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

Getting the Dirt on PLay


“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.

Ithaca Mud Day

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:

This article first appeared in Playground Professionals November 23, 2015

Just Stop It!

bad ADA design

“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.

inclusive play

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

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

Talkin’ About the Next Generation

school kids taking selfies

We know their names—Boomers, Gen X, Millennials. We have even discovered that they sort of have a shared “personality.” In many ways these so-called generations are just a marketing gimmick but they can be useful in thinking about trends. So with the caveat that you can’t generalize about generalizations, let’s look at what is typically touted as the attitudes of people who have lived through the past few decades.


  • Tend to be self-centered and self-righteous.
  • Don’t fear debt and have a buy-it-now-on-credit mentality.
  • Too rushed for community involvement yet feel strongly preserving or changing common values.
  • While often had stay-at-home moms, this generation also saw a big rise in two income families and the rise of feminism.
  • This was the TV and fax generation.

Gen X

  • Very entrepreneurial.
  • Tend to be individualistic.
  • Not fans of government and big business.
  • Their focus is on the neighborhood, not the world.
  • Often think they are misunderstood by other generations.
  • Having seen so much divorce, they are therefore eager to make marriage work and “be there” for their children.
  • They experienced the transition at work and school from handwritten to computer.



  • Even though crime is at its lowest, they live in fear that they could be shot at school and have been conditioned to believe that the world is not a safe place.
  • They tend to live by lists and they calendar everything.
  • They feel enormous academic pressure, which often leads to depression and suicide.
  • They have great expectations for their generation.
  • They have grown up in a digital environment and have never known a world without the Internet!
  • Prefer to work in teams, which are often virtual.
  • They tend be information rich but inflexible in their options.

If you have been a recreation professional for a while, you have seen how programing and facilities have had to adapt to the needs and expectations of each of these generations. For example, you have purchased or have considered purchasing outdoor physical fitness apparatus for Boomers. You have probably found the Gen X crowd difficult to engage as a whole. Undoubtedly, you have spent more time and money on social media to reach the Millennials than you would have liked or expected.

What’s Next?

Being forewarned is to be forearmed, so it’s a good idea to think about what the next generation will be like. Some think that there is a Gen Z, but most demographers see this group as transitional to the next big sea change in society. Let’s look at what we can expect of this next generation.

  • They are the first generation to do less well than their parents and for whom education does not mean a better life.
  • They are pansexual and both knowledgeable and accepting of all manner of sexual orientations and behaviors.
  • They are inured to media-induced fear, having been inundated with fear messaging throughout their lives.
  • The first generation to experience the impact of climate change personally and directly.
  • They see society, the economy and government as irreparably broken.
  • While they spend a lot of time using the Internet and connected devices, these are just a natural extension of themselves and no big deal.
  • They are the first generation who thinks tattoos are just personal ornamentation rather than group affiliation, although they still are.

A new book is out by Yalda T. Uhls called Media Moms & Digital Dads: A Fact-Not-Fear Approach to Parenting in the Digital Age. In an interview about his research on this generation, he said that the most surprising thing he found was “that the values in tween [8–12 year olds] TV had changed drastically from the 1990’s to 2000’s. Fame became the number one value. And community feeling had dropped to number 11. The values flipped in a very short time period, right when social media became a worldwide phenomenon and reality TV started dominating the television universe.” Of course media preference is not the only “drastic” change, but it is a wakeup call that this coming generation is very different from anything we have experienced thus far.

What will this generation expect from recreational services and programing? On one level, they won’t look to parks and recreation for much of anything, as they expect to be derided for their tats, piercings and hair. As a group they will seem indifferent and unengaged but with a deep anger they keep hidden. They will expect unisex facilities and programing. Using social media to connect with these folks will be extremely challenging as the preferred devices and channels will change very rapidly.

I think of this group as the “Cloud” generation, as they are not tied to specific devices but essentially experience all of their digital life, which is a major portion of their existence, on virtual services that are housed in great server farms, i.e. the cloud.

All and all, this Cloud Generation will be a difficult group to provide service for but we can predict a few things that your agency can do to still be relevant. First, these folks will be very confused about how to plan their lives. They can expect to have five or more “careers” in their lifetimes, few or none of which exist today. As a society we will have to deal with their anger as it begins to leak out. They will be angry about the damage to the environment. They will be furious as they learn how the economy has been gamed to eviscerate the middle class and their chance at having the American dream. This means that your programing will have to provide both what will be essentially group therapy as well as activities where this anger and confusion can be managed through physical means, like yoga and martial arts.

One of the big challenges will be that the way recreational professionals have been traditionally educated and trained will not be good preparation for meeting the needs of the Cloud Generation. This means that one of the things you can do right know is to begin to look into “alternative” programing and staff training that will sensitize your team and give them tools to be effective and engaging.

Most of the troubling issues of the Cloud Generation will not be expressed in early childhood so, for the most part, your playgrounds and programs won’t have to change much. By adolescence the changes will start to become dramatic. We can expect that most of this generation will findorganized sports irrelevant. They see sports as a commercial enterprise and as theater, not as something they want to participate in. An example of this attitude can be seen in the recent effort by skateboarders to keep their sport out of the Olympics.

On the other hand, housing for this generation will tend to be much smaller, as can be seen in the popularity of the Tiny House movement with students. Smaller homes mean more emphasis on being outdoors, so parks will be increasingly sought out for leisure and work. After all, Starbucks gets really old after a while but your parks will need to provide the same sort of live/work spaces.

To be relevant to the Cloud kids, your department should organize activities that improve the environment and help others. Being able to actually “do something that makes a difference” will be a huge draw as well as a way of healing the pain they will feel as the environment continues to degrade.

And just for fun there’s this: Vanity Fair, November 2015, “From Millennials to Boomers: The Ultimate Generation-Gap Guide.”


This article was first published in Playground Professional October 20, 2015

Playground Surfacing – Solution or Mistake?


Poured-in-place surfacing - courtesy of Surface America
There are many ways to think about playground surfacing. Is it accessible and safe, does it drain, what does it cost? How does it affect those who use the playground? Can we imagine what the future holds for playground design and surfacing needs? How did our current surfacing solutions evolve?


The changes to landing surfaces over the past several decades have drastically transformed what can be expected from a playground. By the ᾽70s most playgrounds had replaced dirt or asphalt with sand. The logic was that injuries from falls were reduced and the sand was a great play material. The first big change was brought about by the published safety guidelines by the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC) and later by standards developed by the ASTM International (ASTM).

The CPSC correctly pointed out that some 80% of injuries, and as many as 95% of serious injuries, were fall-related. This appeared at the time like an easy fix, but it turned out to be full of extremely difficult issues, and the solutions had some unfortunate unintended consequences. For example, CPSC gave recommendations for surfacing that showed that sand was not sufficiently fall attenuating. This guidance resulted in the wholesale removal of sand from playgrounds but was based on faulty data. First, the experimental apparatus used a sand containment box that was too small and the edges prevented the sand from displacing and lowering the test scores. Secondly, the tests did not consider the shape of the sand particle. Much later tests using round particle sand found that this material is an adequate landing surface.

Rubber and wood chips

With sand removed as an option, designers were left with rubber and wood chips. In this early phase there were two main options for rubber surfacing: mats and poured-in-place (PIP). Neither of these options was particularly appealing. Leaving aside the issue of cost, the interlocking mats tended to have problems with surface regularity and with corners and edges curling up. The early PIP had problems with installation quality. Recognizing these issues, the ASTM developed performance and testing standards to ensure consistent functioning.

The upshot of these early experiences was that wood chips became the surfacing of choice. Problem solved. Well, not so fast. Turns out that wood chips are not accessible. Now what to do? The solution was Engineered Wood Fiber (EWF) largely developed by Robert Heath. His Fibar product solved the access issue by fracturing the wood into long fibers, which then knit together making a firm and stable surface. Problem solved? Once again not quite solved as the early material was extremely sharp and there were a lot of complaints about splinters.

After a decade and more of real life experience and a lot of work on the part of the industry, these early teething problems have largely been solved. But that is not the point by recounting this short history. In hindsight, was the standards process the best that could be done? Was it a smart thing to require new landing surfacing on all playgrounds across the nation without some form of real world testing?

What about efficacy? To this day there is no experimental or statistical evidence that adding EWF or PIP actually reduces injuries. It was known, or should have been known, that human behavior is complex, especially when it comes to play and playgrounds. There were, at the time of these changes, risk management studies that tended to support the notion that when things are made safer, children often tend to behave badly because they have a natural tendency to think that nothing will go wrong for them; that safety measures are for the other kid.

Have surfacing standards reduced injuries?

It would not have been difficult to set up a test, but arrogant thinking that designers know best led to this glorious social experiment at tremendous cost. What could go wrong? What has gone wrong is that the predicted reduction in accidents has not materialized. Why? It actually is not known. Some think that rubber surfacing, while perhaps good at preventing head injuries, actually increases long bone injuries. Others feel that kids will always play up to the point of pain, and soft surfaces just encourage high-risk behavior. These folks cite the low incidence of injury on skateboard parks in which kids often fall as evidence of this human tendency.

Undaunted by the failure of their expensive experiment and the total lack of an understanding of the human factors involved with playground injuries, the ASTM surfacing committee recently tried to make the surfacing standard even more stringent and require even more performance testing. Thankfully, cooler heads prevailed, but the issue may rise again.

Yes, playgrounds are safer despite the lack of hard evidence. Yes, good surfacing options are available nowadays. But would designers do the same things the same way again? Probably not. Why then should they continue down the same path? Perhaps there can be a different approach to playground design and safety, one without unintended consequences, one more suited to the times.

Vintage Playground - Photo courtesy of Library of Congress

Do million dollar playgrounds make sense?

A recent article in the Washington Post bore the shocking headline: The cost of play tops $1 million for some local playgrounds. It is not a secret that playground design and construction costs have been steadily escalating over the past couple of decades, driven primarily by safety and access requirements.

How did simple play become a million dollar investment?

In the early days of the industrial revolution both parents often worked. If kids were too young to work in the factories, they played in the streets, which interrupted traffic. The solution was to create a place where children could exercise in a healthy way. The literature from those early years makes it clear one of the prime motives behind the creation of the first playgrounds was to control the “street urchins” and actually to put a stop to play.

Play/Playground Comparison Chart

With the best intentions, designers think they are doing a “good thing” when they dedicate the space, money, and time to creating playgrounds, and to some extent, this is true. But all too often playground design is all from Column A with very little from Column B. (See above.)

Vintage photo of children playing on streets - Photo courtesy of Library of Congress

What is the greatest design criterion for most playgrounds?

Ask yourself, what is the single greatest design criterion for playgrounds, the test that must be met above all else? Play value? Safety? Cost? None of the above. The first and foremost design benchmark for most playgrounds is “maintenance free.”

Nowhere is the issue of maintenance more prominent then when considering landing surfaces. As the million dollar playgrounds become more the norm, it is not surprising that so too does the installation of edge-to-edge PIP rubber surfacing. In other words, if cost is not a determining factor, then maintenance-free design rules the day.

Playgrounds can and should be spaces for living creatures, i.e. children. They can even be places that are primarily drawn from Column B. The difference is that instead of a million-dollar investment, such play-focused spaces can cost a fraction of that, but may also have the on-going expense for play leaders and frequent maintenance. As many good examples have demonstrated, such softer spaces do not have to look like funky adventure playgrounds, not that there is anything wrong with that. Adventure playgrounds represent an extreme example of a Column B playspace. But if playground owners are willing to make million-dollar investments, why not make playspaces that combine the best qualities from both points of view?

The photo below is from the Children’s Museum of Sonoma County. This water feature is just one of the many hands-on playspaces within the museum. While this example is likely to be both more expensive and more maintenance intensive than what many park departments can support, the experience gained in this installation and in similar children’s museumsacross the country will begin to develop a body of knowledge that can be transferred to public parks.

Sonoma County Nature Playground

The environmental case

The predominate trend in city planning these days is to include climate change in the discussion. Whether you personally agree that climate change is real, the fact is that this trend will not go away, and the park and recreation professional would be well advised to align with this new direction.

The choice of surfacing materials is a case in point. On one hand, it’s great to be able to repurpose automobile tires and keep them out of the solid waste flow, at least for a decade or more. A short-term fix at best, it should not be thought that rubber playground surfaces are a solution to this pernicious solid waste.

Loose-fill rubber

A surfacing option not previously mentioned is loose-fill rubber nuggets. This is a strange beast. On one hand, when installed in sufficient depth, it has the best fall attenuating performance. On the other hand, it requires frequent re-leveling. There are also concerns about ingesting pieces and inhaling rubber dust as well as the potential fire hazard.

EWF is obviously a better environmental choice than rubber. There has been an on-going debate about using recycled lumber versus virgin timber. Recycling should be the best choice, provided that all contaminants such as nails, paint, and chemicals have been thoroughly removed. This is a labor-intensive task that increases the cost but reduces deforestation. There are EWF products that are actually using some of the millions of dead trees killed by the bark beetle infestations brought on by climate change. How ironic is that?

How will climate change affect the design of playgrounds?

In the not too distant future, the standard for housing and community design will change drastically. We will see an end to McMansions and the rise of Micro-homes. The indicators are already out there in the popularity of Tiny Houses and Eco-villages. We will see the end of the backyard swimming pool and an increase in community pools. As homes become smaller, people spend much more time in common spaces, and these will have leisure components that are likely to fall under the parks and recreation jurisdiction. These new “commons” will be more akin to European village spaces and a distinct change from most current public spaces.

What this discussion is intended to stimulate is to ask, if the budget for the typical destination playground is now close to a million dollars, does the way they are currently designed make sense? If it is true that common spaces will become increasingly important, then adequate budgets are certainly appropriate. But with significantly increased population density, does a playspace that is populated with metal and plastic furniture with wall-to-wall rubber make sense in human terms? As the public becomes increasing aware of the impact on the planet of the use of materials and energy, will the intensely manufactured playground paradigm of today match the sensibilities of tomorrow?

Silouette of kids playing on a hill

Can playgrounds be designed to last 100 years?

Also, consider that it is now common practice to either replace or significantly upgrade playgrounds every 20 years or less. This pattern of rapid obsolescence will change as well. Why? As the community comes to use their public spaces more intensely, they will also come to value them more and more. The future will be so full of rapid change that there will be resistance to uproot those places where the public has deep emotional bonds. That means designers should be designing play areas that will last a hundred years or more.

The term “sustainable” is overused, but it is the right term to use here. Future playspaces must be alive, able to self-repair, accepting of intense use, and be filled with fundamental and enduring pleasures. The relationship between the public and the common space will change from a consumer to that of a mentorship. The community will be directly involved, nurturing the space and giving it a sense of place.

The function of playgrounds is to provide a place where children come to grow, gain skills, find friends, and become confident in themselves and their community. As playgrounds serve multiple generations, they will increasingly become a point of shared interest within the community. They will become the heart of the community for everyone, not just a service for those families with young kids.

What will a playspace designed to last 100+ years look like? Perhaps designers should look around for spaces that have such longevity and learn from those. What an exciting challenge!

This article first appeared in Play and Playgrounds Magazine 9/22/2015