Congratulations! Your Patent Has Been Granted

GP&M site

This post first appeared in Playground Professionals 4.15.15

Today is a red-letter day for me. Having created dozens of playground innovations, I finally have one that is patented. I guess that shouldn’t come as too much of a surprise since play has been around a long time and it’s really hard to establish that there is no prior art.

What made this possible is that we were asked to solve a design problem that had a dozen mutually exclusive criteria, so we really had to think outside the box, so to speak.

The project was to update the play apparatus that I had developed for Gymboree Play and Music 17 years ago. That product was all wood-based and consisted primarily of stacked boxes and A-frames with attachable play events.

I’ve had the pleasure of working with design teams from most of the major manufacturers so I am familiar with the typical methodology in which the sales and design departments develop a product concept and then turn it over to engineering to produce. For this project, the process was unique in that we worked directly with the client who in turn would be using the product in their daily work with children. We provided working prototypes that were tested extensively in real world situations with highly qualified and experienced evaluators.

The Gymboree Play and Music team members, a cross-pollinated group, included a product manager who brought a background in developing toys and a designer whose primary function is site layouts as well as having operational undersanding of the Play and Music centers. All of the designs were reviewed and extensively tested by the curriculum development team, franchisees, and onsite teachers.

Those who joined me on the consulting team were Hap Parker, who contributed his extensive knowledge both of product design and the playground industry, and Jesse Moore, a former student of mine, who added his sense of design to the panels.

Mutually exclusive criteria

So here’s the design problem. Develop a play apparatus system that:

  • Is modular and can be rapidly assembled without tools
  • Is portable and does not attach to the floor
  • Can support 300 lbs.
  • Has a premium look and feel
  • Meets all applicable playground, toy, building, health, and safety codes
  • Is stable when assembled over foam mats
  • Every piece of apparatus has to be used in multiple ways
  • And the total package is affordable

At the beginning we had two objectives: to integrate what we had learned from the previous system and to add challenge and more interest for children three to five years of age.

Initially, we thought we could change just a few elements, but as the process continued, we eventually created an entirely new system. The most radical addition is the new H-Frame system that replaced A-Frames. The ladder concept allowed us to place connecting and staging areas into small clusters, not unlike modern playground systems.

The problem with ladders is that the rungs get in the way of the flow between staging areas. The answer was to create a removable rung system. What appeared to be a straightforward solution turned out to be anything but. The challenges included: easy and failure-proof rung installation and removal, perfect alignment of the sides of the ladder, and manufacturing parts to a degree of precision that is unprecedented in the playground industry. We were extremely fortunate to be able to forge a strong collaboration with GameTime, who worked consistently to meet our requirements.

The Truth About Patents

My assumption about patents has been all wrong. I thought a patent meant you described the invention so no one could copy it for twenty years. It turns out that a really good patent discloses only enough to give you a case to sue those who would copy, hopefully without disclosing the heart of the invention.

In our case we solved the problem of taking a bunch of loose parts and creating a stable and reconfigurable play environment that rests on foam. There is little in the patent that discloses how we do that. Rather, it just prevents anyone from using the particular elements that comprise the system. The specific details of how each element of the system interacts to make this work remain our trade secrets.

The other truth about patents is they are not worth a dime unless you can afford a really good patent attorney, have the resources to apply for patents worldwide, and can defend them when copycats do appear. This means you have to be very certain that you have sufficient market to cover these costs. Since Gymboree operates over 600 programs around the world, this hurtle was not an obstacle.

Other Kinds of Protection

There are subtle design elements in every piece of apparatus we developed in the system. Unless one has an excellent knowledge of exercise physiology and child development, many of the details will seem unimportant. Some details that look cosmetic are really important safety features. Unless one has Gymboree Play and Music’s depth of experience, those features would not be considered essential and not worth the added expense. Finally, the overall high quality of the environment is difficult for small competitors to match.

A Wonderful Experience

In my past experience with creating playground apparatus, the general criteria for products were market potential, meeting the demand by the sale force for brand-exclusive products, or maximizing production capacity. With Gymboree Play and Music, there was really only one criteria: what is best for the children and program. The method of determining this was equally simple. Take the prototypes into the field and test them. In my experience this process of dynamic testing at each stage is unique.

For me, the most delightful part of the process was that go/no-go decisions were made almost instantaneously. No one brought his or her own agenda or egos. Excellence was always sought and expected. The result is a system that achieves all of its mutually exclusive demands with grace and beauty.

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A New Paradigm When Designing for Play

child flower

This post first appeared Playground Professionals 3.34.15

A recent conversation with Michael Haran caught my attention when he used the term “inquiry-learning.” He defined the term as not only discovering the world around the learner but also looking for the serendipitous. He explained that this sort of thinking is what scientist and engineers do; not just solve the problem or prove the theorem, but to seek the exception as well.

As I considered his idea I realized that the same trait is true of artists and designers. I know in my own experience that the “work” I’m engaged in is just the canvas on which I find the unexpected, which is where the real treasures lie. Indeed, this quality is generally true of any creative person regardless of the discipline.

I have written previously about what I refer to as the “learning spectrum” that starts with discovery, leading to play, then practice, and finally mastery. Thinking about Michael’s idea I had to consider that perhaps the term “discovery” should be changed to “inquiry.” However, further reflection led me to realize that play and inquiry are just two words for the same phenomena.

Here’s an example. Consider the toddler’s first attempts to use a spoon. There are many basic skills that have to be mastered to be able to transport food from the dish to the mouth, but once accomplished, is the child done learning? Hardly. Now that he has “discovered” what the spoon can do in its normal function, he explores its uses as a pea catapult, a nose decoration, and even a percussion instrument.

Transforming our Ideas about Play and Learning

Recently I have become the Curator for Now Playing Worldwide, a PBS series in early development. My function is to search as broadly as I can to find experts and information that will support and inform the series. In that capacity I have been virtually overwhelmed by stories of the radical change taking place all over the world. Whether you call it play, child initiated or inquiry learning, this is a revolution in the making.

These days the most valuable commodity out there is creativity. Whether you count the value in dollars or solutions to tough problems, people all over the globe have come to understand the transformative and disruptive power of playful engagement. Kids light up; they get excited about school and learning. Playful professional environments and employees are responsible for many of the most important innovations of our time.

To create an environment for play learning it is not enough, or even correct, to just put the child in charge. Play-based and inquiry-based learning still requires a lot of adult participation and guidance. Indeed, the teachers with whom I collaborate tell me that in many ways inquiry learning is even more demanding than teacher-directed education, because they spend most of their time observing and have to know the right moment to step in with new materials or suggestions.

Children’s Way of Knowing

I recently came across the work of David Ramsey and his paper Play and Children’s Way of Knowing. The clarity of his exposition really helped me see that the majority of what we adults do when designing for play has little to do with what children seek and is for the most part about what adults expect. For example, adults want order and neatness while kids want complexity and the ability to manipulate elements in the environment.

For the children to become fully engaged and receive maximum benefits, the environment needs to match their way of knowing at each developmental level. As children grow, they use different modalities and capabilities to explore and get to know the world about them. This means that they seek, respond to, and benefit from environments that maximize the opportunities to use their primary investigative methods at each stage of their development.

Primary perceptual modality for adults is intellectual. They seek spaces that are orderly, functional, non-threatening, and predictable. Unfortunately, environments created for children generally must conform to these adult expectations before they include features that are age appropriate for children. In addition adults rarely, if ever, provide for the complete range of developmental stages; for example, adult-designed play spaces that are primarily composed of motor and vestibular challenges assume that this will meet the needs of all ages. Today’s typical playground does a fair job of supporting motor development but only accommodates the other developmental modalities, if at all, by accident.

To illustrate this idea I have created a chart that is useful when designing from the learner’s needs rather than the adult’s expectations. I share this with the caveat that any chart of ages and stages may be a useful conceptual tool but does not, and cannot, accurately encapsulate the reality of childhood during which any modality may be expressed at any age. The chart depicts trends, not the truth.

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Primary Ways of Knowing by Age

Let’s see how the chart can be used to inform design, in this case, a play area for ages 3 years and up. We will start with a combination of bouldering rocks and challenge courses like those created by UPC Parks. The reason for this choice of play elements over standard play apparatus is that every kid knows, from his or her first glimpse of the challenge course, that this environment will be really exciting for their whole body and it’s not just “little kids’ stuff.”

UPC Parks Rocks and Ropes Course

To be able to meet all of the ways this group engages in inquiry learning through play we will need to go beyond a typical installation of rocks or ropes in several ways. To meet the motor/endurance criteria we will want a really big environment with lots of complexity and diversity, not just a couple of ropes from a play structure to a rock.

In all mountaineering, the interpersonal/dialog aspect is core to the sport. Climbers talk all the time, be it about the best way to accomplish the climb or just about lunch. To develop the solution to what is known in the sport as the “problem,” or for the most difficult problem, the “crux,” a lot of specific moves are proposed, considered, and strung together to make the “route.” To be successful at this the climber has to be smart, an excellent communicator, and bring good judgment to the task.

To satisfy the creative element we need to provide a way for the kids to hack the course. The best way to do this is to allow the climbers to “tape” their route, i.e. use small colored stick-on dots to indicate the holds that are included in the route. To support his sort of creativity the climbing sections need to be heavily populated with holds to give a wide assortment of options. The rope elements can be hacked by using various loose parts like planks or obstacles or even by taping.

There is nothing about this playground proposal that is outside the capability of designers to develop, fabricators to make, contactors to install, or park and recreation professionals to understand, support, and program.

Today one would have to combine a professional challenge course with a climbing gym to get this level of congruence with the child’s developmental needs. However, all of the benefits can still be delivered if the structural elements are eight feet or less high, which makes it possible for such a playspace to be in any public park.

We could go on to use the chart to examine how seating is provided in parks, or sand boxes, or even standard play apparatus, but I think you get the point. Designing from the children’s way of knowing and the modalities they employ in their inquiries results in far more appealing projects than our traditional approach of using the adult’s criteria.