21 April 2012


Wieden and Kennedy's brilliant "tag" advert for Nike from 2002

We took the "grandnephew" to a great playground today. He's four, but the people there who caught my attention were older - 10 years older, 12 years older. They were teens, but while the "teen" spaces in the park - the basketball court, the soccer field, even the skate zone - sat empty, the "Timber Town" playground held them all. Oh sure, two girls, working at being 'too cool,' sat swinging and gossiping, but all the rest, boys and girls, raced through the playground's features playing tag.

Timber Town, Zeeland, Michigan
They were no danger to the little kids. Not at all, and many of the kids were very young. Nor did they ever collide with a parent. Nor did anyone get hurt. But they played and played - inventing the rules, changing the rules as needed - but racing on and on.

And so once again I thought, why don't we have these playgrounds at middle schools and high schools? I know I'm not the only one who asks this - when I brought it up on Twitter, Royan Lee from Ontario mentioned taking his Middle Schoolers on a field trip to a playground, Chris Wejr mentioned how, in his community, when they converted an elementary school into a middle school, they very quickly removed the playground. I understood. Earlier in the day I had passed Holland (MI) New Tech High School (grades 6-12), also a converted elementary. Same thing there, the great playground that had sat behind the building has vanished. Turn 12 kids, and play time is gone, you're an adult now... unless, of course, you want to go to a movie, or choose your own class, or go out at night, or, or, or...

Secondary school playground design from Superblue Design of London (UK)
check out Knitting Nancy and this climber/shelter
Just last summer a Middle School Principal in Frankenmuth, Michigan had told me that virtually every one of his students had signed a petition asking for an "adventure playground" like those built at all the area's elementary schools.

Check out this "mobius strip" playground piece
Why? Where is recess between age 11 and age 18 when you get to university? Where are the playgrounds which encourage healthy play, healthy large muscle use, imagination, and adventure?

or this "ant farm for all ages"
Why do we keep on insisting that kids "grow up" so quickly? And why do we keep insisting that "growing up" means being stuck in a chair - an awful chair - all day?

- Ira Socol


jsb16 said...

Plus, there's so much physics (and math, and history) in a playground...

andrew said...

As always I enjoy your perspectives.

As a PE teacher I think about this very topic often. Not only why do kids not play but the mixed message they receive all the time regarding play, especially as they get older. I have heard parents complain about the weight gain of their children and be bothered by the choices they make regarding food. They will then add that they do not exercise any. However the next question that I always want to ask is, "how much time in the day is allotted for play". I'm not saying its the parents responsibility to make sure their kid is active but if the parent is scheduling their child to go here, there and everywhere and pushing them to take advanced courses in school, somethings gonna get sacrificed. The damn shame of it all is that play or even exercise is usually bumped off in favor of college entrance or societal status activities.

I am amazed at how many college educated... supposedly educated parents... don't understand a correlation between health/well being and learning/job performance. Its almost like exercisers are a clique in society all of their own.. like vegetarians!

Not only that but the notion of exercise has become the new guilt trip thing... everyone knows the lingo and every once in a while will get up in the morning to run so they can pretend to others that they are committed to something, but really when you talk to a person about playing or exercise who doesn't take the time to do so, the ambiance is similar to a non church goer who unsuspectingly runs into a person who wants to save everyone they meet. Its uncomfortable and they want out of the conversation as soon as possible!

Play/exercise has got to be a staple in everyday life. I know doctors say 30 mins/ 3xs a week, but really, an hour and a half a week! Get serious. Not only that but most adults relegate themselves to the treadmills. That is not play when you are playing by yourself.

I think it can go back a bit onto the PE teachers not doing enough to educate kids on how they can be active outside of school and providing opportunities for kids as well. It does fall largely though on what we view as "time to grow up". There are no rules against doing what you like. Rules and norms are designed to control. If older kids want to play, let them play and hopefully there is an adult around who understands them and can somehow facilitate their need.

Mr. Lauer said...

Our playground attracts a lot of older students over the weekend and after school. I often see them up on the play structures playing tag, or just hanging off the bars... You make a great point... Why do we believe their need for play and movement stops at 5th grade...

Bill Genereux said...

I'm sure you know Ira that in the one room country school my parents attended (yes my folks actually attended one) the kids had recess all eight years of school. They had a full hour for lunch, and depending student age could have another half hour recess or two during the morning & afternoon.

These schools didn't have fancy playground equipment; a see-saw and merry go round were about it, but they did have plenty of sunshine and fresh air. Oh, and baseball. They all played baseball together, regardless of age. From a grown-up 8th grader (some of whom could even have been 19 yrs old) to a 5 year old first grader, they normally needed every kid to play on the team. I've heard that baseball is considered too dangerous for many school playgrounds these days. Not surprised though.

Anyway, I think the stigma of play for grown people has far outlasted it's usefulness. There is plenty of research supporting play as a creative and productive endeavor even into adulthood. I think the removal of play from the experience of childhood is a really bad idea. Too many people reach adulthood without any connection to their inner child, because they had to give that child up far too early in their lives, and now they haven't any idea how to harness their inner playful and creative child.