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The Science of PLAY: Inspiring Ideas for Designing Play Spaces

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A good play space allows kids to take small steps: climbing a little higher, moving a little faster, getting a little closer to something that could be dangerous like a ledge or a fire pit… or disappearing from view.

How can designers, educators, and parents join forces to create enriching play spaces that build strong communities, and allow children to thrive and grow in an urban environment?

Last week, the Collaborative kicked off an inquiry into the design of play space for Philadelphia with a presentation by Susan G. Solomon on her new book, The Science of Play: How to Build Playgrounds That Enhance Children’s Development.

“This book was born out of frustration,” Solomon began. “We say, ‘let the kids play’ but we’re not giving enough information to the patrons and designers of playgrounds to make that happen.” Instead, she said, most new playgrounds are built on the “KFC” model – kit, fence, and carpet. Often, Solomon added, play equipment is placed so low that it encourages parents to interfere, robbing children of the chance to collaborate and change the environment.

Solomon traveled to Europe and Asia to find alternatives to the constraining play spaces she regularly sees in the U.S. She also showed examples of American play spaces that have pushed past the formula.


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Scary Stats Hide a Safer Reality: The U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission reports 200,000 injuries to children on public playgrounds each year. But only four percent require hospitalization, and the statistics cover everyone from fourteen months to twenty-one years.

Risk-taking isn't reckless

The uninspiring play spaces in the U.S. are the result of fear over playground injuries (and liability). But it’s not like this everywhere. Solomon shared examples of play spaces in The Netherlands, Spain, and Japan that are places of risk-taking and discovery. What’s more, many of them are open 24/7, effectively making them community spaces as well.

“Kids need to take risks”, said Solomon. To develop cognitively, “they need to fail, succeed after trying, and keep many things in their head at one time.”

But risk-taking doesn’t mean being reckless, Solomon points out. “Children are born with innate fears, and risks help them take small steps to overcome them, to move beyond their comfort zone.”

A good play space allows kids to take these small steps: climbing a little higher, moving a little faster, getting a little closer to something that could be dangerous like a ledge or a fire pit… or disappearing from view and hiding.

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Sling Swings: Even standard play equipment can be a source of adventurous, improvisational play. A cluster of bucket swings placed at different heights in Amsterdam become a place to swing and climb.


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Rome younger kids

Knitted climbing structures in Japan and Italy made it on Solomon’s “best-of” list for 2014. Watch kids at play in Rome's "knitted wonder space."

"As safe as they need to be"

Will these new models for play spaces presented by Solomon in her book penetrate the US? Solomon reports that the United Kingdom, which closely resembled current US attitudes about play spaces just a decade ago, has “done a U-turn away from an ultra-safety stance.” The UK’s current policy is “playgrounds should be as safe as they need to be, not as safe as they can be.”

“Being aware of what’s happening elsewhere” is an important start.

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Meg Wise of Smith Memorial Playground, Susan G. Solomon, Sharon Easterling of the Delaware Valley Association for the Education of Young Children (DVAEYC) and Alex Gilliam of Public Workshop with Collaborative board member Paul Vernon of KSK.

Panelists on Play

Local leaders in play, early childhood education, and participatory design joined Susan for a quick exchange after her talk. Moderator Paul Vernon posed the question, “The fear of liability is a big constraint in designing play spaces. How can we overcome that?”

Maybe that day is not so far away, said Meg Wise, who led a recent redesign of the Smith Memorial Playground. Adventure playgrounds are the future… There are place in the US where true adventure play is happening.”

Sharon Easterling of DVAEYC saw a strong link between child development and quality play space. “Most of our kids are being raised [in part] outside the home. How do young children learn? Do they learn because we tell them things or because they get to discover?”

Alex Gilliam of The Public Workshop cited a particularly adventurous play space in Berlin. “Some of the safest playgrounds in the world may be the most dangerous.” He added that having a code of behavior in place helps to build a culture of responsibility. Sharon Easterling agreed, “It’s not always a safety problem, but a supervision problem.”




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