Unfixing playgrounds

Conventional playground equipment sucks.  It’s pretty well-established now that those big plastic climbing frames and swing sets are overpriced, over-designed and far too fixed for their own good – let alone the children’s.  They do offer a couple of benefits.   They communicate clearly that this is a place for children, and that is useful in a society where land is so thoroughly dominated by adults.  They let children climb and slide and swing, which is better than nothing.  But they heavily privilege gross motor play, and children who are already good at it.

I was watching a fixed playground recently, at a school where all of the children have some diagnosed learning or language difference.  Watching their patterns of behavior and movement, I saw for the first time that conventional play equipment doesn’t only privilege gross motor play.  It also requires that children interested in anything else explain their idea verbally and without any material support.  I talked this suspicion through with Jill Wood, who agreed and provided the example below.

Imagine a child wants to be a superhero.  To share this idea with someone else he needs to explain it to them.  He needs to say, ‘let’s play superheroes.  Let’s pretend I have a cape and I can fly”.  Then they need to imagine it and find that idea compelling enough to join in.  They need to build and hold a frame together, without any material support.

With loose parts this process is so much easier!  He can tie a towel around his neck, to see if the idea is as fun as he imagines.  He can run around, feeling the wind take the cloth and send it streaming out behind.  He can laugh with pleasure and other children will see and hear his excitement.  That’s more attractive than any amount of description.  If another child wants to, they can find their own towel and signal their involvement without a word, in a heartbeat.

This is the difference that loose parts make.

Over the past couple of months, helping to bring loose parts into recess at one school, I’ve seen loose parts help children:

– experiment with social risk, because when there are many different things happening it’s easier to try some of them out

– manage conflict, because children aren’t fighting over limited play resources but instead sharing in a sense of abundance

– find their people, because for the first time they can express themselves in multiple ways and thus connect with like-minded individuals

Since we started introducing loose parts this semester, I’ve seen amazing changes both among the student population as a whole and specific individuals who were struggling before.  There’s a group that returns to the sandpit every day now, digging up the plastic animals they’ve buried there the day before.  The children brush off the animals and arrange them in complex formations across a log, swooping down and dropping them into milk crate prison.  There are fabric hammocks, which sometimes have one child contentedly chilling out and sometimes several, squirming and giggling in its pocket.  On a windy day, one child asked to have a bedsheet tied to his wrists and ankles, then explained that he was a flying squirrel.  This started a trend, and soon there were four more children waddling at speed, the wind puffing out a sail behind them.

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