Nearly three years ago my friend Mike Lanza, of Playborhood fame, and I joined forces to find a way to use technology to encourage kids to play outdoors. After considerable research we determined that the best platform was to use the then emerging Internet of Things (IoT) and Bluetooth Low Energy beacons. The startup we created was a location based mobility games developer and the first product was called Beaconeering, an advanced form of geocaching that used a smartphone app that found the beacon instead of the traditional hidden treasure. Long story short, the IoT tech was a mess and in many respects still is. The hardware is glitchy, the development software is incomplete and often wrong, and the game play was not sufficiently engaging to bet the farm on.
Now along comes Pokémon GO and makes all of the things we dreamt of not only possible, but so much better. Like our idea the game uses smartphones and an app but since the elements of the game are virtual instead of physical as in Beaconeering they can be placed anywhere, and in infinite variety. This sort of tech is called augmented reality and places information and/or graphics as an overlay to a digital image. The beauty and power of what the developer, Nintendo, has achieved is combining the smartphone’s camera with GPS in a speedy and beautiful graphical interface. This is one very nice piece of tech.
Pokémon GO is such a huge hit that it has rocketed it’s way to the top download in just weeks and there are already hundreds of stories about it in the mainstream press. Like it or not, park and recreation professionals will have to come to terms with this phenomena.
Let’s start at the most basic level. Pokémon GO is play in the true sense. It’s fun and challenging and while in its current form its mainly a one-person game, that will change soon and it will become a massive multi-player game.
The game designers went to great lengths to insure that players would have to walk around to be able to play. To generate the thousands of locations for the PokéStops, Gyms, and locations, Pokémon Go draws heavily from Ingress, Niantic Labs’ earlier real world exploration game.
The game uses players’ location data in order to point them toward landmarks to visit, places to capture, and in the case of Pokémon Go, various monsters to collect.
Pokémon GO is not a fad. It will not be popular this year and gone next year. The game itself has been going since 1996 and is in its seventh iteration. It is available in handheld, console, arcade and now mobile formats. With 10’s of millions of players, this game is here to stay. As we learned doing research for Beaconeering, an augmented reality version would be a “killer” app and would be an inevitable product in the near future. I thought it would be the Angry Birds franchise since they were already dabbling in AR but the success of Pokémon GO is sure to put the spurs to their program.
Use it or Loose it
As a professional you have three choices. You can ignore it and loose the opportunity to engage a significant part of your constituency, you can try to fight it by banning players from park property and look like a fool for fighting outdoor play, or you can embrace the game and come out a winner.
Take a look at “How ‘Pokémon GO‘ Can Lure More Customers To Your Local Business”. The main idea here is that if you are already a PokéStop you can welcome players in and engage them in your other programs and facilities. Even better, set up Pokémon meet-ups and events. How about a Pokémon vending machine – really just a pit stop for snacks and drinks?
If your facility is not a PokéStop you can ask to become one. Since this stuff is really hot there have already been a number of updates to the article and you will notice at the bottom there is a link to make such a request.
Your department can even program around Pokémon. For example #PokeBlitz connects players with biologists to help them identify unrecognized flora and fauna. See: “PokeBlitz” Twitter Hashtag Has Biologists Using “Pokemon Go” To Teach People About Real-Life Animals So We Can Really “Catch ‘Em All”
Read All About it
This is evolving rapidly. Here are some of the better articles to review:
This blog was first published 0m July 20, 2016 at Playground Professionals
Although I was an art major in college, I was also able to take a number of classes in psychology and early childhood education. This influenced my decision to go on to Pacific Oaks College in Pasadena, one of the premier centers for early childhood educators.
During my tenure at Pacific Oaks, the work of Mary Ainsworth on attachment theory was being brought into the field of early childhood education and creating quite a stir. This theory had not yet filtered down to the curriculum for students so my exposure was cursory. As I began my career, I followed the subject as best I could while I began to morph from a sculptor into a play and play space designer.
Attachment theory really came up and caught me by surprise much later in life when I began to get counseling to figure out how I could be a better person and have more satisfying relationships.
What I found out was that there is a sort of spectrum of attachment:
- Secure attachment
- Anxious-resistant attachment
- Anxious-avoidant insecure attachment
- Disorganized/disoriented attachment
Together with my counselor, I discovered that the root cause of my relationship issues where based on my failure to have a secure attachment. It took me nearly a decade to work through my maladaptive behaviors. I can now honestly say that I only struggle with relationships rather than not being able to form them at all.
What does this life story have to do with play and play spaces? On the most basic level, because of personal pain and the ability to overcome childhood issues to go on to make the world a better place, my dedication to play has allowed me to heal, as well as make a contribution to the field of play and play spaces.
It is with this knowledge and experience that I read the most appalling results of a new study; 40% of children miss out on the parenting needed to succeed in life. Relying on my knowledge of this issue, I was stunned and heartbroken to realize the implications for all of the children, and to our nation, of this failure to provide adequate parenting.
This is not a problem that park professionals and play space creators can solve on their own. This is an issue that is fundamentally economic and political and has become extremely exacerbated by the devastation of the middle class over the last dozen years. Although park and play people cannot take the lead, there is much we can do to improve the situation.
The first issue to address is to be educated on attachment and parental bonding so there is a better understanding of the issue. This shouldn’t be any different than the work you have done previously to implement the ADA or provide for the LGBT community.
The next most powerful contribution will be advocacy. This is especially true because those who suffer from a failure to bond, unlike previous minorities, are invisible. Indeed, most of those who suffer the consequences do not themselves know that their lives and relationships could be vastly different and healthier. Parks and recreational professionals can take on a significant role. This does not imply that you have to become an expert in psychology, as there are many mental health professionals who will join and support your campaign.
Finally, you can do what you do best, provide programs and outreach that will help parents both understand the issue and develop skills that will significantly improve their parenting.
It’s a Health Epidemic
Here’s a major reason why this should become your number one priority; children who fail to have a secure attachment are almost certain to be unable to as adults. These same adults are the ones who are unable to generate a secure attachment for their children. With 40% of adults insecure, it means that the majority of children are at risk and that the percentage of damaged children will only grow over time. The failure to bond is an invisible plague that will overwhelm our society with mental health problems.
The cycle needs to be broken. We must provide many opportunities for self-directed play for we know, beyond a shadow of a doubt, that play heals. I personally guarantee it.
This was first published 3-1-16 by Playground Professionals
Over the past five decades I have dedicated myself to creating play opportunities for children. In the past dozen years I have become more involved in economics and particularly the housing crisis that resulted from the manipulations of Wall Street. After a lot of research I’ve come to see the “tiny house” phenomena as currently the most interesting and potentially impacting movement. I’ve been posting what I’ve learned about micro-living and the economic factors behind the housing crisis on a Facebook page Tiny Houses for a Big Change.
Recently a housing project I am working on took me to Social Advocates for Youth, a superbly run and very effective program here in Sonoma County. The image above is a screen shot from a S.A.Y. informational video. The young man told a story of what it is like to be living on the street. He was hoping that the skies that night would be clear so he could sleep under the stars. And then the camera watched as he bedded down for the night. Seeing this young man, a child really, finding a safe play to sleep on a playground structure about broke my heart. It was especially powerful for be as it was built using the system I invented 30 years ago.
It took me several nearly sleepless nights to figure out why this one picture had really knocked me over. What finally came up for me was that, at the core, my interest in play and playgrounds stems in part from my childhood where my only sanctuary was play.
When I work with communities to design playgrounds I generally ask the adults to recall their childhood play experiences. My motive isn’t really to get design ideas because most of these recollections are often the same, digging a fox hole, creating a fort, playing games at night, climbing trees, etc. What this exercise does is to rekindle that sense of vulnerability we have as children. It helps the design process move to grownups concerns to the adventure that play can be.
My thesis here is that playgrounds are about vulnerability as much as they are about play. Consider this. The hottest markets for playgrounds today are those designed to be fully inclusive. While these projects often cost twice what a standard “accessible” playground does, these projects are successful in a large part because they double down on our capacity to empathize with children with special needs.
So the homeless kid sleeping on the playground was vulnerability plied on vulnerability. Too often we think of the homeless as substance abusers, mentally compromised or system gamers. Sure there are a few such individuals but the vast majority are on the streets or living in shelters through no fault of their own. They are escaping abuse; evicted by soaring rents, hit a financial calamity, grossly underpaid, etc.
The worse of it is that it hits children the hardest. This is what our country has come to:
- With 35,000 homeless youth in public schools, state lawmakers seek money to help
- Four sobering facts about the city’s 86,000 homeless students
- Number of Homeless Public School Students Hits Record High.
- For every 2 homeless children in 2014, there are now 3. At the same time America’s wealth has grown by 60%
- New report says that the majority of U.S. public school students are poor
- Advocates: Homeless young adults hard to identify, help
The U.S. has one of the highest relative child poverty rates in the developed world. As UNICEF reports, “[Children’s] material well-being is highest in the Netherlands and in the four Nordic countries and lowest in Latvia, Lithuania, Romania and the United States.”
The impact on children who are homeless and staggering:
- Childhood Trauma Leads to Brains Wired for Fear
- Hiding in the Shadows: Don’t Forget About California’s Homeless Children
- Children’s HealthWatch: Exploring the Link Between Housing and Children’s Health
OK. You are probably already aware that we have a problem with homeless children and poverty. And yes the problem is much bigger perhaps than any of us not in the business of providing services realized. But consider this additional fact. These children will have to carry the burden of adapting to climate change. All recent indications are that the impacts will be upon us sooner and in much greater ferocity than has been predicted. They will have to enter this fight, and it will be a fight, with one hand tied behind their backs.
Children in dire straits are, of course a worldwide crisis. One need only look at the thousands of children now in refugee camps around the world. It is estimated that today 25 million children are living in refugee camps. There are many more that don’t even have such protection.
We know that children will play even in the harshest condition if there is even a modicum of safety. We also know that play heals and protects children in such conditions.
There are groups that are addressing this need. Recently Playground Ideas completed their 1000th playspace. Their goal is to start a playground revolution and bring play to children worldwide.
Of course KaBoom has been working on this issue for a long time with great impact. While successful a typical play structure in a park or school may not be accessed by homeless children whether living on the street or in a shelter. Recognizing that there is more to be done James Siegal, who joined KaBOOM! in 2012 and became chief executive officer is fostering a city-wide approach to put play where the children are rather than just on playgrounds.
“For cities really to be successful in a sustainable way, you have to focus on kids and families, and you have to focus on kids who need it most – kids growing up in poverty.”
Another great program is PlayWorks. This program is successful at reaching many of the children who are most in need because they go to where the children are. In this case at school and during recess.
“Playworks is the only nonprofit organization in the country providing trained, full-time coaches focused on recess to hundreds of low-income schools in major urban areas. We also provide training and technical assistance to schools, districts and youth organizations that want to ensure that every kid plays – safely, inclusively and with joy”
Call to Action!
For those of you, who have followed my posts here at Playground Professionals, will recognize that this is another of my exhortations for playground and recreation professionals to step up and advocate for innovative programs that aggressively address the increasing loss of healthy recreation for today’s children.
I spend two or three hours each day sorting through the posts in the media about these issues. With the exception of the programs cited above, the only other bits of information I find are the periodic donations by playground manufacturers.
What am I missing? Are you out there advocating for innovative programs to bring recreation to kids in need? Do you know of a champion, or a group I’ve missed? If you do please share your projects and people with us by posting in the comments box below.
This post first appeared in Playground Professional 2/23/2016
When someone says “adventure playground” I, and I suspect most people, have a vision somewhat like the one above and envision a playspace comprised mostly of junk and reclaimed lumber cobbled together into semi-permanent structures. The concept was first introduced in 1943 and not only do a few such playgrounds continue to exist but occasionally a new one is built these days such as The Land in Plas Madoc in Wales, UK.
While kids unquestionably enjoy, what I will now call “traditional” adventure playgrounds, they are far less popular with adults and therefore have not been widely adopted.
The question is can we provide all, or at least most, of the benefits of adventure playgrounds in a way that allows them to become far more widespread? The answer is not only a resounding yes, but in fact they are actually all around us. Where you ask? Look at the better early childhood programs and in many you will see the core qualities of an adventure playground. These qualities are:
- Loose parts
- Support constructive and manipulative play
- There is adult oversight, but it is not supervision, direction or control of the children’s play
I hope that these qualities become the accepted definition for adventure play as there are all manner of playspaces and products that have little to do with true adventure playspaces.
Other “Adventure” Playgrounds
Takoma Park Cooperative Nursery School is a particularly noteworthy example of adventure play. Of course early childhood play environments can range from extremely rich and completely child-centered to tarmac wastelands with teachers as cops, but the fact is that these mini-adventure playgrounds do exist in many communities and do so without fanfare or extraordinary liability issues.
Recently there have been some innovative play space products that support most of the adventure criteria, most notably the Blue Blocks of Imagination Playgrounds and SNUG. I have written about these previously in the News Center – The Play-Friendly Playground. These are essentially loose parts kits and as such provide lots of combinations but at the same time the play they support is limited to their particular vocabulary. What is missing in these loose part systems is challenge.
An approach that is closer to the soul of traditional adventure playgrounds is Timmerdorp, a carpentry festival in Groningen, Netherlands with over 650 kids participating.
What is especially interesting about this project is that it is successful in part because they provided a lot of pallets, which become essentially a kit of loose parts. This allows for rapid build out and inclusion of children who are not skilled with hammers and saws. While the pallets facilitate construction, without the availability of long pieces of lumber, they also tend to limit construction to a single story as well as restricting the creation of more physically challenging structures.
Image courtesy of AnjiPlay World
We have written previously about the exciting AnjiPlay schools in China. The curriculum there is centered on free play and the environment perfectly embodies the five adventure play criteria. The program incudes the use of hammers and saws but does not extend those to built environments as their idea, which I agree with, is the importance of rapidly configuring the playspace on a daily basis, much like it occurs with Blue Blocks and SNUG rather than the nearly permanent structures that have become a characteristic of traditional adventure playgrounds.
As I have been exploring these notions I began to wonder if I could devise a system that incorporates all of the adventure play criteria, allows for rapid configuration and change, and also provides a high level of challenge.
What I have devised combines my years of experience with BigToys with what I learned with my own company BOLDR and its Rocks and Ropes system. The result is KidWeb®, a kid buildable ropes course as illustrated in the model above. This concept uses marine grade rope and moveable mechanical knots. It also includes nets and tarps that clip on. I have a patent pending and am confident that it will be granted since this is both a very simple system and narrowly applied to playgrounds. A field test will be conducted this summer and I really look forward to seeing what the kids do with the system.
The Future of Adventure Play
As traditional playgrounds have become increasingly commonplace while at the same time less and less challenging there is a growing need for, and acceptance of adventure play. We are already seeing this crop up in the better early childhood education programs and in children’s museums. As large inclusive playgrounds such as Magical Bridge which feature fences and often some form of programing become more widespread the addition of loose parts is the logical next step since by their very nature are extremely inclusive. As I described in the Kid Friendly Playgrounds blog previously mentioned, all that is required to add loose parts is a bit of coordination of the storage of the parts and that can be performed either by staff or qualified volunteers.
So, to those who wring their hands and bemoan the lack of adventure playgrounds I say, look around, they are here and there will be many, many more. They may not look just like those of Lady Allen but I’m sure she would recognize their play value as well as their acceptability to adults that in turn will allow them to be used in many more locations.
This article was first published 1.27.16 by Playground Professionals
In a recent conversation with play designer Cas Holman, best know for her Rigamajig, she mentioned the Cyborg Manifesto, an essay written by Donna Haraway. Many writers have adopted Ms. Haraway’s notion of humans becoming cyborgs for various purposes and I found it fascinating to research that many branched discussion.
On reflection I have to conclude it is absolutely true that modern humans are rapidly turning into cyborgs.
A cyborg (short for “cybernetic organism”) is a being with both organic and biomechatronic parts. – Wikipedia
While in the narrow sense a true cyborg has the mechanical parts integrated into their bodies, such as pacemakers, but the reality is that the connection between us and our machines is now so intimate that we might as well be wearing them, which by the way is just around the corner with the advent of “smart garments”. One need only look around at people with their faces glued to their communication devices (phones) or sitting behind the wheel of their transportation devices (cars) traveling to their environmental protection devices (homes). We have incorporated all manner of biomechatronic devices that extend our physical being and capabilities. The thing about cyborgization is that these mechanical extensions of ourselves are all purpose driven; they help us do things, mainly work.
I shared the gist of my conversation with Gwen Gordon, the producer of the Now Playing documentary currently in development, and she suggested that complexity theory could be useful to help understand play in its various this contexts. Generally speaking play can be said to be the sweet spot between chaos on one side and order on the other. For a healthy life, or society, a balance must be struck. Too much order and we become inflexible and specialized, a cyborg. Too much chaos and we are scattered, disconnected and ineffectual.
Play, like love, is a life force and without it we are not truly human. We must remember that as, Cas said to me, “Play has been doing its job all along” and she’s right, throughout most of evolution play has been equipping humans to survive and thrive.
As we remove play from life we become less and less human. In our drive to use mechanical power we not only repress play but also all that is natural. Consider the recent studies that have shown:
- Taking play out of education produces good test takers but poor thinkers
- Taking rough and tumble play and challenge out of childhood produces adults who are risk averse and who adapt poorly to uncertainly
- Restricting children’s movement to car seats, strollers, etc. produces children with significant gross motor deficits.
- Sanitizing the child’s life leads to many diseases such as asthma and obesity
- Play deprivation is one factor in the backgrounds of our most violent criminals.
An amazing new early childhood program is emerging in the Chinese Provence of Anji. Rather than push academics down to younger as has been the trend both in China and in the US, in an Anji Play program all the children do is play. The rapid success of Anji play is due in a large part to reminding parents and the community what they did as children and how those experiences help them in the daily lives. The Anji Play folks have found that people are more willing to support efforts to restore play when they can remember their own play experiences. When play is squeezed out of our children’s lives it can become a reinforcing feedback loop and they will have fewer play memories and be less inclined to support efforts to restore play when they have children of their own. The suppression of play and our increasing separation from all things natural will be one of those, “You don’t know what you lost ‘cuz its gone” kind of deals and we continue down this path at our peril.
There is no question that the future will be a very challenging place as the pace of change increases exponentially. That future will depend on the capabilities of creative, resilient and confident people. Since the challenges we will face are to a great extent unpredictable we cannot train children for the tasks that lie ahead. But we can support them to be prepared for the unexpected. And play is not only the best way to do so; it’s the only way. Our survival depends on preserving and protecting the power of play within the context of modern society.
We must foster a new human, a cyborg that knows how to play. Here are two examples of how we can do this. I am involved in my local schools and watch how the students use their devices. While many still use their smart devices to the exclusion of the outside world I see a significant number of students sharing their images and ideas in an inclusive way. In today’s classrooms there is trend towards more and more student initiated and project based learning and that can be very playful.
I recently joined Mike Lanza, of Playborhood fame; on a beta test for a new game app that he has developed that uses smartphones as an integral part of a Geocache type of game that requires collaboration and a remote collaborator connected by smartphone.
As these examples illustrate, the trick to teaching a cyborg to play is not to be consumed by technology but to play with it.
For more on this subject visit “What Makes Us Human”.
Photo courtesy of: http://www.tedxvienna.at
This article was first published on Playground Professionals 12-30-15
“Let your child be a child. Dirt is good. If your child isn’t coming in dirty every day, they’re not doing their job. They’re not building their immunological army.” Dr Mary Ruebush, immunologist and author of Why Dirt is Good: 5 Ways to Make Germs Your Friends
This post may make you feel really yucky but bear with me, it’s important.
Over the past few decades there has been a growing body of research that points to the role of the bacteria in our gut to our health. Most of us carry around about five pounds “of not us” stuff, something like 100 trillion little beasties, mostly in the lower G. I. tract. Without them we could not metabolize what we eat.
We are beginning to understand that establishing this diverse community of mostly bacteria and keeping it balanced is essential to health. For one thing, when they are functioning optimally, they crowd out bad bacteria that can trigger disease. The first major breakthrough in this area was in 1982, when it was discovered that ulcers are not caused by stress or diet but by the bacteria Helicobacter pylori.
Poor intestinal health has subsequently been implicated in obesity, autoimmune diseases such as MS and lupus, Parkinson’s, acne, cancer, asthma, ADHD, and diabetes. The most recent research is finding connections with behavior and moods as well as a strong implication with autism.
This is serious stuff. One of the reactions to this flood of new research is to review the use of antibiotics, painkillers, and other medications, which have been shown to damage the microbiome. Currently there are also major studies looking at the impact of genetically modified foods, as tests connected on mice seem to indicate a problem with them and gut health as well.
The bacteria in our guts are derived from many sources. Babies pick up their first load during birth and the type of delivery makes a big difference. They also begin to get them from physical contact with adults.
It appears that some of the most important denizens of our gut come from dirt. Mycobacterium vaccae is found in soil and stimulates serotonin production, which makes you relaxed and happier. Researchers found that “Exposure to friendly soil bacteria could improve mood by boosting the immune system just as effectively as antidepressant drugs.”
In this article, Toddler temperament could be influenced by different types of gut bacteria, it is reported that researchers “found that children with the most genetically diverse types of gut bacteria more frequently exhibited behaviors related with positive mood, curiosity, sociability and impulsivity.”
In 2010 researchers established “that mice that were fed live M. vaccae navigated the maze twice as fast and with less demonstrated anxiety behaviors as control mice.” So dirt not only makes us happy, it also makes us smarter.
Of course, microbes in large doses in some dirt can be bad for us, but in small amounts our immune systems are wonderfully designed to select the good from the bad. When the exposure is moderate, the more bacteria, viruses, and parasites our immune system is exposed to the better chance we have of warding off diseases. Research has shown that children who grow up on farms have lower allergy and asthma rates, a phenomenon attributed to their regular exposure to microorganisms present in farm soil. Another study found that infants in homes with a greater variety of bacteria were less likely to develop environmental allergies and wheezing at age 3.
What’s Gut Health Have to do With Play?
Perhaps we should not be surprised that playing in the dirt makes us happy or that gardening elevates our mood, but few of us would go on to assume that these activities are absolutely essential to our health. It is even more unlikely that we would go even further and say that the earlier such playing with dirt occurs the better.
Of course, allowing children, especially infants, to be exposed to dirt is primarily at the discretion of parents, but as the evidence grows that the long-term health of each individual depends on the dirt that they play in, we may see a time when the essential and beneficial microbes are isolated and children are routinely inoculated at birth.
The fact that M. vaccae continues to elevate our mood throughout our lifespan suggests that our bodies continue to benefit from re-exposure to dirt. When we lived as hunter-gatherers or farmed by hand, such long-term contact with soil was no problem. In today’s highly urbanized world getting dirty is becoming increasingly problematic. As the correlation between microbes and disease gets increasingly well understood, some researcher in the not-to-distant future will do the math and determine that the health care cost to society’s fixation on hygiene is so large that it may well become the number one cause of preventable disease. The good news is that this will mean that community gardens, which are already very popular, will become ubiquitous. The other impact will be that dirt pits will become a standard feature of early childhood programs.
For more information and a great resource list visit the Stay At Home Educator Blog.
Here are various posts that expand this idea:
- How the Bacteria in Our Gut Influences Our Mind
- Toddler temperament could be influenced by different types of gut bacteria
- Should you let your baby play in dirt and not bother cleaning the house? Researchers say it could boost your child’s immune system and guard against asthma
- THE DIRT ON DIRT: HOW GETTING DIRTY MAKES FOR HEATHY KIDS
- Reading, writing and mud: the growth of Forest Schools
- Your gut bacteria could be the key to fighting obesity
- Antidepressant Microbes In Soil: How Dirt Makes You Happy
This article first appeared in Playground Professionals November 23, 2015
“Hey! Let’s go to Long Ramp Playground,” said no kid ever.
As followers of my posts will know, one of my self-appointed missions is to push for better playgrounds with more play value. Nowhere is the problem of bad playspace design more rampant than in the area of “accessible” playgrounds. To look at this in detail, let’s look at a particularly egregious new playground in New Jersey.
The basic layout of the play structure is one long ramp with interactive events every 12 feet. This results in a path of travel exceeding 40 feet in total length. As you can see from the photo, there are no access points along the majority of this run. Parents are either blocked from assisting their child with special needs or required to follow them throughout the child’s play, turning them into helicoptering parents. Exactly the thing we don’t want if our goal is to maximize social interaction between children of differing abilities.
The culmination of this epic journey up the ramp is a small, plastic slide with a climber and fire pole. Since this is the only portion of the structure with active play elements, modest though they may be, it will become very crowded by physically active kids making access to the slide for children with limited mobility problematic on busy days.
So let’s walk through the play experience for a child who uses a wheelchair. The child goes up each incline to a station that provides an “interactive” event. In this case, “interactive” is a misnomer because these events are designed to provide a single child with an equipment-to-equipment experience and only marginally supports child-to-child interaction. The problem with these supposedly interactive events is that they are appealing primarily to children who are not yet developmentally ready for social and cooperative play. Of course there is a percentage of the population with special needs for whom this is appropriate, but it is a small fraction, and the goal for these children is to provide play opportunities that will foster engagement with other children—a goal at which this design fails miserably.
Continuing up the ramps to the apex, what can we expect will happen for the child using a wheelchair? There are two possibilities, assuming the child can actually get through the crowd and near enough to the slide to use it: If the child has transfer skills or an assistant, he or she can exit the chair and slide down. Now the chair is at the top and the child is at the bottom. The chair has to be brought around an 80-foot trail back down to the slide exit while our player waits at the bottom of the slide. What a humiliating and predictable disaster for the child! In order to reduce the trauma, the parent will have to enlist another adult to tend to the child while she rushes around to reunite the child with the chair. The other scenario is that the child does not have transfer skills, and so he or she must turn around and exit via the long ramp.
The layout of this play structure is spectacularly poor. The long, narrow design requires much more expensive poured-in-place surfacing than if the design was rectilinear. This layout also prevents interaction of children across the structure, as would be the case with a better layout. So here we have an incredibly expensive play structure plus the surfacing, just because the design goal has to provide an elevated slide as the preferred play experience. If the design goal had been thought through, it would have been predictable that this design was going to be dysfunctional and traumatic for the small population for which it was intended.
By changing the design goal, this project need not have been such a failure. There are many wonderful options that can engage children of all ability in cooperative play. Take for example the BigToys Turn-Across. The installation shown here would have been even better if it was over poured-in-place rubber instead of engineered wood fiber. Not only is that a more accessible surfacing, but it also would eliminate the need to constantly maintain the EWF that will be displaced by the children going back and forth.
This unique design requires that children play collaboratively. Here, children using chairs can be leaders of the play, and if they have transfer skills they can join with other kids riding the gondola. Rather than setting the play experience as elevated sliding would, no safety surfacing is required, saving tens of thousands of dollars. With these savings, several other products that are on the market with similar ground-based functionality could be purchased, or much higher-quality, musical devices could be provided that will be far more appealing than the roto-cast elements seen on the ramp structure.
Thus, with the same—or less funding—the playspace could have several really inclusive and exciting zones where all children can play together.
How did we get into the mess?
Good question. In my experience, the whole ADA-standards setting process was high-jacked by wheelchair-access advocates. The narrow focus on the path of travel was, to my thinking, a misinterpretation of the Americans with Disabilities Act—which was aided and abetted by the consultants provided by the Access Board, who guided the rule-making process. In recent interviews, the Access Board representatives are unapologetic about the process, having been focusing almost exclusively on mobility access to the exclusion of the vast majority of other sorts of needs.
For example, children with autism can only play independently if the playspace is fenced. Acoustic guides benefit children with vision impairments. Children with sensory issues need safe places where they can retreat when they become overloaded. The list is almost endless of the ways in which children of all abilities can be supported in playing together. Go back and reread the playground ADA standards and see if you find any reference to design concepts that will foster inclusiveness.
While the Access Board and their consultants bear the bulk of the responsibility for the failure to provide for inclusive design, the playground industry continues to perpetuate this fraud in playground after playground. They are eager to take the dollars from well-meaning communities to sell designs that they know are just plain wrong. Manufacturers can and should do a better job of developing inclusive options. They also bear a responsibility to train their regional sales personnel in what good design is and how to communicate those ideas to the public.
What to do?
There are great examples of inclusive design. My current favorite is Magical Bridge Playground in Palo Alto, California. The team at Magical Bridge, frustrated by the lack of inclusive apparatus from U.S. suppliers, went primarily to equipment suppliers in Europe who have a much better sense of design and sensitivity to the issues of inclusion. To learn more the playground, check out the attached brochure. For questions, contact Olenka at firstname.lastname@example.org.
If you are interested in moving beyond ADA to provide full play for all:
To the public I say, “Don’t buy into the ADA ramps-only solution. Do your homework—there are some really great inclusive playspaces from which you can get good ideas.”
To the manufacturers, I call for innovation and better understanding of the whole range of abilities and the opportunities they present.
To the salespeople, I demand that you do some soul-searching and not take the easy way out; educate your customers about inclusive design. If you find that you don’t have good options, then lobby your supplier for better options.
To the parks and recreation professionals who are supposed to know better, I say, “Just stop it. Just stop allowing these overly ramped playgrounds that don’t work in your system.”
This post first appeared in Playground Professionals 11-10-15