Death to Play Silos!

Death to Play Silos


Snappy headline, right? What the heck does “Death to Play Silos” mean anyway?

First, a bit of background. The provisions we make for play basically come in two forms, toys and playgrounds. My career as a play sculpture creator has been, up until very recently, entirely in the playground side of the equation. I have found that the problem of “siloing” is rampant on public play spaces. But changing playgrounds is more complex and harder to impact than in the toy business. For that reason we’ll look at toys in this discussion.

Here’s what we mean by siloing.

A silo describes any management system that is unable to operate with any other system, meaning it’s closed off from other systems. Silos create an environment of individual and disparate systems within an organization. Siloing is the process of putting information into rigid categories.

Specifically, the toy industry is the very antithesis of an ecosystem in which everything exists in a complex network or interconnected system. For toys, this means that the ability of a child to play with, let’s say Barbie and a Lego Ninja, at the same time is never considered by the designer or producer. The result is that children’s play opportunities are restricted and the parent’s budget is strained.

The first and biggest silos have been produced by the safety standard that prohibits toys for young children that are small enough to be a choking hazard. This has created a very strong demarcation between toys for infants and todders and those for older children.

OK, that makes sense, right? But what if we think about toys that can be used by all ages? I can, for example, easily envision a toy car for infants that has spots of Lego dots on it so that the 4 year old can have a Ninja driver on the same car he played with as an infant.

Think about the number of toys that have tracks. There are at least a dozen very popular such toys and every kid has one or two. But do any of these tracks and the vehicles that run on them interrelate. Not on your life! Why not? Are the producers so afraid that they will loose market share or have they just not gotten their heads out of their silos?

What about scale? Toys trains at least have a logical standard but toys are all over the map, size-wise. I think it would be really cool to design a doll house where both Barbie and Lego Ninja could cohabitate.

This sort of creative blindness is true in many industries but in the toy business it is particularly pernicious. That wouldn’t be a problem if it only impacted on the bottom line. But it has a much worse downside. Not only does it make toys usefulness much more of a short-term situation than is necessary resulting in huge waste, but it has an even greater impact on children’s thinking.

Siloed toys condition children’s thinking into narrow catagories instead of systems. Only toys of the same type can play together. Our Babie and Ninja will never go to the prom together.

On the other hand this blindness within the toy industry presents a huge business opportuinity. There is a niche for a new enterprise that offers a toy platform that creates leaks in the silos and provides a way for their own products and existing toys to happily coexist. In a way this almost becomes an open source system that would be transformative.

Death to Toy Silos!


Pokemon GO, Play and Parks

Pokemon Go

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.

It’s Play

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.

Child playing Pokémon GO

It’s Outdoors

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.

It’s Inevitable

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:

Resisting the Call of the Virtual – Richard Louv

Educators see gold in Pokémon Go

The Tragedy of Pokémon Go

Pokémon Go review: An adult gamer’s take on the global mobile sensation – and where it could lead

There Are Dangers to Remaking the Real as a Virtual Place

Pokémon Has Kids on the Move — and on Their Phones

‘Pokémon GO’ Is More Than Just A Game And It’s Bringing People Together

Pokémon Go Sparks Concern About Children’s Privacy

Photo Credit: Tuah Roslan /

Photo Credit: MichaelJayBerlin /

This blog was first published 0m July 20, 2016 at Playground Professionals 

The Importance of Play and Bonding

DadAlthough 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:

  1. Secure attachment
  2. Anxious-resistant attachment
  3. Anxious-avoidant insecure attachment
  4. 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 

Play for Those Most in Need

kid on playground.png

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:

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:

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

The “New” Adventure Playgrounds


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.

The Land

Video screen capture Erin Davis

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:

  1. Fenced
  2. Loose parts
  3. Challenging
  4. Support constructive and manipulative play
  5. 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

Cyborgs Don’t Play



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:

This article was first published on Playground Professionals 12-30-15