ability. The overall number of interactions increased, both between students with ASD and students without ASD.


How Families of Children with Autism Greet the Digital Future

For www.parenting.digitalAlicia Blum-Ross and Sonia Livingstone discuss how for parents of children with disabilities, technology offers particular promise and raises particular anxieties, as they discovered when interviewing parents from many walks of life for their new book, Parenting for a Digital Future: How Hopes and Fears About Technology Shape Our Children’s Lives.


This article in Readwrite provides ways that augmented reality help people with disabilities and can be applied to empower playgrounds.

Here are two quotes:

You may be familiar with the blind superhero Daredevil, who uses small audio cues to move, run, and even fight. The same basic concept applies to new programs using guided audio to help blind people move through museums, college campuses, and entire cities.

Only a tiny fraction of people with visual or hearing impairments suffer a total loss of that sense. The overwhelming majority can benefit from VR applications that amplify or refine the input from these senses. For example, a VR program that magnifies objects on-demand can overcome severe visual impairments. An AR filter that cancels background noise can drive the next generation of hearing aids.


The website Autism Speaks provides tips has a list of apps for assistive technology devices. Creating an Augmented Playground means understanding that children will come to the physical playground with devices that assist with communications, making requests, daily activities, and rewards.


This PDF study – Effects of Pokémon GO on Physical Activity and Psychological and Social Outcomes: A Systematic Review – is particularly relevant

Augmented reality (AR) mobile game, Pokémon GO, leverages gamification and location tracking technology to encourage players to walk in different places to catch Pokémon characters in real-world settings. 

Players had significantly greater physical activity than non-players in terms of daily steps and number of days spent in moderate physical activity. Pokémon GO game also improved players’ social interactions and their mood/affects. Selective attention and concentration improved in adolescents and memory improved in young adults after playing the game. Findings suggest playing Pokémon GO could promote meaningful improvements in walking behavior, as well as psychological and social well-being. More multidimensional research with randomized controlled trial design is needed to identify factors that influence adoption and sustainability of Pokémon GO playing.

Going Beyond Inclusive Play to Empowerment – Augmented Reality

Photo – My Modern Met

We have discussed the history of inclusive play and its growth beyond ramps and transfer stations. We noted that the operating assumption for the ADA Playground Guidelines has been that if we provide ways for children to together physically, that inclusion will naturally emerge. For the most part, this is true.

I have been a huge cheerleader for Magical Bridge Playgrounds because they understand that physical proximity only gets you so far. That’s why they have created the Kindness Ambassadors program. We will come back to this approach soon. But let’s look at why this program is so important.

Playground accessibility grew out of the ADA, which was primarily concerned with allowing people to access public spaces. This emphasis caused the playground standards drafting process to focus solely on architectural features. I attended the meetings held on the west coast and followed the proceeding elsewhere and can testify that there was no room for discussions about how the standards would impact on play.

Since the promulgation of the standard, playgrounds have largely implemented the changes. This is great for the 10% of the population with mobility disabilities. It is now time to look at the 10% of the population with other issues such as Autism Spectrum disorders, ADHD, sensory deficits, and many others. Taken together, children with disabilities that are not mobility-related outnumber those who need physical barriers eliminated. When you add those children, who have both physical and other disabilities, we can begin to see why we need to go beyond physical inclusivity.

OK, it’s time to pivot.

I’ve been using the term Virtual Playground because most people understand “virtual” to mean something that lives in a computer-generated space. However, we can’t actually use Virtual Reality on the playground because VR puts the player in a computer-generated reality projected onto a headset that blocks the real world. This is totally the wrong direction from our intention. What we are looking for is technology that allows for more engagement with reality, not less.

Hence, the pivot away from using the term Virtual Playground. Going forward, we will use the term Augmented Playground.

The more I think about the name change, the more I like it. We’ve pointed out that the disabled community are the pioneers of technology that increases their abilities. Being augmented is in tons of children’s stories and culture. From the Six Million Dollar Man to the current line of superheroes, most of these fictional characters all have backstories of how they overcame a disability by being augmented. Many of those augmentations involve gee-wiz technology.

So, let’s hear it for Augmented Playgrounds! Yeah!

In our next post, we will review the literature on how Augmented Technology is being used to help kids.

Going Beyond Inclusive Play to Empowerment – Security part two

The Adventure Playground at Leonardo’s Basement lies behind a chain-link fence at 150 West 60th St. Gabriel Kwan | MPR News

Long before I was doing Build Your Own Playground, there were Adventure Playgrounds. As I’ve written, I loved the kinds of experiences these programs provide. I was also perplexed by the movement, as I couldn’t see a path forward to wide adoption in public parks or schools.

It’s now nearly five decades later, and not much has changed. There are still a few Adventure Playgrounds like the fairly new The Land and old standbys like Berkeley, which have not lost their charm or have multiplied.

On the other hand, when touring play-based early childhood programs such as Woodland Park, you will note they look a lot like adventure playgrounds. Indeed, the Anjiplay early childhood program that is sweeping China, and gaining traction in many other counties, has many of the same qualities of play-based learning.

The key characteristic that both adventure playgrounds and preschools share is the focus on empowering children. The sheer joy children display in these programs is direct evidence of the agency provided them.

The difference between adventure playgrounds and play-based early childhood programs is the age group they serve. Preschool kids cannot do actual construction and don’t build their own play structures. They simply stack things up. In addition, preschools tend to tidy up at the end of each day, while adventure programs are more casual and focus on securing their tools.

Does it have to be this way?

What is most important to note is both programs are fenced. Entrance is restricted to those who accept the nature of the program and are accepted by it. This characteristic stands in stark contrast to public playgrounds in parks and schools, which, for the most part, are fully accessible by the public, and therefore cannot allow loose parts of any sort. This one distinction is the primary reason that loose-part play does not exist in public parks.

There are off-the-shelf products to secure loose parts and allow them to be used by the public. Such technology is widely available, robust, and affordable. I recently outlined one approach to bringing the benefits of loose-part adventure play to public parks in this blog, The Technology for Adventure Playground Everywhere. Now it’s time to dig a bit deeper into the tech.

Computer networks are categorized by the amount of area they cover, ranging from a few inches to worldwide. The Near-me Area Network (NAN) focuses on communication between wireless devices, such as smartphones and personal digital assistants in close proximity. NAN is like a wireless local area network (WLAN) but can consist of devices from different network infrastructure. Being device agnostic is essential to the Virtual Playground so that everyone has access.

One of the Virtual Playground goals is to discover which features in the playground are being the most used. The system is built around devices with GPS capabilities such as cellphones and smartwatches to generate the needed data. Having a diversity of operating systems necessitates a check-in process for each device brought to the playground so they can hop onto the platform. The smart devices communicate with the Internet of Things (IoT) tags placed on the fixed and loose elements in the environment to provide location information rather than expensive GPS. Finally, the Virtual Playground Application encrypts and anonymizes data collected during each visit.

RFID Visitor Badge

The platform connects kids to the Virtual Playground with a kid-friendly badge. A recent study at the Museum of Civilization of Quebec designed by GenieLab in Montreal used a location tracking system developed by reelyActive, combining interaction detection of badged guests and occupancy analytics based on ambient data.

Visitors were invited to wear a fun badge during their visit. No personal information was collected. The wearer was simply categorized by using one of six types of wearable badges with RFID tags embedded. Upon returning their badge, the visitors could see where they spent their time via an interactive display.

The museum staff was delighted to obtain qualitative data of both occupancy and visits, while visitors overwhelmingly enjoyed and supported the initiative. The project confirmed the viability of a potential permanent installation.

This same technology will give the Virtual Playground the ability to measure exactly how new features, both physical and digital, enhance inclusion.

Some people may find such connectivity invasive. Whether we like it or not, we are all swimming in the ambient digital universe, and it gathers far more data about us than we can imagine.

The cyber environment is one that kids increasingly inhabit. To be a safe citizen of this world, children need to be more than consumers of digital services and learn the power, potential, benefits, and downsides of big data. One of the best ways to gain this knowledge is through playing in the Virtual Playground.

Going Beyond Inclusive Play to Empowerment – Security

Gathering crowd data is commonplace. Doing so for the benefit of children, not so much.

For Americans, first and foremost, children must be safe. Our society has become so concerned with this issue that we have created safety and child protection standards that have become increasingly counterproductive.

If we are to create a virtual playground that meshes with the physical and ensures agency for children, the security of the digital assets is the crux of the challenge. A clear statement of intentions is required. Here is what we propose:

  • Studies of early childhood development have conclusively established that the benefits of play are directly proportional to the child’s control. In the virtual playground, then, the goal must be for the data to be visible to children so they can regulate what is collected. This rule means that what is now invisible in the ambient digital environment must become apparent to its occupants.
  • Gamification has been shown to be highly motivating. This power must reside with the child and not the platform. Children have the right to control what is interesting to them, the degree of their engagement, and how they share their participation.
  • The primary function of the virtual playground is primarily to enhance play between children. The platform collects data on:
    • The frequency and length of utterances, but not the content
    • The proximity of children to each other
    • The location of children in the physical space
    • The smart objects the children are using
    • Biometric data, if allowed by the child
  • Collecting this data assumes when children are together and talking, they are for the most part playing, and having fun. The data shows which features in the environment and portable devices support this behavior.
  • The data collected is anonymous. The only person who has access to information about a child is the child. They have sole control of how and if they wish to share this information.
  • The data is analyzed within 24 hours and then deleted. Only the results are maintained.

There are many examples of benign data collection that motivate the users of a platform. For example, as a person with dyslexia, I can write much more clearly by using the Grammarly Writing Assistant. I consistently score in the upper 90s in productivity and novel word use. Predictably my accuracy is in 30s. It pleases me to see my scores improve. I appreciate that the platform helps me modify my communications so that I am better able to express myself.

The Virtual Playground can follow this example for others with disabilities. For example, an autistic child can discover how much they are communicating with other children. A child with mobility impairments can see how they have progressed in being more active.

Finally, it is predictable that a Virtual Playground platform that collects data is an attractive target for those who want to monetize or corrupt it. Isolating the platform from external penetration is of utmost urgency. The details of the protection put in place cannot, for obvious reasons, be disclosed. To be a trusted resource both the credentials of the security systems and the oversight provisions are provided.

Going Beyond Inclusive Play to Empowerment – Gamification

In 1969 Iona and Peter Opie published Children’s Games in Street and Playground, which cataloged more than 10,000 children’s games in the UK. Today, one would have difficulty finding more than a few dozen.

Playgrounds have been around for 250 years and have not changed their core function – to provide apparatus for children to play on. The equipment provided is predominately devoted to active play. There is no provision for games other than chase and tag.

In addition to apparatus for active play, parks also provide fields and courts for sports. These facilities are scaled and equipped for adults. While popular in Asia and the EU, tables for games are rare in America and are used primarily by adults.

Urban planners cite the need for community infrastructure that is play-friendly, and there are a few neighborhoods that have been created with this intent. However, the overwhelming urban and suburban landscape is hostile to children’s play.

From time immemorial, the lives of children have focused on two activities, doing stuff, and playing games. While kids can do stuff by themselves, they couldn’t play games alone until the advent of computers. In just 50 years, childhood has been utterly transformed. Today children can, and many do only play with computers exclusively and not with other children. In the last decade, multiplayer games have become available to kids. Today video game’s global revenue is $180 billion, while movie and sports combined revenue is $100 billion.

Playing with knifes!

Many parents worry about the amount of time their children spend staring at screens. Most studies that look for the impact of screen time do not find much that is demonstrably harmful. I maintain, these studies are looking for the wrong outcomes.

What has been lost is child created culture. Games have become packaged commodities that are designed intentionally to be addictive. While there is no proof that first-person shooter games turn children into killers, it is true that spending time mowing down enemies is not time spent playing mumbly peg, mother may I, or kick the can.


The growth of video games tells us that children’s innate need for games is alive, if not well. In the previous blog, I outline the Pirate’s Treasure Hunt game. While this is fun, it is still structured by adults with known outcomes. As we begin to go beyond inclusion to empowerment, the goal must be that the ambient digital platform is controlled by the children using the system.

Will this be easy to implement? Will the outcome be knowable? No and no. Will kids have fun? Will we learn something? Yes, and yes.

In this series, we will provide ideas about how such a platform can be created and immersively played.

Going Beyond Inclusive Play to Empowerment with Connectivity

Treasure hunting on the playground can be fun for all

For playgrounds to advance beyond inclusion to empowerment, there is a need for increased compatibility between assistive and standard technology and between platforms. Adding seamless connectivity is an essential tool for empowering those with disabilities to fully use their assistive technology to interact with others. Public playgrounds must be made more accessible and easier to use for both people with communicative and cognitive disabilities and those in their networks.

The design rule we employ in this discussion is simple. The empowering technology used are those devices children bring to the playground. The logic is that assistive devices are purposely customized and modified for each user, and it is prohibitively complex to embed services that fit all needs in the environment.

To connect these disparate devices, the technology that is added to the playground is a communication platform. The goal of the platform is to be as device-agnostic as possible. Fortunately, most assistive devices use standard protocols. Thus, providing connectivity with the Internet, Wi-Fi, and Bluetooth LE is the foundation of this ambient platform.

A second design rule is to maximize play that is unassisted by adults. This criterion builds essential social skills for bridging the ability disparities and builds self-confidence for all players.


How can a kid who is deaf play easily and naturally with other children on the playground?

The challenge is not how does the deaf child communicate. They will come to the playground with several tools such as lip-reading and sign language. The issue is how do the other kids include the deaf child. In this scenario, the service the platform provides is speech-to-text.

How can a kid with significant mobility disabilities play with highly active cohorts?

There are many ways to accomplish this, but since we will assume the children don’t all know each other or have much in common, it is best to use something universal. In this case, let’s use a Pirate Treasure Hunt game.

Small “treasures” are hidden throughout the play area. The non-ambulatory child is the Captain who gives out the first clue. The other players guess where the treasure is and go off to hunt. If they can’t find the treasure, they communicate back to the Captain who has been watching them hunt to get a new hint as to its location. Once the treasure is found, the hunters are given a clue to the next treasure. This can be repeated for as many treasures as desired. The final big treasure can be hidden near the Captain for all to enjoy. This a wonderful game for a birthday party, one of the most popular things families can do at a park.

The bottom line?

Creating a playground platform that provides easy access for interconnectivity between children is has unlimited potential, and connectivity between kids will take on a life of its own as they figure out new ways to play.

Inclusive Play Beyond Ramps

Stephen Hawking – Zero G

Since 1990 and the passing of the Americans with Disabilities Act, the landscape of America has changed radically. When the law was adopted, it received a lot of pushback because of the great expense for what many perceived as a benefit for a few.

Today, all of us take advantage of the many design features introduced by the act. From the parent with a stroller, a child using their first scooter, to the delivery driver hauling a loaded dolly from the truck and through an automatic door, we all use these features at one time or another.

It wasn’t until 2005 that the ADA Accessibility Guidelines were issued. While progress in implementing these rules has been slow, today, most play spaces are accessible.

Over the last ten years, several programs have pioneered a broader vision for playgrounds by championing inclusivity, i.e., while getting there is great, being part of the play is so much better.

In my experience, the goal of inclusivity is ideally embodied on Magical Bridge Foundation’s playgrounds. I have been lauding their efforts since 2015 in this blog. Currently, there are two sites in operation and four more that will open this year.

Now that we know how to go beyond access to inclusivity, what’s next?


A person has two ways to accommodate a disability. They can modify their environment or themselves. The ADA has made strides in modifying the environment. What about personal adaptations?

Like astronauts, disability advocates are pioneers in testing new technology. We see this all the time in people like Paralympians, Stephen Hawking, and Michael J. Fox. While these are very public examples, millions adapt to their disability by adopting technology.

When we look at emerging technology from robotics to speech recognition, you will find these being used as assistive systems. Not only are these systems developed in concert with the disabled, but they also are first adopters that provide the scale needed to help make these advances mainstream.

Nowhere is this more prevalent than in digital technology. For many, entering the virtual world is liberation for, as Peter Steiner said in his New Yorker Cartoon, “Nobody knows you’re a dog.”

The use of digital technology is a great equalizer. It also has been largely ignored by playground designers. Magical Bridge is a pioneer in this area. The Dutch company, Yalp, has also been forward-thinking. There have been several major art exhibits that explore this subject as well.

Such efforts tend to be limited to providing a specific experience in a person-to-machine fashion (P2M). To achieve the dream of fully inclusive playgrounds, we need to explore how to use digital technology to create person-to-person (P2P) connectivity.

Over the next few days, we will explore the following technologies and provide examples of how they can transform playgrounds. As we will see, each of these has great potential, but when combined, the synergistic impact is transformative and scalable.

  • Connectivity
  • Gamification
  • Security Systems
  • Virtual Reality
  • Augmented Reality
  • Robotics

A Path to Smart Toy Boxes

Look Mom! They are training for walking in the city!

At the turn of the century, I began approaching playground manufactures with the notion of using digital technology on the playground. While most of this work was proprietary, I was able to publish some of the research.

The late, and much missed Bernie De Koven advanced the notion in The Well-Played Game, that games increase in fun and engagement when the players are equally matched. I used this idea to design a challenge course in which smart obstacles recorded performance. The score the player received was based strictly on player’s past achievements. The game, Personal Best, allowed the creation of teams without regard to player’s ability. To achieve a high score, all a team had to do is better than they did before. Because the tech at that time was so flakey, we tested the idea with old-fashioned coaching and found that it is very powerful. I must confess that I teared up seeing a team yell and cheer for an overweight student that did one more pull-up that his previous record of five. An article on this project appeared in Playground Professionals Magazine in 2014.

It is well established that digital games are the most powerful way to engage kids. Unfortunately, this all too often results in isolation.

To explore the possibility of using tech to get kids outside, more active, and playing together, in concert with Mike Lanza, the author of Playborhood, we explored using IoT in combination with Geocaching. While this was an interesting adventure, it was blown out of the water by Pokémon GO. The only concrete result of this research was yet another article in 2016, Pokémon GO, Play and Parks.

What have we learned?

There are two big take-aways from two decades of research. The first insight comes in part from watching the lackluster adoption of current interactive playground systems. This was been reinforced by testing of various options as detailed above. What we have learned is that using the systems that use power of smart devices and the ability to connect to IoT will beat any attempt to create smart play apparatus.

The second insight, is that playground equipment producers are not well positioned to develop the tech for Smart Toy Boxes. If not the playground industry, then who?

How about the tech companies?

I have shied away from approaching Silicon Valley outfits because, while they love innovation and gamification, at the corporate level they are difficult to connect with. After all, Smart Play Boxes don’t need anything cutting edge. Rather, we want cheap, reliable and off the shelf.

Wait! Cheap, reliable and off the shelf. That sounds like the tech for cashier-free retail that is being rolled at scale. Hey, if its good enough for Amazon, who am I to disagree?