Go Play Outside: Urban Playscapes

My husband is trying to convince me to move out of downtown into a nearby neighborhood. (Don’t worry, we haven’t jumped ship yet, but I am patiently hearing him out.) There’s a lot that goes into this discussion–some current issues with our apartment, plans for a family business, housing co-op ideas, etc. One main concern that both of us share: if we stay downtown, where will our son play?

I’ve been thinking a lot about outdoor play places and an experience last week solidified some things for me.

A friend of ours held their daughter’s fourth birthday party at a play equipment manufacturer’s warehouse out in one of Cincinnati’s east suburbs. This company opens their warehouse/showroom to the public for open play and to rent for parties. All of their display pieces are fair game, everything from trampolines, blow-up bouncy castles, play structures, and basketball hoops. It’s a brilliant idea and it was an awesome party. Thankfully, my son can walk and climb, so there were a few things he could play on (including swings–which he loves), but most of the play structures are optimized at an older age. One structure was super cool. It was three full stories, connected by ladders, kept secure with vertical bars, and featuring a three-story winding slide. The price tag read: $35,000.
Yep, $35k.

This led me to ask myself: If I had $35,000 to spend on a play structure for my children, how would I spend it? And I’ll tell you what–the last thing I’d spend it on is a mass-produced, bright blue steel structure for my backyard.

Now, let’s put this into a public space perspective.
Most conversations surrounding public playscapes focus on two main issues: safety and durability. Basically, “How can we keep our kids busy without hurting them? Oh! And we don’t want to have to replace anything in a year or two.” Now, I understand that both safety and durability are important questions to ask. But, are they the only questions we should be asking? And are they the most important?

What did kids do before steel play structures were invented?
Geez! They must have been bored out of their minds, right?

Think about your average urban (or suburban) public play area.

Now, think about the childhood experience of outdoor play in a natural area.

Think about the materials, the shapes, the colors, and the textures. Compare the freedom and curiosity that come alive in natural spaces to the strictures and literal play of manufactured play areas. Sure, these play places keep kids busy and relatively “safe,” but the kids aren’t learning anything, exploring anything, and definitely aren’t creating anything. Instead, they run around in circles inside a fence, climb up and down and up and down the same ladder, and swing back and forth on swings. Geez, even video games require some sort of strategy!

I would venture to say that most public play areas are a terrible waste of space and resources because they bear such little resemblance to natural areas.

Believe me, I know that the solution for most of us does not involve abandoning public play spaces because it’s unrealistic to expect that those of us in urban areas should drive to the nearest wooded area whenever our child wants to play ouside. Instead, I wonder what would happen if we reconsidered the way we design and structure our public playscapes. This wouldn’t satisfy the entire problem–we still need to expose our children to natural spaces–but it would satisfy the day-to-day need for children to play in ways that make them stronger, smarter, and more creative, rather than simply occupied.

What if we designed our urban play areas to more closely resemble natural areas?
And what if, instead of buying a $35,000 play structure for a public park, we hired a landscape architect or naturalist to create a public greenspace area that encouraged natural play and activities?

I’ve found a lot of great resources online for just this sort of idea, and there are other cities and countries that are already doing this (or have been doing it for decades). When I get the time, I hope to post some links to articles, photos, and other great resources.

For now, I’m curious what you think about the average (sub)urban play area and how it compares to your experiences of play as a child.

Go Play Outside!

My son’s generation (and possibly mine before his) has a problem: kids just don’t play outside anymore.

Either they have no place to play (no public greenspace, no accessible virgin or natural spaces, fenced backyards), they aren’t allowed to play (it’s too dangerous–whether realistic or imagined), or they have simply forgotten how to make their own play (their natural creativity has been dulled by contemporary toys and play-places).

Richard Louv
, author of Last Child in the Woods, coined the term “Nature-Deficit Disorder” for this problem. I saw Louv speak at a conference a few years back, after his book was first published. At the time, I thought he was a bit long on diagnosis and short on cure, but I do think that his diagnosis is spot-on. (Though I could do without the hype surrounding this “disorder,” the book is good reading for anyone who is now or will ever be responsible for the life of a child.)

One evening, when my boys were younger, Matthew, then ten, looked at me from across a restaurant table and said quite seriously, Dad, how come it was more fun when you were a kid? – Richard Louv, Last Child in the Woods

This isn’t just an urban phenomenon, of course. It crosses all socio-economic boundaries and is just as prevalent in the city kids who have never been to a working farm as it is in the rich suburban kids who don’t know what grass looks like when it hasn’t been mowed lately. Unless you are intentional about the way you expose your children to the natural world, there’s a large chance they will grow to prefer an hour with the latest video game over a hike in the woods or a chance to watch a thunderstorm on the front porch.

I am not a fanatic; I do not believe the world is going to Hell in a hand basket because some kids can’t identify trees. I do, though, think we have a problem on our hands and it’s affecting our kids’ health, creativity, and the very depth of their experience of life.

My husband and I revisit this issue often: how can we give our city-raised, concrete-walking kids a love for nature?
Without a backyard or nearby forest for exploration, how can we guarantee that our children grow up with a basic understanding of natural science (something that was once considered basic human knowledge and a matter of survival) and the beauty of nature’s rhythms (which births a sense of awe and wonder)?

And while surrounded by urban crime and blight, how can we give our children the wellness and bravery that naturally rises from experiences in natural spaces?

More so, how can we cultivate their young, creative minds when all our neighborhood offers are restrictive city streets and plastic, pre-fab public parks as play places?

In the past five or ten years, with an eco-renaissance of sorts in popular culture, the tides are beginning to shift and parents are becoming more intentional about recapturing the wild, outdoor experiences that used to be the norm for all children. Although purists are skeptical of the popularity of “going green,” this popularity has benefits. Namely, the opportunities that were once reserved for “weird” and eccentric parents are now being embraced by soccer moms and public schools alike.

Because this issue is so dear to me, I want to make it a regular topic on The Walking Green. Every couple weeks I’ll be introducing an opportunity, local organization, place, person, etc. as a resource for families who care about providing these important outdoor experiences for their children or the children they care for. Let me know if there’s something that you believe deserves some attention and I’ll try to feature it!

In the meantime, shut down your computer, grab the kids, and go play outside!