The Science of Playgrounds

Science of PlaySusan G. Solomon has written a book titled The Science of Play: How to Build Playgrounds That Enhance Children’s Development. In her own words:

“I have been frustrated by recent discussions about play. These have been well-meaning but not very effective in improving venues for kids and their families. I have tried to shift the debate by asking what kids need to thrive. I link data to design. Taking my lead from behavioral sciences, I look for public play solutions that encourage risk taking, succeeding and failing, planning ahead, gaining friends. Many of these built works are inexpensive, sustainable, and easy to accomplish.”

Her book presents more than fifty hand picked examples to explain what she means.  One of those examples is shown on the cover of the book. The idea involves the concept of “loose play.”

Rather than the traditional static playground toys, the loose play concept leads to playgrounds that kids can rearrange to some extent and where they aren’t trapped into certain paths they must follow.  Where an old-style playground might have kids running in circles — up a ladder over a bridge up a few steps down a slide and repeat, a loose play playground would have kids running all over making up their play as they go.

None of these ideas are very new. “How Not To Cheat Children: The Theory of Loose Parts” by Simon Nicholson was published in Landscape Architecture in 1971 and is the basis for the ideas espoused by Solomon and other modern playground designers.

Rather than climbing ladders, the new playgrounds might offer rock arrangements to climb from any angle.  They also offer moveable materials, whether it is sand, wood chips, styrofoam blocks, wood blocks, water or something else.  Picture kids raking leaves, making a pile and jumping in it.  That’s the kind of loose play envisioned by architects of these new playgrounds.

Vicki L. Stoecklin and Randy White, writing in the March/April 1998 issue of Early Childhood News magazine, suggest the following elements in these playgrounds:

  • water
  • vegetation, including trees, bushes, flowers and long grasses,
  • animals, creatures in ponds, and other living things
  • sand, best if it can be mixed with water
  • natural color, diversity and change
  • places and features to sit in, on, under, lean against, and provide shelter and shade
  • different levels and nooks and crannies, places that offer privacy and views
  • structures, equipment and materials that can be changed, actually or in their imaginations, including plentiful loose parts.

Not too much different from what our readers want in their outdoor adventures.

If you like the idea of getting kids into better play spaces, Solomon offers some great options and the science behind these concepts offers many more ideas.  You can find more information about her new book on Ms Solomon’s website.

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