More threads by David Baxter PhD

David Baxter PhD

Late Founder
Can Johnny Come Out and (Be Taught to) Play?
January 14, 2007

ALMOST any popular playground offers both a curly slide, and a Hobbesian slide toward a state of child-chaos. Girls scrambling to escape hot lava bang into boys driving a bullet-train spaceship who have just run over a preschooler in Power Ranger tights. Parents lurk around the edges, or push a swing, hoping to make it to nap time before someone draws blood.

All that may soon change, for many families, if an ambitious idea taking shape among New York City planners and a private designer takes hold.

City officials unveiled plans last week for a new kind of playground, outfitted with ponds, pulleys and bulky foam blocks intended to engage the imagination, and ?play workers? to help guide fantasy play. In an artist?s rendering of a playground proposed for Lower Manhattan, the guides, dressed in matching bright yellow shirts and baseball caps, oversee the action with an air of calm authority.

The experiment, if it inspires other cities, would mark the first significant change in playground design in decades, since municipalities began replacing steel monkey bars and slides with the boxy, plastic equipment common in many urban areas today.

It already raises fundamental questions about childhood.

How much help do children need to do what should come naturally? And to what extent does expert guidance ? embodied by the so-called play workers ? represent adults? expectations of children, rather than what the youngsters themselves want or need?

?My first impression is that this is more evidence that we don?t trust kids to play by themselves,? said Peter Stearns, provost of George Mason University in Fairfax, Va., and author of Anxious Parents: A History of Modern Childrearing in America. ?And I think it?s fair to ask: Is this really for parents, to make them feel their kids are being properly guided while playing??

On the surface, a managed playground is a natural extension of a culture that increasingly parcels childhood into schedules. Many children in urban areas from Boston to Houston no longer run out the front door to find their friends; their parents make play dates instead. And youngsters who once might have played on a sandlot or a backyard ice rink now enter organized leagues by first grade.

Pickup games are still around, but they have migrated from the street to computers, where friends gather online at sites like Neopets and Club Penguin.

Cultural critics have warned of the dangers of replacing spontaneous play with organized activities since the 1930s, when the historian Johan Huizinga published his classic, Homo Ludens, about the importance of spontaneous and unstructured play to the health of societies.

Children chasing, creeping, diving into alleyways and bushes may look somehow suspect, even dangerous. But experts say the free-for-all has a point: children develop independent judgment, and a sense of risk, privacy and invention all their own when they create play worlds that exclude parents and other adults. Forcing a children?s game to have some goal, as many parents have the urge to do, in effect installs a hall monitor in the game room.

Psychologists who spend time with children, moreover, say that it is important for youngsters to navigate kids-only play situations to develop their social instincts, such as how to join a game that has already started. Designers of the proposed playground were aiming for a space that, in a sense, recaptures the imaginative, collaborative games children used to organize routinely in their neighborhoods, before play dates and the American Youth Soccer Organization.

?I look at this design and see open space and interesting props, designed not just for motor play to get kids moving around, but for creative, thematic play,? said Marjorie Taylor, a professor of psychology at the University of Oregon. ?Children are going to pretend wherever you put them. But if adults offer some scaffolding, some support, that can be a good way to get it started.?

That scaffolding might also make the new playgrounds a hard sell, at least if history is any guide.

The American playground movement, which began in the early 1900s, also envisioned spaces that would draw children for games supervised by adult workers. Designers built monkey bars and slides mainly for preteens and teenagers, a slightly older group than the pre- to middle-school children the new playground is intended for, said Lisa Jacobson, a historian at the University of California at Santa Barbara and author of Raising Consumers: Children and the American Mass Market in the Early 20th Century.

But the purpose was similar, she said: to provide an attractive alternative to the movies and penny arcades (read: video games and the Internet), a place where children in crowded cities could build social skills and character.

?Then as now, the idea was that play is serious business, that it is the work of the child,? Professor Jacobson said.

The only thing missing was the swarm of kids. After playgrounds were built early in the 1900s, about 20 percent of children in Milwaukee lived within walking distance of playgrounds, according to her research, but less than 4 percent used them. Surveys found similarly low rates among children near playgrounds in Cleveland, she said. At that time in New York City, some 95 percent of children played almost exclusively on the streets.

As one 11-year-old boy, living in Worcester, Mass., in the early 1900s said of supervised playgrounds: ?It gets on my nerves with so many men and women around telling you what to do.? He was quoted in Eight Hours for What We Will, a study of workers? leisure by Roy Rosenzweig, a professor of history and new media at George Mason University.

Grade-schoolers living in American cities 100 years later may not mind so much, and may take eagerly to the foam blocks and pulleys and play workers. But one thing that all psychologists who work with children agree on: The little humans will imagine and populate their own play worlds, regardless of what parents or play directors think is appropriate.

Dr. Taylor, who works with children who have imaginary friends, knows one youngster who has a ?wife? he calls Mrs. Duck, another who spends time with Elfie, an imaginary veterinarian with tie-dyed hair, and another who plays with Simone, an invisible alligator. ?They usually invent far better worlds than we could have modeled for them,? Dr. Taylor said.

just mary

Based on my own experience as a child, :) , we never used playgrounds unless we had too - they were for school recesses.

I generally remember playing lots of hide and seek, war games (I grew up with mainly boys) and tag. The best part being that there were no adults around.

I also wonder who is going to pay the play-workers and who they'll be, will they be specially trained, what type of background will they need? And of course, they will all need background checks.

How do we always manage to take something simple, that works (even if we don't completely understand how), and complicate it?


David Baxter PhD

Late Founder
How do we always manage to take something simple, that works (even if we don't completely understand how), and complicate it?

Politicians and government that doesn't understand that it just isn't necessary to big-brother-micro-manage everything we do.
they should focus on making the streets safe enough so kids can go out and play and hang out with friends, like it used to be (before my time, of course). i don't like that i can't let my kids go out on their own. they spend more time inside because of this than i'd like to see.
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