Building a Better Playground

One of my favorite activities when I travel to Uganda with local NGOs (non-governmental humanitarian organizations) is constructing playgrounds.  After being installed, most playground equipment is used almost around the clock.  So far, we have concerntrated on swings, but are the process of expanding out into slides, teeter totters, merry-go-rounds, and climbing towers.  But I would really like to try something new.

When visiting the dinosaur museum at Thanksgiving Point UT, my grandkids (aged 11 and below), enjoy the interactive erosion exhibit more than anything.  The display involves a large tank complete with water sources and drains.  The kids then play in the water, sand, and plastic dinosaurs and trees.  They construct dams, channels, canals, etc. and learn the concept of erosion (water eroding the sand).  The museum provides each kid with an apron.  My grandkids love it.  Hands-on activities seem the perfect exercise for kid’s minds and bodies.

David Rockwell, designer of theater sets (Hairspray), restaurants, and hotels, noticed that children seemed unsatisfied with traditional playground equipment.  Rockwell was so frustrated by the static nature of playgounds that he set out to reinvent them.  He spent 5 years consulting with experts on children and play, testing out his ideas at schools, working pro bono with NYC officials to produce a new kind of play experience.  According to Time magazine (Harriet Barovick, 9 Aug 2010, p. 45), he developed interactive equipment:

instead of prescribing activities–climb this, sit on that–the water-friendly environment encourages kids to be creative, messy, constructive and, yes, even destructive as they build with and topple giant foam blocks.

Rockwell’s design, which was inspired in part by European “adventure playgrounds” where supervised kids can create with a wide variety of objects, follows the prevailing theory that free, child-initiated play is a critical component of healthy social, emotional and intellectual development.  In 2008, Rockwell unveiled “Imagination in a Box,” a walk-in-closet-size container with at least 75 foam blocks, among other components.  The foam blocks were designed to keep kids’ brains active.  The portable sets start at $6,150.

There is, however, one additional expense.  The play sets need to be staffed by grownups.  These so-called play associates are tasked with making sure kids use the equipment safely and insuring that helicopter parents for not hovering too close.

While the sets are obviously too expense for most developing world applicaions, there must be some design principles here that we could use.  Because of possible pollution, water is obviously a problem.  Also, I wonder about possible theft of the foam blocks.


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