Why I am a Play Advocate

FLYING JAMIE copy

Father’s Day, 2018

In my writings I usually don’t get all philosophical on you, but as today is Father’s Day, forgive me if I go a bit afield.

At his trial for questioning the official deities of his community and asking his students to question authority, Socrates said, “An unexamined life is not worth living.” Since this was essentially a political trial, the meaning of this statement in its context points out that living under the rules of others without questioning is to live an empty life. However there is surely more to life than analysis.

In contrast, the philosophy of Epicurus sites three components. As with Socrates he holds that thinking things through is important. But he goes on to include freedom and companionship as also essential.

What does this have to do with play?

Play is the wellspring of what we know as freedom, for as children, our play is intrinsically driven, children cannot be forced to play. Play is where we learn to be social and have the capacity to form deep connections with others. And it is through play that we begin to develop the mental tools for self-reflection.

I can count on the fingers of one hand the number of play advocates. Note: I said “play advocates” not, advocates for play, as there are many of people who, on occasion, promote the benefits of play. No, I mean people like the late Bernard DeKoven, who devoted their entire career to play. One would think that the subject of play, as the foundation of happiness and conducting a meaningful life, should be top of mind for the whole of society, but is sorely lacking. I am proud to be a member of this tiny club and I’m taking this subject on today as the opportunity to, once again, speak for the transformative power of play.

When we play together there is no bullying, no hate, no them and us. And, hey, it’s also great exercise for the body and the mind. I’m not being factious here, I cannot think of any circumstance that is not improved with playfulness.

Imagine reaching back to those childhood times at play. What’s to prevent you from bringing that same state of being forward into your life today? Does “taking life serious” make it any better, any richer? Are you more or less successful when you engage with life playfully?

I first painted “flying Jamie” on the wall in my bedroom when I was ten years old. The picture above was done when I was in art school. This has been my talisman throughout my life. I’m sorry to say that the pains encountered in life all too often made it seem like I had to be serious. But when I deviated away from being playful I lost my power.

It’s never too late. Play On! Bbbrrrrrooom!

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The Wired Child

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Tony Centicola – The New York Times

I wrote the first draft of this article in 1997 and later updated it to apply to the BOLDR climbing systems I designed.  Two decades later the predictions are uncanny and yet to be realized on today’s playspaces.

Jay Beckwith

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Taking to today’s parents about their children is a little like trying to explain frogs to fish.  Most of us are unaware that we swim in the “sea” of the Information Age so explaining is difficult.  We think nothing about eating a “Pop Tart” which contains dozens of ingredients derived from sources throughout the world, which we can only vaguely recognize.  What in the heck is Sodium Hexametphosphate anyway?

We are the supreme result of materials and production sciences that have produced a world of plenty and specialization.  We vaguely recognize that we have “lost touch” with nature but don’t even really understand what that means.  Our total immersion in this materialistic wonderland make it hard to see that our children are moving into yet another world, the world of information.

To begin with, as soon as I say, “the Information Age” you think “computers.”  But computers are only the most concentrated form of information.  Computers are information creating itself.  In our industrial age the equivalent is the mass production of the means of mass production.  But equating computers with information misses the point and does nothing to help us really understand today’s child.

Consider the preschooler coming home from her birthday party where she and her friends had just seen Hundred and One Dalmatians.  She loved the movie.  Stopped off at Burger King and all the kids got a free action toy of one of the characters … yes, they actually had 101 different toy puppies!  She can’t wait to play the interactive game on CD that Grandma sent knowing she was going to see the show.  Later, she will log on to http://www.101dalmatians.com and play and chat with other kids from across the world about the neat film.

This is a very real and, in most of its elements, a very common scenario that makes most adults uncomfortable. Grown-ups see it as exploitative and manipulative and long for the days of simpler play.  But is it?  How different is this than a “native peoples” life in the “village” where mythic stories are told, dances act out the scenes, and toys are crafted which embody the magic qualities of the protagonists.

No, the multi-media experience of today’s child is experientially not too different from that of our long lost tribal up bringing … except in one very important way.  The stories of the tribe are not the same as the stories of Hollywood.  Adults feel out of control of the content of the movie story line and thus disconnected from our child’s developing psyche.  The deeper the child connects to this “invader” world the more uncomfortable we become.

What giving Hollywood control over our communal myths means to the long-term health of modern society would require considerable thought and research and is far beyond the scope of this paper.  Here we will only explore the aspects of the modern “wired” experience that bear on what the child needs and expects from their play experience.

Most people think they know what the “information age” is all about.  How wrong they are.  We are just at the edges of the transformation and can see the future about as clearly as those who saw the first steam driven boat.  Today the fruits of the industrial age sit side by side with those of the information age.  We can easily see the today’s automobile as a pinnacle of mass production, and the desktop computer as the embodiment of the future.  But in fact, it will be the combining of these two that will truly transform the world.

When mass production merges with global information the world, as we know it gets turned upside down.  In the past economies of scale dictated uniform products.  You can go into Hertz and rent any car in complete confidence that they will operate nearly identically.  The differences between products are so small that it requires constant consumer training to be able to detect the subtle differences in brands.

(Note: I suspect that TV commercials impart more “environmental” education to children than any other source.  Kid’s ability to distinguish between breakfast cereals compares well with the Eskimo’s 16 different words for snow.  American children are the most sophisticated consumers in the world.)

As information merges with production, products will become personalized and adapted to the user rather than the user adapting to the mass-produced product.  A corollary to this is that as the means of production and made smarter they become smaller and decentralized.  Consider the following existing examples:

  • Jeans custom made to your body.
  • One-hour photo processing in the drug store.
  • A Saturn car made to your order with your name on it.

“If you went to Coke’s headquarters, would people there be fussing about bottling?  Or about media and media buys?  See, really, what Coke is selling is media, a picture of itself.  Coke is really a media company – it just hangs its revenues off bottles of Coca-Cola.”  Joey Anuff, founder of Suck! – a critical guide web sites by Wired Magazine.

Increasingly products in which the normal channels of distribution are also turned on their heads will surround us.  Already you need not go to the store to buy software, your new PC comes with a compact disk on which there are many programs.  You need only to make a call to “buy” the software and a code is provided that locks access.  Newer PCs are shipping with advanced hardware that you can upgrade by software. Again, this “new” capability is already in your machine and just needs to be unlocked.

Within a decade you will be able to buy an electric vehicle that is absolutely unique to you and your personality.  Yet it will be able to reconfigure itself to suit the needs of the “typical” driver or another unique driver instantaneously. Cars already have some of this capability with memory settings on seats.

Intelligence is rapidly becoming “embedded” in nearly all everyday-products. We already have smart brakes on our cars, smart ovens, etc.  This intelligence will become smaller and in the near future they will be completely linked together.  Our environment will be “encrusted” with information and we will swim in its web.  Much as today’s child swims in the multimedia world of the Lion King.  For her, this new “wired age” will seem totally natural.  For those of us who still live in the industrial age it will be a weird world…one which we do not understand, and which is largely invisible to us.

“The Web Dream is what smart kids across America – smart kids across the world – are dreaming.  They might not trust in God or Family and they sure as hell don’t believe in Country; they believe in Themselves, and in the power of their cleverly customizable, infinitely scaleable, robust and ubiquitous, interactive, pull-down-menu Dreams.” Josh Quittner, Web Dreams, Wired Nov. ‘96

So, what does a playground for a “wired child” look like?  Well, it does NOT look like a big computer.  There are some conceptual characteristics that are “natural” for the wired child has come (and will increasingly come) to expect.  A few of these are:

  1. Layered – think about the hidden levels in the game called Doom.
  2. Linked – one thing leads to another, the Net/web.
  3. Non-linear – envision the child exploring information like a dog on the beach.
  4. Configurable – car seats with memory profiles taken a thousand-fold.
  5. Virtual – I am “me” except when I’m on-line, then I’m Doctor Play.
  6. Interactive – when physical constraints and consequences disappear in the virtual world I experience unlimited behaviors and come to expect a very high level of responsiveness from my environment.
  7. Recordable – The sense of time begins to change when I can record the weekend football game for later replay or record my actions and then return to a point in the process and take a different direction.
  8. Embedded; intelligence leaves the computer and enters the environment. Consider the “information” packed into the McDonald’s Logo.
  9. Real-time – waiting will increasing become obsolete. Entertainment increasing becomes live (sports) or interactive (movies with various endings). As kids increasingly, live virtual lives they will consequentially also seek more “real time” direct experiences.
  10. Operating Systems – the surrounding intelligence will be controlled by various operating systems, the control of which will be power and status.
  11. High-tech, high-touch – when I am in my virtual self I am out of body. When I am in the physical world I am intensely in my senses.

In the Renaissance a strange worldview was adopted.  We began to perceive the world as separate from ourselves, and the self as separate from our body.  This worldview gave rise to the objectification of nature and to the scientific method. All this is very different from the ancestral or tribal perspective in which we are an indivisible part of the world.  The “new” wired child’s consciousness is closer to the tribal than it is the Renaissance man. For example, it is very popular to develop our human potential by learning to focus on our sense of self as a global and undifferentiated state of “being.”  Not a very Renaissance way of thinking … much more like the tribal mind.

What do these insights tell us about the design of a playground for the wired child of today and tomorrow?  Here are some logical conclusions that can be drawn from these ideas and as the can be manifest on the playground.

  1. Layered – the physical playground should only be a small part of the total play experience; it should contain elements within elements. The BOLDR sign linking to the web site does this
  2. Linked – there should be elements on the playground that connect to the “real” world. BOLDR connects to real climbing and climbers not plastic fake rock.
  3. Non-linear – most play is non-linear, but more can be done with designs to support this idea. There is no “direction” in BOLDR climbing
  4. Configurable – can’t do much better than a sand box. BOLDR allows the changing of holds.
  5. Virtual – there are obvious applications of electronic games but there are also some less obvious things that can be done with both design and presentation of the equipment. BOLDR now has a sound effect option for the holds.
  6. Interactive – again play is intrinsically interactive, but my thought here is that by tying these ideas together we can make a compelling story why users preferentially choose equipment that is interactive as opposed to “stimulating” high slides. Users of BOLDR create small groups that work on “problems.”
  7. Recordable – here’s an area ripe for development. With climbing the “routes” are graded and recorded so they can challenge others. BOLD allows this as well.
  8. Embedded – BOLDR is thick with all sorts of symbols that link to stories, that allow myth to return to the child culture.
  9. Real-time – you don’t get more real-time than on BOLDR.
  10. Operating Systems – BOLDR climbing follows sport climbing rules and techniques and as such is the start of an operating system. A use manual is provided.
  11. High tech, high touch – when not linked into the web (playing Lion King) kids will want the most intimate and direct experience possible. BOLDR provides this.

There are some clear advantages to BOLDR over typical play structures because it uses the principles listed above:

  • BOLDR is a sport not just play. It is part of the whole new wave of “X-Games” types of athletics. This is not just “kid’s stuff.”
  • BOLDR challenges across a much wider range of ages and abilities.
  • BOLDR is layered with rich detail in both its surface and the attached holds and it has “realness” about it that plastic/metal can’t match.
  • BOLDR is unique – and “unique” will increasingly become a highly prized quality when more and more playgrounds are just the same old thing.
  • BOLDR embodies an intelligence, savvy, and vision that steps into the future and understands what the wired child will respond to and what they need to stay healthy.

In conclusion, we should not be afraid of the “wired” world and the children who inhabit it.  As McLuhan pointed out, the information revolution is creating the Global Village.  Instead we should try to understand this inevitable change and prepare children to live in it.  One of the central issues is to look at the moral tales as presented in the media to ensure that the “lesions” they teach are ones we support.  We must be proactive.  We should begin to reclaim our right to acculturate our children with the values we believe are appropriate.  We cannot leave it to Disney or Hollywood to tell the stories of the Tribe.

Playgrounds Need Complexification

What Is A Playground?
This article first appeared in Bernie DeKoven’s Deep Fun | June 16, 2010 |

Recently I attended a weekend seminar entitled “Deep Fun” presented by an old friend and play guru, Major Fun. One of the “exercises” Major FUN gave us was to create a playground in our mind and have some of our various “selves” play a game. I had my “Bad Boy” team up with “Mr. Incompetent” against”Good Boy” and “Mr. Capable” in a game of stickball. It was a wonderful mediation and a powerful technique.
During the course of this I started thinking about the word “playground.” We use it so casually and often, but what is a playground, really?

One of terms Major FUN used to describe the ideal play setting that was new to me was complexification. By this he means that the play environment, toy, or game is made more compelling and engaging if it can become, or be made, more complex as the player uses it. I’ve always used the term diversification to get at the same idea, but I now think complexification is much better.

My idea was that if a playground simply had lots of stuff that kids would find creative and innovative was to use it as they gained skills. But complexification is better because it suggests that there will be increasing levels difficulty built into the playground, not just more things to add to the play. This is an important distinction. What it suggests is that a well-designed playground will provide opportunities for the player to add increasing levels of challenge to their play.

Do modern playgrounds provide this? Only the best designs do and then only to a very limited extent. Most modern play equipment is pretty much restricted to one type of correct use and any other type of behavior is considered “misuse.”

The more I thought about the value of complexification the more I realized that this is the exact term I’d been seeking to describe the unique play value we are incorporating into our new BOLDR products.

Consider, for example, our TrainR climbing systems. These products allow the user to reach higher and higher levels of skill the longer that they play on them. The simple act of selecting a series of moves that omit the”easy” holds changes the same structure from a simple, and boring climb, into an ever more challenging one.

Our new FingerParks accomplish the same thing but in a different way. By providing a venue for kids to bring their toys to the park a FingerPark empowers children to be endlessly creative. Our goal is to encourage and support the same sort of”deep fun” that kids have when they play in a sandbox but without the mess and in a more evocative setting.

The main idea is that the thing that provides the greatest source of complexification is another player. The combination of a complex setting, manipulative toys and several kids provides the fuel for rich and ever escalating levels of complexity of play.
If you are like me you may feel ill at ease when you look at many of today’s playgrounds because they seem to lack something, some quality that would make them really wonderful. I submit to you that it is the lack of complexification that is at the root of our misgivings about the play value of many of the modern playgrounds.

Playspace and equipment designers will have to begin to think in new ways to introduce complexification into their designs. Today, the biggest obstacle to that sort of re-evaluation is our fixation on safety. So, in our next newsletter we will return to the teachings of Major Fun to discuss this idea of safety and play.

Where Playspaces Went Wrong

Back in the 60’s I was doing community-built playgrounds on school yards in San Francisco and other parts of the Bay Area. Across the Bay, Robin Moore was improving the play yard at Washington School. We shared similar concerns about the need for students to have better outdoor experiences while at school. Because I was an artist and sculptor and Robin was a landscape architect we took very different tactics and life directions.

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The Washington Environmental Yard was a success because it is an ecology, not just ball fields and a play structure

Robin’s path was to green the schoolyard which included ripping out asphalt, planting trees and shrubs, adding raised beds and a stream. All these years later the

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Washington Environmental Yard is exemplary and has spawned a movement that is currently seeing a resurgence. I, on the other hand, created play sculptures that were meant to replace the metal pipe jungle gyms that had proven to be somewhat hazardous.

Both Robin and I faced similar challenges. For example, the maintenance of the playground was, and still is, a huge concern. Robin’s solution was community organizing and engagement. Robin’s career has followed this same path unerringly and has eventuated in NC State College of Design Natural Learning Initiative that is the best source for information on using natural resources in educational setting.

My trajectory was to make play structures that provided the most diverse physical challenges and required as little maintenance as possible. Over the following decade that evolved into my creating the modular metal/plastic, post and deck, system that has become the world-wide standard.

Jay on 1st Build Your Own copy 2
The first school creative play sculpture. That’s me in the middle.

While I am pleased that my invention has become popular, it distresses me that it has become the primary way that play is provided. This is a huge mistake.

PlayBoosters
Here’s the first modular play structure. I’m the guy in the cherry picker holding the camera.

As Robin, and most of those with a background in early childhood development will confirm, gross motor play is but a small part of a child’s play or educational needs. A far better solution is an outdoor educational ecology as the drawing of the Washington Yard illustrates. Only a few school playgrounds have implemented Robin’s vision but recently the movement is gaining traction.

As the old saying goes, “No good deed goes unpunished.” In the case of my invention I have been horrified to see it be so misused.

Let me explain.

What schools need is a play structure that provides a wide variety of motor challenges, climbing, balance and upper body challenges. These events should be connected by diverse routes of travel such as slides, bridges and walkways to create “do loops” that support the natural games of chase and tag that kids play from ages 5 to 10. Such structures need to accommodate 20 to 35 children at a time if competition and safety issues are to be avoided. Unfortunately, such structures are expensive, so school play structures tend to be less than half the needed size resulting in poor gross motor development and a “no-tag” rule. That such “playgrounds” are abysmal failures can be established very easily. Just drive by any school yard in the summer and you will generally see that no are children playing there. If this bastardization was not insult enough, the modular system has also become the default mini-park solution for play.

Small unit

Why is this “solution” such an abomination in my view?

  1. It’s boring
  2. It provides little developmental benefit
  3. It supposedly fills the need for children’s play while failing miserly
  4. It’s aesthetically repulsive
  5. While these cookie-cutter units may meet the minimum ADA guidelines, they tend to not be inclusive

Since this is my baby I can bemoan its misuse.

Is there a good alternative? To understand the problem and the solution, one should understand why the need that the modular play system was initially designed to solve. Yes, the clear function is gross motor play, but also the system was designed to provide for large numbers of kids during recess who were not into the ball and yard games, that is, they take the pressure off of more structured activities. None of these conditions exist in parks so why is that parks have adopted this system wholesale?

Tell me, what’s the most interesting thing on any playground?

Other children!

This is why small playgrounds fail. Not only do small playgrounds fail children’s physical developmental need, they also fail their social development. Because recreation departments and landscape architects have “done their job” by dropping in a budget meeting structure the parks and recreation management think that things are just fine. But ask any parent of small children and they will tell you that these gestures are inadequate. Drive through the community on a summer day and look at play structure after play structure that sit empty. Gone are the days when kids would jump on their bikes and head to the park. These days play has become an all too rare family excursion.

So, to the solution:

To be successful play spaces in public parks need to be viewed as recreation facilities designed to serve the whole community. As such, these become a municipal facility such as a swimming pool in that they have the potential to serve citizens of every sort simultaneously.  This is not true of ball fields and courts which tend to be used by persons of similar skills and interests.  What is true of pools is also true of a successful community play space.

  1. They are expensive
  2. They are fenced
  3. They are staffed, often with volunteers
  4. They have programs and events

Are there examples of such community playspaces? Yes! The one with which I am most familiar is Magical Bridge in Palo Alto, CA.

Maical Bridge
Magical Bridge – Palo Alto, CA

The proof, they say, is in the pudding. In the case of this project, the playspace is generally packed. This is the essence of inclusion, not being the kid who stands out because she is now just part of the crowd. The ebb and flow of the use patterns at Magical Bridge is instructive. At times there may not be a single child with special needs in attendance and at other times they can the most prevalent players. Nobody cares about all that because they are just having fun.

Need more proof? Because of this resound popularity, there are currently four more Magical Bridge Play Spaces in construction and several more in planning.

Here is my personal plea. Stop, just stop, with the plunk-n-play structures. Make it right. Make it BIG. Make it for everybody. Make it Magical!