Schools that eliminate recess in favor of more class time to “teach to the test,” parents who fear “stranger danger,” the rising popularity of organized activities and the lure of technology—are all upending the seesaw of a child’s free playtime. “I think that parents, for all the right reasons, have started to do things that ultimately are not in the best interest of kids,” observes John Hopkins educator Susan Magsamen. “In America, we have a very Puritanical work ethic, which is ‘if you just work harder; if you just push harder; if you just do more …’ This is a fantastic ethic, but it has caused us to lose play.”
That’s unfortunate. Thriving on complexity, uncertainty and possibility, play prompts kids to see the world in new ways, providing essential preparation for life in the 21st century. As Roger von Oech, founder of the esteemed consultancy Creative Think, puts it, “Necessity may be the mother of invention, but play is certainly the father.” Psychology Today’s Hara Estroff Marano quips: “Play is the future with sneakers on.”
In a July 2010 Newsweek feature, Po Bronson and Ashley Merryman reported that American creativity scores have been in steady decline since 1990, most notably for those in kindergarten through sixth grade—even as I.Q. scores rise. But the correlation to lifetime creative accomplishment is three times stronger for childhood creativity than for I.Q.
Increasingly, cognitive scientists are finding that it is precisely the type of unstructured child’s play found on the playground that provides the social and intellectual abilities needed to succeed in life. Play develops new skills and functions, encourages autonomous thinking and environment-building, and promotes flexible problem-solving as well as creative and aesthetic appreciation. Play hastens the development of the brain’s executive functions, stimulating the neural centers that give children control over their emotions, attention and behavior.
Beyond convincing parents of the importance of creativity in play, an even greater challenge is the task of arguing the merits of risk. “Total safety” has undeniable parental appeal. But many psychologists and early childhood specialists believe that to be valuable, play must possess not only creativity, but also an element of danger. Educators argue that totally safe environments lack critical elements vital to meaningful play: variety, complexity, flexibility, adaptability and risk. Such challenge allows for the possibility of failure, which fuels both learning and enjoyment. If all of our play spaces are over-structured and predetermined, children lose this key ingredient.
Playgrounds still have the potential to be fully conceived environments, capable of tickling the playful spirit in all of us. In the 1960s, New York became the country’s epicenter of innovative playgrounds thanks to the work of architects M. Paul Friedberg and Richard Dattner, two young architects who both worked to weave play features into unified landscapes in unprecedented ways. Friedberg led the way in 1965, with the Lower East Side’s Riis Plaza, an intergenerational gathering space at the center of a housing development. “I’m a child,” Friedberg explained. “Give me one choice and I’ll bore myself to death and I’ll grow up to be a very narrow person. Give me a million choices and you feed my imagination, my understanding of forms, of balance, of movement, and the playing becomes both a physical and an intellectual challenge, a learning by trial and error and an experience of discovery and exploration.”
Friedberg’s plaza was both interactive and intergenerational by design; a place where all ages would intermingle without artificial boundaries to wall off children. Instead of isolated play features, Riis Plaza wove paths amid pyramids, mounds, and wood and granite blocks. “Riis has the mystery of a primitive city discovered after lost eons,” The New York Times enthused.
Two years later, Dattner unveiled Adventure Playground. Commissioned by Joseph and Estée Lauder, it became his first of five such spaces in Central Park. “Many of our friends were fleeing the city because they thought that New York wasn’t the place to bring up children. We decided to build several of these to give the city this little lift,” Joseph Lauder remarked. Within months of its opening,The New York Times dubbed Adventure Playground “the current mecca” for mothers and children, while Architectural Record predicted it would soon become “the single most famous playground in America.”
Inspired by Swiss developmental psychologist Jean Piaget, Dattner’s designs were intended to provide children with “the maximum control over their experience.” Like Noguchi and Friedberg, he sought to create a cohesive landscape rather than an assemblage of parts. Intimate areas of mounds and pyramids were linked by a network of interior walls, slides and tunnels. While colors were muted for cohesiveness, careful attention was paid to shifts in material textures.