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


Monkey Business and Stupid Standards

Brachiating on monkey bars

I recently came across an article that pushed me over the edge: The Shocking Reason Kids are Getting Hurt at the Playground. This came only a few days after another article: Australian surgeons warn that monkey bars can cause one in five childhood fractures, that also set me off.

Play and playgrounds have always been the happy hunting grounds for well-meaning but logic deficient do-gooders. In the first article the researcher makes the classic scientific error of confusing correlation with causation. Specifically he claims that the availability of 3G cellphone service so enhances the digital experience that parents can’t take their eyes off their phones to supervise their children. While this assertion may or may not be true, the study did not control for variables or examine any other possible causes.

The second report states “The caution follows an audit of 211 child fractures at a Melbourne Hospital, carried out by the Australian Orthopedic Research group, which found more than half the monkey bar related injuries were caused by children attempting to skip a rung or from sitting or standing on the monkey bar and falling.” They go on to state; “The research team’s initial hypothesis was that the most injuries would be caused by children standing or sitting on top of the monkey bars but that turned out to be wrong. ‘Trying to skip a rung, the forward momentum, missing the bar and landing on outstretched hands caused more injuries,’ he said.”

The problem I have with this report is that we again have the error of mistaking correlation for causation. Why is this important? These sorts of simple-minded “studies” are the grist in the mill for so called safety standards and risk management mandates that have dumbed down play settings to the point of absurdity. These errors in logic and well meaning but incendiary pronouncements need to be given critical review, if not in the press, then at least by any regulatory agency whose goal is to make play “safe.”

While the cellphone study will probably only reinforce the rampant attempts to shame parents for being regular people, the second study could well be used to ban monkey bars from playgrounds, which is already the case in many U.S. school districts. Let’s look at why this is such a huge mistake.

Do You Have Back Pain?

80% of Americans suffer back pain at some time in their lives. Back pain is the leading cause of workers’ compensation and estimates of the national costs exceed $100 billion annually.

Baby hanging from mother's thumbsWhat’s back pain got to do with monkey bars? Glad you asked. To understand my assertion we have to start at the very earliest stage, birth. Newborn babies have incredible hand strength; many can hold their full weight from the very first days.

This is not unique to homo sapiens but is true of all primates as the baby must be able to cling to the mother while she travels. The big difference between other primates and modern parents is that we tend to treat babies as weaklings, carrying them everywhere, pushing them in strollers, and buckling them tightly into their car seats.

As a result of the needless and ill-conceived over-parenting, the children’s normal physical abilities begin to atrophy. In recent years this problem has become so acute that it has become known as the “Containerization Syndrome” and is being seen clinically with increasing frequency.

My theory is that the injuries reported by the Australian surgeons correlates with the still unexplained high number of playground accidents reported byASTM and comes from the same place. We are raising our children to be motorically incompetent.

Baby climbing wallI recently saw a wonderful video: Baby climbing indoors, in which a 19 month old child successfully ascends what appears to be a 12 foot indoor climbing wall completely unassisted. While most will find this video shocking, it actually shows what we should be expecting from our children. This is normal.

So what does this have to do with back pain? Like many people I’ve suffered from chronic back pain for decades. Because of my interest in human physiology and motor development, I’ve studied the issue of back pain and participated in every non-invasive therapy I could find, all to no avail, that is, until I ran into the work of Esther Gokhale. Esther’s breakthrough is really rather ingenious; she looked around the world and found that back pain was nearly unknown in traditional communities and is a symptom of our western lifestyle. Her contention is that Western society has adopted a “slouch” type of posture that abnormally compresses the spine and causes pain. Her suggested practices essentially decompress the spine. This is the first technique that has begun to reduce my back pain.

Toddlers hanging upside down from bar

Monkey Bars Are the Answer

Kids spontaneously hang by their hands whenever the environment presents the opportunity. This “exercise” does many things but most importantly it decompresses the spine and opens up the back extensors allowing the lungs to fully inflate and the organs to settle into their correct locations. This hanging opens the spine and helps to produce correct posture. For this reason EVERY playground needs to have elements, which support hanging by hands. This is especially true of early childhood playspaces. Today, commercial “tot” play systems are devoid of any hang by hands events.

This absence of upper body challenge for young children is akin to the oriental custom of binding girls feet so that they will fit adult’s view of beauty, and it is just as debilitating. In this case, because the child’s natural strength and spontaneous playful exercises are thwarted, when kids finally do encounter the monkey bars, they fall off and occasionally get hurt.

Monkey bars are not suited for the very young. Until a child is about 3 years of age, they cannot control their left and right sides independently. You can observe this as a two-year-old child pushes along on a scoot-around toy with both feet whereas by three they can peddle a bike.

The developmental sequence of using the monkey bars is: Hang-by-hands, reach a rung with dominant hand and repeat, then hand-over-hand and finally skipping rungs, called brachiating. This is the NORMAL sequence that all children will try to complete. When we remove parts of this sequence, i.e. don’t put hang by hands events on early childhood playspaces, when kids first try monkey bars they may fall and, because they have not had a chance to learn how to fall, they will too often be injured.

All primates have two modes of locomotion, terrestrial walking and arboreal climbing. Some, like gorillas are primarily terrestrial. Others, like gibbons are primarily arboreal. While all primates sit with nicely stacked vertebrae, when walking terrestrial primates tend to hunch over and knuckle walk on all fours whereas arboreal primates then to walk more erect.

Skeletal pictures of Gibbon, Orangutan, Chimpanzee, Gorilla, and Man

Note that the Gibbon’s erect walking posture is very similar to homo sapiens’. Also note that both the Gibbon and Orangutan have much longer arms and that their primary mode of travel is brachiation. This suggests that humans are equally suited for trees and tundra. Also note that this is an old drawing that shows the correct curvature of the human spine. It is only in the last century or so that drawings of the “normal” spine show it tucked under.

How to Make Playgrounds Safe

In the title of this article I used the term “stupid standards.” By using this term I do not mean to impugn the intelligence or commitment of those who have worked long and hard to create safety standards. My point is that the standards lack deep intelligence about human factors and development. The Australian surgeons have a wonderful skill but we know that what they do for back pain is less successful than non-invasive techniques. In fact Esther Gokhale’s method is gaining wide acceptance by surgeons primarily because many in the profession have come to recognize its effectiveness and are willing to embrace a holistic approach.

As I write this the leaders of the ASTM Playground Safety Standards are wrestling mightily with the problem of how to have a standard for a non-standard pieces of apparatus. This is a non-trivial problem. Because I know that the committee members are both smart and dedicated, I trust they will come to the right decisions.

Based on the previous discussion, I would like to add my suggestion to resolve this problem. I believe that the fundamental error has been to try to regulate apparatus on the assumption that the gear will be used in specific ways. Clearly, this basic assumption is wrong! Kids will do whatever they can and they play up to the point of pain. They will run up slides; they will jump from swings; they will perch on the highest points. When we count the number of slide accidents and then try to come up with a “safe” design that accounts for the accidents, we will fail, and we will always fail, because children have no intention of behaving in a safe fashion.

Much of what is in the ASTM is good work. Hot surfaces, sharp edges, hard landing zones have been identified and corrected. But further reductions in accidents will not come from additional refinements to apparatus specification. There are, however, two areas that will prove effective. First, playground design should address the ways children actually play. They should include the types of challenges children are known to seek and that they need to master. Challenges on ALL playgrounds need to be presented in gradual steps so children can self-select for the skill level with which they are comfortable.

The second, and more important and effective, way to improve child safety is to educate parents and the public that the constant effort to remove any and all risk from childhood is backfiring. Not only are kids less able to deal with the everyday physical requirements of life, but we are also creating generations of citizens that are actually sick because of our child-rearing practices.

I urge the playground community to join hands with the health community and bring our best minds together to address playground safety in the context of the whole, natural child. We can foster an effective nationwide health and safety campaign whose only path for a cure is letting kids be kids.


This article was first posted on Playground Professionals 8-18-15. To follow the comments posted there go Playground Professionals News Center.

Making Places to Play – Is not Enough

This article was first published in Playground Professionals Newsletter, July 20, 2015

trash boys

As a child of the sixties I spent my teen years grappling with the issues of the Vietnam War, the free speech movement, and civil rights. Our generation wanted to do something to make the world a better place.

Having graduated from San Francisco State with a major in art I went on to Pacific Oaks to learn to be an early childhood educator. One of the great things about Pacific Oaks is that they had preschool classes on campus and all of the graduate students had daily interaction with children. It was at Pacific Oaks that I first experienced a loose parts playspace. We used cable spools, old doors, boxes, tarps, and the like.

Seeing how well these worked I realized that I could combine what I could use in my background from both school and like experience to make a difference by creating good places for children to play. At that time playgrounds in parks and schools were just galvanized pipe apparatus, which I saw as being extremely poor at supporting the full spectrum of play.

Fifty years later, having done community site-built playgrounds, wooden, metal, plastic, rope, concrete, and even electronic play systems, I find myself turning to the larger issues of play.

One would have to be very out of touch not to realize that far too many children still do not have a safe play to play. On one hand children in many places must deal with horrific environmental degradation. In other places political and religious conflict put children at risk. The extreme hording of capital in the hand of a few creates massive imbalances in wealth and extreme poverty.

Not only do these conditions prevent the creation of safe places to play, but they also impact on children’s health, education, and ultimately their ablity to be fully functional members of the world community.

merry go round war

I have come to understand, and to some extent accept, that my effort at making safe places for children to play is a failure. The few good playgrounds are a tiny fraction of the places where most children are.

If all of the world’s population adopted our current lifestyle, we would use the resources of our earth five times. Even adopting the most stringent green living, we would still use one and a half planets. Our profligate use of resources produces vast quantities of solid and gaseous wastes that contaminate many of the places that children play.

Play Can Make a Difference

Of course, in the foregoing, I have not presented you with new information. You know these conditions exist, and like me you are doing what you feel you can to help ameliorate the problems when you have the opportunity.

Clearly it is not enough.

We cannot make a real difference if we confine our efforts to just creating playgrounds. Safe playgrounds can only be part of the solution if the streets are not safe so kids can get to them. The streets can’t be safe so long as we give cars primacy in our culture and our urban planning. Neighborhoods cannot provide a safe environment if everyone does not pay their fair share in support of community services. The world will not be a safe place for children to play if most of the resources are consumed by a tiny fraction of the population.

Taken together all of these issues seem to be overwhelming. However, providing a focus on play, becoming a fierce advocate, play can be effective. In fact, it may be THE MOST effective way to address the problems.

Play cannot thrive if it is not safe and free. Those of us in the play community must speak out on issues as close to home as urban planning and housing. On the balance between income and costs of living, that has to be made sustainable for families. We must become models of moving away from consumerism in our profession and in our lives. And in the name of play, we must publicly support those who fight for these issues.

If we remain silent on the big issues, all of our efforts on the small ones will have gone for naught.

Of course there are risks. It can jeopardize your job as you are seen to be too political. Speaking out may cause some friends to draw away. You may be asked questions and not feel that you have enough information. These are not new fears. Everyone who has stood up for the truth and what is right has faced the same threats.

Look again at the children in these images. These conditions are just plain wrong. It is intolerable. And, unfortunately, it is becoming all too common. As individuals, as municipal and professional organizations, and as individuals we must speak up. We must support change and those who fight for it.

When you do you will find that you are not alone.


When I am exhorting you to take positive action, I am talking about more than increasing your recycling, sponsoring community environmental educational programs, or organizing more volunteerism, etc. You already do much of this important work, and can, and will do even more.

What I am proposing here is a complete reframing of what the recreationcommunity is defined as. Here’s what I think of when I think of “recreation industry” – both public and industrial:

The Recreation Industry is dedicated to providing facilities, equipment and programing for leisure activities that are primarily done for enjoyment, amusement, or pleasure and are considered to be “fun.”

Here’s one possible way the industry can be redefined:

The Recreation Industry is dedicated to insuring access to, and advocating for, play within a sustainable community.

Now there’s a mission statement!

Since we are supposed to be all about play, let’s make a game out of this idea. Write your own mission statement for the Recreation Industry. It might be a good idea to look at the images I’ve provided while doing that so you keep in mind the broader vision. Better yet, you very likely have some images, not as horrific of course, from your own community that will inspire you.

We will post your suggestions and open up a discussion. Perhaps your new definition will become the tagline for Play and Playground Magazine.


The Importance of Challenge


This blog was first posted on Playground Professionals 6-17-15

The late ’90s saw a wave of playgrounds retrofitted to conform to ASTM and ADA are these now beginning to show their age and we will soon be seeing an uptick in playground renovations. This last time the choice of design options was pretty straightforward, just comply with the new codes. The design options today are far more varied. Nearly every vendor has a deckless play structure option. Net climbers have matured and both their durability and complexity are topnotch. Even spinner and swings have new designs. With all these innovations it is very tempting to just plug in these new choices.

Before following the tried and true practice making essentially cosmetic updates, it would be wise to put one’s ear to the ground to listen for oncoming trends. After all, a playground should last 15 years or more, and the better able you are in anticipating the needs of the next generation of families, the longer you can keep a facility in use. Wouldn’t we all like to be in the position that the community resists taking down the old playground because they love it so much?

So what trends do we hear? The loudest chatter is all about challenge. People are complaining that playgrounds are boring and that their children don’t want to go to them, but this need not be the case.

While we must always be cognizant of liability, park professionals have become quite skilled at risk management. For example, most cities now have skateparks, which a couple of decades ago would have been unthinkable. However, the fears of extraordinary accident rates have proven to be unfounded.

Unfortunately the play apparatus producers have been slow to develop more challenging equipment. An important key to adding challenge to a playground design is to provide choice. Try this simple exercise, look at any playground design and ask the question, “How will the children use this?” Typically the narration will go something like, “climb up here, go down there, climb up here, cross over there, go down here,” etc. In other words, the configuration dictates the child’s activities.

I remember when we first introduced banister slides and adults would ask, “How are the kids supposed to use this?” Exactly! They have to figure it out and there is no wrong way. My photo collection has over two dozen ways I’ve seen kids use a banister slide. I have routinely added a slack rope and turning bars in my play structure configurations because they add tremendous challenge and very little cost. This shows that challenge doesn’t have to be expensive or high in the air.

The skatepark example is interesting. I have not seen statistics on use, but in my town the skatepark is consistently more popular than any other park and only the two largest and best parks even come close. Skateparks introduce challenge with the shape of the various events. The kids introduce challenge by the tricks they can do and the sequence in which they perform those tricks. A good bouldering sculpture can present challenges in a similar way. The rock will have various places that provide complex grips or steps and the climbers can choose which of these will be part of their route.

Some of the newer deckless systems can also provide this sort of open-ended play challenge. To do this the systems need to be fairly large and preferably not just a single line of events but arranged so that many different routes are possible. A good design will include events that shout, “How are the kids supposed to use this?”

The question I am asking you is this, “Is a playground a safe place to play or is it the safest place to master a skill?” Our current practice of combining safe structures with safety surfaces has created the illusion of perfect safety that is leading to all sorts of unintended consequences. Parents think that the playground is so safe that they can spend their time texting rather than parenting. Kids think the environment is so safe that they can do anything and not be hurt.

Think about this. Adventure playgrounds have no safety surface, don’t comply with ASTM in any way, and yet have better safety records than traditional playgrounds. Or this, after decades and great expense making playgrounds safe, accident rates have not gone down. And this, every elementary school has a play structure, but you rarely see children on them after school or over the summer. What is wrong with this picture?

The Bigger Picture

There is another, and perhaps more important, reason that your playground should be challenging. As I reported in my last column, we are in the age of the cocooned child and I called on Parks and Recreation professionals to become advocates for giving kids the same opportunities to learn through play that we had growing up. Designing challenges into your next new playground is the absolute best way to demonstrate that trial and error learning is a good thing, while it also gives kids the safest place to master lots of skills.


Time to Take a Stand

Meitiv Family - free-range advocates

First posted May 4, in Playground Professionals

I’m sure you’ve heard the recent story about two children, 10 and 6, being arrested and hassled by Child Protective Services (CPS) for walking home from the park, not once but twice.  If you’re not aware of the story, visit to learn more about what happened to the Meitiv family.

If this was the only case of overzealous police and CPS, we could easily dismiss it as an isolated incident. Unfortunately, it is not. Lenore Skenazy reports on this subject in her Free-Range Kids Blog daily and has collected many similar cases.

Why should Park and Recreation Professionals care about the police and CPS “over-protecting” children?

This is an issue that should be at the top of your department’s agenda. Why? It’s simple, you provide an essential service, a service that the community pays for at considerable expense. When children cannot walk to and from your parks, you are losing them as customers and they are losing the service you provide.

When you visit your parks and see only a few children, all accompanied by adults, and you know there are many children in the neighborhood who should be outside playing and are probably sitting at home using their tech devices, it should send up red flags that something is seriously wrong.

Here’s the issue. In nearly all of these cases, a “concerned” citizen alerted the police and set this whole scenario in motion. It’s hard to fault those charged with public safety for doing their job, even if they sometime lack sensitivity in the performance of their duty. Nor is it fair to criticize a neighbor who sees children in what they deem is a vulnerable situation.

What we have here is a situation where everyone is fearful and without a guideline for appropriate action, so things get out of whack. For example, it would have been possible for the neighbor to talk with the kids to see if they were in distress. Perhaps the kids had a cellphone, had done this walk many times, and their parents where awaiting them less than a block away, so there was no need to call the cops.

But let’s look at the emotional side of this situation. The citizen must be feeling that it is dangerous for two children to be walking in the neighborhood without an adult for any amount of time. This is the very definition of “living in fear.”

Again, it’s hard to blame the average citizen for being afraid. Nearly every week the media has a story about an abducted child and an Amber Alert is broadcast. If you only go by the news, you would think that there is an epidemic of pedophiles descending on our communities. The fact is that we live in the safest of times. According to a report in the Washington Post, There’s never been a safer time to be a kid in America. This is really good news, but how can one report in the press counteract the constant drumbeat of fear? Lenore Skenazy and others diligently strive to debunk the fear mongering with posts, such as UPDATE: “Over 700 Children are Abducted a Day” Says Viral Video.

What You Can Do

The first step, as it is often the case, is to accept that the change has to start with you. There is nothing in your job description that specifically tasks you with advocacy. Your job is to provide recreation services and then let the public know what is available – it’s a sort of “build it and they will come” approach.

This passive approach has been sufficient in the past but is no longer adequate. Today’s climate of fear means that most, if not all, of the children who use your services have parents who have the time and resources to chauffeur and/or supervise their children. Of course, I could be wrong in this assertion, but do you know? Have you checked to see what percentage of children are able to use your services on their own initiative?

If step one is to determine the amount of child-initiated use of recreation services, step two is finding ways to increase free-range kid customers. Because the task is to change the attitudes of the community, this will require a bit of advocacy by your department.

Here are a few ideas:

Outreach to Parents

Since it is now obvious that many parents have unreasonable fears about their child’s safety in public places, it is essential that you bring the facts forward. But even if they get the facts, they have the unconscious fear that if their’s are the only kids out walking on the street, then their kids are the prime target. Parents need to be repeatedly reassured that their community is safe. They need to know not only the statistics about safety but also the specific things your community does to insure safe neighborhoods. When there are lots of kids outside, they are ALL safer.

Free-Range Kids sponsors an annual Take Our Children to the Park…and Leave Them There Day this Saturday, May 9th and it’s an excellent example of a positive, and attention-grabbing event that draws attention to the issue that your program can leverage next year.

Collaboration with Pubic Safety

Parks and Rec can’t do this job by themselves and will be most effective when done in collaboration with Public Safety. We have to face the fact that many of the children who are most in need of recreation services are actually afraid of the police. The best way to turn this around is for the children to get to know those who serve and vice versa.

Coordination with Public Transit

Is there free public transportation for children in every neighborhood to access all recreation facilities and programs? Is there a program that will allow children to ride pubic transit unaccompanied by an adult? If not, what needs to happen so that this becomes a reality?

Providing Positive Information

It is no longer enough to provide catalogs of recreation programs and provide the local paper with the scores of games, etc. As part of this campaign, all of the positive actions you take need public recognition, so the whole community gets the message.

Improving Bicycle Access

It’s a simple fact, that if we are concerned about abduction, kids are safer on bikes than walking. It is also the case that kids can travel farther on bikes as well. The trick here is that safe routes are the key. It is completely reasonable for the Parks and Recreation Department to become the key advocate for safe bike routes from homes to recreation programs and facilities. Teaming up with the schools in their campaigns to get kids to walk and bike to school is very powerful as well.

Network with NGO’s

There are many programs that provide services to disadvantaged families. Often these populations are not well connected to recreation programing. Reaching out to these agencies, such as Boys and Girls Clubs, transitional housing programs and shelters can be a life-saving service.

Be a Hero

Over the past several years we have begun to recognize the importance of children being self confident and independent. Over protecting them is damaging in many ways and needs to be recognized for what it is, counter-productive. But as long as the “peer group” sees allowing children to master challenges as child endangerment, parents who insist on their legal right to allow their children to independently fully engage in the community will face the kind of repercussions that have been visited on the Meitiv family.

Since I do not work day in and day out in parks and recreation, my comments here are based on second-hand information that comes from my friends who are professionals, and thus some of what I have said and proposed may be off the mark or even offensive, and if that is your reaction, I apologize. On the other hand, if you find a grain of truth in this discussion and it motivates you in some way to expand your outreach, then we are both ahead of the game.

If, by your actions, a change occurs that gets more kids using your programs on their own, then in my book you are a hero.