Alternative Education

The Changing Nature of Play

Originally published in TEACH Magazine Jan/Feb 2011 Issue

By Martha Beach

On a warm fall afternoon, a group of children run around McCleary Playground, located in Toronto’s Leslieville. McCleary sits just south of busy Queen Street East, on a quiet residential street. The ground is covered in soft grass and wood chips; logs, boulders, and saplings fill the small, gated area. Children scamper through trees with squirrels. They scramble over boulders and clamber to be the first to climb a pile of logs. Two children play on the logs for 10 minutes before they even notice a bright orange slide. They take a couple slides each, but soon enough they start pretending it is a train.

This leafy playground is part of a new trend. It is a natural playground, made of pathways, trees, shrubs, logs, and boulders from the Canadian Shield. The only piece of traditional equipment is the slide. There are no swings, monkey bars or teeter-totters, and no bright colours—nothing constructed of plastic or metal.

Natural playgrounds are one example of our changing approach to play. Over the past decade, experts have identified many problems with traditional play equipment and overly structured toys. New toy and park designs help children learn and develop without adults. Not all parents know about non-structured playgrounds, many communities cannot afford them, and many appreciate the standard playground with structured equipment.

Structured playgrounds were installed across the country just over a decade ago, and only benefit gross motor skills. They have a single focus; a small platform with a slide and a climbing wall attached and they are not accessible to all children. They are built for the child who is already physically and mentally developed. Structured playgrounds only allow for prescribed play—play that is essentially dictated by the limited possibilities of the equipment—in the same way that structured toys only have a single use.

Decreasing adult intervention is the first step in moving away from structured play. “Open-ended play allows students to interact with each other and not with adults,” says Michael Martins, a Physical Education teacher at the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education’s (OISE) Institute of Child Study at the University of Toronto. New designs may be successful in changing a child’s behaviour, but adult behaviour is what needs to change. “Adults have a bad habit of thinking they know best,” says Adam Bienenstock, owner and founder of Bienenstock Natural Playgrounds. Parents tend to hover and structure games for kids. Which is why there is, ironically, a natural playground in the middle of High Park, located in downtown Toronto. “There’s a fear to let them roam,” Bienenstock says.

There is however, a clear difference between adult intervention and adult supervision. The changing nature of play means that adults need not intervene or assist in games and activities, for example, ensuring children do not climb on high railings or pushing younger children on a swing set. At the same time, children at these new playgrounds still require supervision. Fortunately, the new play structures do not feature high platforms, long slides, or monkey bars, meaning fewer opportunities for injury and less scrutinous supervision is required from teachers and parents. These factors will contribute to more independent play by children.

Letting kids play by themselves helps them learn. “Unstructured play and interactive play helps problem-solving skills,” says Martins. Open-ended play works on a child’s social skills, co-operative development, creative ambition and imagination. Leave kids to work and play by themselves, and they will learn how to resolve problems.

Aside from the educational benefits, new designs have demonstrated improvements, such as, durability, when compared to traditional structures. Metal equipment eventually wears out, rusts or breaks. “Boulders won’t give out,” says Bienenstock. Plus, non-prescribed equipment is versatile. “You put in a boulder and it’s a car, or a locomotive, or a ship,” says Bienenstock. “If you give them a plastic and steel car, once that’s done, that’s done.” The real value shows during the winter months. A traditional structure provides little in the winter, whereas children can still build with loose objects on boulders, hills, and logs even when there’s ice, slush, and snow covering the ground.

Three playground designs have proved to be popular: natural playgrounds, loose object play, and equipment that puts the focus on fine motor skills. Experts first identified the problems and designers, architects, and child specialists followed with the solutions. Now communities must choose which approach to open-ended play is best.

Natural playgrounds are multi-focus and open. “You have as many options as there are opportunities in nature,” says Bienenstock. Today, many children do not have many opportunities to learn outside. “It’s an amazing, missed opportunity,” says Nate Habermeyer who works at Evergreen, a foundation that coordinates with communities and schools to help connect cities and nature. Natural playgrounds leave options for kids to play, learn, and develop. There are no platforms or stairs so that children with physical and mental disabilities can also play. “If you have to do just one thing, plant a great big tree,” says Bienenstock. Adding a boulder, a log, large shrubs, and pathways, also lead children to explore nature.

Another way that children can explore is through loose object play. It, too, is multi-focus and open-ended just like natural playgrounds, but loose object playgrounds take a different approach. They have different building materials like boxes, crates, a-frames, pieces of wood, planks and even giant foam building blocks, but no climbing structures. Children build their own play space. In New York, several have been built in the last few years, like the newly renovated Brooklyn Bridge Park and Imagination Playground. At the end of the day, employees at the American loose object playgrounds lock everything in a shed until the next day. Any child can play in a loose-object environment. Children work together to build their play space and to solve complications they encounter.

Recently, manufacturers have also tried to create open-ended and skill-building structures. They have designed equipment that fire a child’s imagination and fine motor skills. Evos Play System is a new line of equipment designed by Landscape Structures, a Minnesota-based company. Greenfield School in Edmonton had some installed last year. Evos Play System has no prescribed points of entry or exit and to climb the equipment, children need to use their muscles and minds. Evos equipment is accessible from ground level, though much of it involves climbing, making it inaccessible to some children.

Open-ended equipment like Evos could become more popular because not everyone agrees that structured playgrounds are bad. “I don’t think prescribed equipment is a bad thing. Good can come from both. Allowing students to make things what they will is the important thing,” says Martins. “So long as it’s offering a challenge to the children, it’s a good thing. To have students be more active and to interact one-on-one is great.” The key is balance. “There’s a difference between prescriptive and suggestive,” Bienenstock says. Providing tools to create play is suggestive; play becomes whatever the child imagines. Martins agrees. “Offering students the material to make play what they will is really important,” he says.

Combining old equipment with new concepts can rejuvenate a play area. The cost of a new, innovative playground is still more than most communities can shoulder. When a community, school or group can’t afford a new playground, the Evergreen Foundation steps in as a facilitator and helps with fundraising. New equipment could cost roughly $20,000, $50,000 or a million dollars, says Bienenstock. But so could a natural playground. Any type of playground takes time and money to design, build, and install. The more complicated the design, the greater the number of regulations to follow. The costs mount up when designs meet stated regulations as determined by the Canadian Standards Association, requiring more time and skill. “The adult nonsense and regulatory things are expensive,” says Bienenstock, but he does believe the money is worth it. “How do you assess the value of play?” Bienenstock says value should be attributed according to the amount of time that the playground is used; picking structures that stand the test of time is always worth the money.

Natural playgrounds, loose objects, and play equipment like the Evos Play System are all innovative and open-ended solutions to the problem of structured play. “For kids, their work is play,” says Bienenstock, “That is how they learn.” New designs are helping to change our approach to the way children play. Open-ended playgrounds and non-structured toys are becoming more popular. But they are new solutions to an old problem. We do not know which type of new playground or what kind of new expensive toy will turn out to be the best option in the long run. All we know is that much of children’s lives are structured. Now we need to back up and let them play, experience the world by themselves, learn new things without the help of adults and, most importantly, have fun.

Martha Beach is a journalism student streaming into the magazines industry at Ryerson University in Toronto. Her experience includes feature writing, lifestyle pieces, copy editing, and fact checking.