by Dr. Joe Frost
and James Talbot
The primary motive for
writing this article was the authors’ dissatisfaction
with current developments in play environment design
and development. Widespread misunderstanding of
children’s play has resulted in a growing tendency to
replace vibrant, enchanting, natural and magical
playscapes with overly slick,
technologically-inspired, manufactured structures.
Further, the child’s life is growing increasingly
structured and centered upon the achievement ethic in
the mistaken notion that what adults think is good for
adults is also good for children. Overly anxious
parents and bureaucrats are robbing children of their
right to play and, consequently, their sense of wonder
and enchantment. We trust that this article will
inspire designers, builders and others to reconsider
their involvement in children’s play, to think back to
the magical places and events of their own past and
look at play once more through the eyes of the child.
As adults, we often drift
back to magical moments of childhood. We create works
of art, build places and present spectacles intended
to transport us into other worlds; we create realities
and convey impressions that are not completely
understandable either to the senses or the
intelligence. An instinctive desire for the mystical
is universal; it is part of what makes us human. We
have accumulated as astounding array of techniques to
fulfill this need according to the tastes and
technologies of the era.
At no time in life is a
person more receptive to the magical than in
childhood, when limits have not yet solidified and the
mind is not yet bound by the physical and the
rational. Indeed, leaps into the magical through
symbolic, imaginative, make-believe or pretend play
are the child’s chief means of transition from the
concrete to the symbolic, from primitive to elaborate
thought and action.
We all have fond memories
of mysterious, enchanting, dreamlike places in our
pasts, when we were one with the world, in love with
life, suspended in an eternal present. It might have
been during a special party, a foggy lamp lit evening
or some brilliant, dewy early-morning sunrise. We
recall the places that best supported or evoked that
state of mind: the beach, a rose garden, a special
park, Grandmother’s yard, some state or national
monument, a restaurant, a snowy meadow, a woods or
creek or orchard. These are the places that enhanced
us and lent sustenance to our highest selves.
Yet for a growing number of
children these precious moments and places are all but
lost to the trivialities and technologies of modern
living. The natural, soft, sheltered places are giving
way to concrete, steel and machines; the tender
moments with parents, grandparents and close relations
are being supplanted by a growing array of strangers;
the magical playscapes, once created by the child, are
now the domain of clever adult researchers, designers
and salespeople. In our own clumsy, shortsighted ways
we are seriously attempting, yet often failing, to
satisfy both a very basic need and an exalted
purpose—the experience of the magical in childhood.
We can create with children
playscapes that are fitting for the magical child if
we feel it is important enough. But we must be willing
to transcend the traditional and the scholarly and
engage once again in the mystical, the enchanting and
the elusive. Toward this end we propose a modest
outline that employs a range of design guidelines
geared to the child’s perspective.
Children’s imaginations thrive on possibilities and resist limitations. For children, there really are giants up the beanstalk and leprechauns under the rosebush. The fantastic topographies and mini-worlds in storybooks don’t just amuse children, they extend their capacities to imagine and dream. Alteration of scale forces us all to see the world more fully, freshly, closely. There seem to be three scales of operation that create novel responses in children and open the doors of the imagination: the miniature, the child-sized that puts the child in relative primacy, and the colossal.
Precious. Children of all ages
delight in the diminutive (Poltarnees, 1986). The
words “charm” and “charming” derive their original
meaning and potency from smallness. The authority
children possess over the destinies of toys and tiny
landscapes offers a deep satisfaction, a type of
personal power, a way of validating the self; they can
enjoy a sense of omnipotence and sovereignty in a
world that so often seems to render their lives
ineffective. This is the beginning of their taking
control of their lives and their world and balancing
the helplessness they feel with real and imagined
strengths. Consider the magic children sense when
viewing a spiritual Christmas tree of nativity scene.
Is it not, to a great extent, the character of the
miniature that engages and transports them to other
realms? Their fascination with model trains,
dollhouses, model-building, insects, tiny animals and
figurines belies a very special attraction to small
Taken to another degree of
magnification, tiny becomes microscopic and new worlds
open up. Children have a fascination with the myopic.
The world seen close up reveals yet new wonders at the
cellular level. New patterns, new structures, become
evident. Many of these, such as a snowflake or the
veins in a leaf, are reduced to mere geometries and
abstractions. perhaps they suggest to the child Some
of the inner-workings and energy patterns of the
universe. or maybe the child can imagine himself
reduced, not just to doll-sized but all the way down
to antsize (or smaller), and involved in escapades in
an entirely new world, where pebbles are boulders and
a cocoon in a bedroom. Whatever the scale, children
gain a sense of perspective over miniatures. They
return from their escapades among the small, having
gained a new perspective, a new sense of shape,
clarity and interrelations, and more prepared to face
an enormous and sometimes threatening “real world”.
Child Scaled—”Just My Size!”
Environments and objects built exactly to the scale of
the child create many of the same effects as do
miniature objects. Besides facilitating their daily
actions in a world that is simply too big to function
in easily, a child-sized place imparts a special
message. It says, “You are right just the way you are.
You are catered to and cared for. You are important,
and this world is for you, too.” Notice how children
respond to places like miniature golf courses, the
small trains in parks and objects downscaled for their
The Heroic, Colossal Scale.
In a place of huge scale, adults and children are
essentially reduced to equals, both having lost
primacy, and both are compelled to see things with new
eyes. There is also a sense of grandeur not normally
attained in the everyday world, a feeling that one is
walking in a realm created by a higher power. Besides
having gigantically scaled objects or places in the
playscape, consider as well the Japanese gardening
practice of “captured views”, a method used to help
gain a vastness of scale. In “capturing a view”, some
landmark in the distance is framed by the judicious
pruning of vegetation in the garden to become, in
effect, part of it. erecting a play tower might
suggest a closer proximity with the vast worlds among
the clouds. Even locating swings on a hillside with an
expansive view would help augment that
SUGGESTIONS OF OTHER BEINGS
Humans have always enjoyed imagining they share the world with small versions of themselves: brownies, goblins, pixies, elves, leprechauns, hobbits, fairies, little animals that talk and act as we do. This notion has been convincingly perpetuated through children’s literature and folk tales (Gulliver’s Travels, Thumbelina, Alice in Wonderland).
On the one hand, we’re
somehow less alone in a fully peopled world. On
another, we seem to have an instinctive distaste for
an existence that is thoroughly mapped and defined. We
welcome tales of ice people, talking trees, undersea
kingdoms, Mad Hatters, Toons and Star Wars
animalettes. We feel joy in being a part of an
existence in which the possibilities are endless.
Children exhibit this joy everyday in their
Kids themselves are little
people in a too-big world, surrounded by huge
creatures. The idea is comforting to them that there
are smaller folk who, by their own wits, are leading
independent lives. they feel a sense of power in
relation to these tiny beings and heightened
self-esteem through comparison and domination over
A sense of magic is felt in a place that shows obvious signs that such beings inhabit it. Children love visiting Santa’s workshop, and they never tire of watching The Wizard of Oz. These are the homes of magical creatures and therefore of expanded possibilities; anything can happen. Find a featureless wall in your playground and add or paint a hobbit homefront. Create a cozy garden setting, framed by trees and flowering shrubs, that defines a setting for children and adults to relive time-honored fairy tales through reading aloud and sharing stories. Storytime can become realtime when adults provide the freedom, space and materials for children to relive their fantasies through make-believe-play.
Children sense the difference between toys and real objects. In many situations, especially where size is not a problem, they prefer the real thing over the sham. Perhaps it has to do with physical attributes—a greater and more minute degree of detail, its weight and heft, its strength and longevity, or its being constructed of denser materials. Or maybe it has to do with association—”This is the hammer my Dad uses”—that magically imparts attributes of the original user to the novice. Or perhaps its value, in terms of materials or time spent creating it, gives it a quality that a mere copy can never have. It might also be its actual usefulness; i.e., it will do more things better, longer or easier.
For instance, a real fire
engine in a playground will have a much more profound
impact on children than a climber made to remind
children of one, especially if it has its original
bell, hoses, gauges, chrome plating, tires and other
details still intact. Things that actually do
something help so much to create its rich character.
In fact, the more working or mechanical parts it
actually has that children can either control or
relate to, the better. This gives it a specialness
that no copy can match; and by association with both
its original purpose and its history, it endows the
new users with special capabilities.
Symbols and myths throughout the ages have given life meaning and direction. These images and stories can be found in all cultures. Childhood is perhaps the time we are most open to them. Our fairy tales (with their glass slippers, dragons and golden balls) and holidays (consider the Christmas tree and the Hanukah menorah) abound with such symbolism. As a matter of fact, many children’s stories are age-old myths handed down from generation to generation.
Childhood is a time before
rational thinking has had a chance to crowd out these
more subtle and profound thought processes.
Observation reveals certain images almost universally
common to children’s art, images such as the
ever-present sun, circles, trees, the house and
others. We could greatly enhance the range of
experiences taking place in our playscapes by
conscientiously incorporating some of these shapes,
keeping in mind the preferences of children and the
beliefs of the surrounding community. Even if children
do not understand initially why we’re doing this, they
will sense that such symbols are important. In time
the meanings will surface.
For a place to be magical, there needs to be a certain denseness of atmosphere, a degree of containment that serves to cut off the rest of the world. Don’t children often feel more at home in corner places than they do in the middle of an open, exposed location? There is a certain specialness that only boundaries can create. A garden surrounded by a low picket fence will have a different feeling than that same garden with no fence at all. The very term “outdoor room” connotates entirely different images than simply “the outdoors”. These places need not be completely enclosed since children like to be aware of what is happening around them.
Placeness might also be enhanced by having a mood-setting device, a heart of some kind. Consider such things as a statue, sundial, birdbath, Japanese lantern, ornate wind chime, stone or hewn-log bench, fireplace, hammock or pool. Anything having meaning or usefulness, that embues the surroundings with ambience and creates an atmosphere apart, can make a special place little ones can just enjoy being in. Try involving children in the creation of an amphitheater surrounded by plants and covered with trellising.
Forms that are over-defined tend to dictate meaning, and this is the antithesis of the magical state of mind we are seeking. Shapes whose meanings are not so clearly defined or measurable to the eye, on the other hand, lend themselves to more than one interpretation—they can become more than one thing. Remember the old story about the child who spends more play time with the box than she does with the didactic and one-dimensional toy that came in it?
When an object or environment is open to many interpretations and uses, the child holds the power to tell it what it is to be or do, rather than it giving the child some preconceived “correct” way to perceive or act. Consider the amazing differing functions of building blocks versus puzzles or coloring books.
Open-ended spaces and forms often have associative qualities that remind the child of various areas of meaning, but leave much for her to fill in. A conical peak can become a castle, a mountain peak or a rocket; an unknown rounded shape might become a lizard, a dinosaur or a dragon. The addition of a steering wheel or a low counter to almost any platform or play enclosure will greatly expand its dramatic potential.
NATURE AND THE ELEMENTS
Gardens, woods, jungles, groves and orchards have always been potent sources of enchantment. An increase in greenery of any kind will help to increase the probability of mystical thinking and enchanting experiences in our playscapes.
Things that are not human or machine made offer a level of meaning and support far beyond what is artificially available. Common sense and experience both tell us that we alter the natural environment at our peril. We read to our children of enchanted forests, wonderful briar patches and mystical places “where the wild things are”. Yet, look at the places that children actually have to play in! What can be done to close the gap, and how quickly can we begin? After all, weren’t most of the places we remember as magical also predominantly natural?
Tradition has it that the world is made up of four main elements: earth, air, fire and water. As children learn concrete operations and learn to interact with the physical world, it is important that they gain knowledge of its major components. Only when they are adept at the manipulation of these basic building blocks can abstract thinking freely take place.
Make sure that the
playground offers ample opportunity to interact safely
in many ways with earth, air, fire, and water.
Gardening, for example, is an excellent way of
learning how to balance the four elements to create
life (Talbot, 1985). What could be more magical than
the growth process? Observing raw materials blossom
into a beautiful flower or an ear of corn is a
spiritual experience indeed.
Make sure that playgrounds
offer sand and water play. Can some kind of paddle
pool be provided? How about a fireplace, or at least
an occasional bonfire or cookout in which the kids can
take part? Or a safe tower or treehouse with a
spyglass for sky watching and a cockpit of some sort
with a steering wheel for “flying”? Have an ecology
pond, a digging place, giant boulders or even some mud
LINE QUALITY AND SHAPE
For a child, there is more intrigue in a circle than a square, in a curved line than a straight one, in a multifaceted crystal than a cube. Why this is so doesn’t matter so much as taking advantage of the fact and acting on it when we are creating places for children.
Why make a rectangular door when you can have an arched one? Why make a square-shapes platform when it could be cloud-shaped? Why have a cylindrically shaped tunnel when with a little more effort you can have a biomorphically shaped interior reminiscent of Jonah’s whale? Why build a straight bridge when you can make it topsy-turvy, arched or hanging? Why have a beeline walkway when it can meander? And what about portholes for windows or a large old dead tree instead of a regimented jungle gym?
Children relate more easily
to softened edges and curves, to anthropomorphic
shapes, to eccentricity and whimsicality. What can we
do to playgrounds to improve their line quality? Could
we rout the sharp wood edges? Add an arched gateway?
Install some rolling hills? Paint some friendly
shapes? Add a winding trike track with tunnels and
Places that engage the senses are more enchanting and remain more profoundly in our memories than those with little sensual stimulation. Rich color, fragrances, pleasant sounds, engaging textures, varied light qualities, all of these give heightened significance to any experience. Consider again your own memories: sycamores whispering in the breeze, the feel of lamb’s ear against one’s cheek, a tart pear from Grandmother’s yard, the dank feeling under the porch.
Create a sensory walk for
infants and toddlers in your play yard, with textures,
sounds and fragrant blossoms, even impregnated smells,
or simple vegetation and other natural elements. Fluid
or viscous materials like sand, dirt, clay, water also
engage the senses while enhancing the construction and
symbolic play schemes of children.
Another aspect of magical ambience is layering, a term we use loosely. One of its meanings involves looking through things at other things. Objects or views in the background are “framed” by layers of foreground objects or massing (such as walls, hills or vegetation). The sense of depth is heightened and a feeling of richness is obtained. Discovery and mystery are also enhanced because things are often hidden by other things, and movement by the child is required to see all the parts of the environment.
Thus a sequential
revelation or a fragmented perception takes place
which intrigues the imagination and requires effort to
fully penetrate the environment, and then find and fit
all the pieces into a whole. The resulting totality is
less preordained and more enriched with meaning
supplied by the child then, say, a play yard taken in
at a glance. This opens the door to mystical thinking,
transforming the environment to fit the child’s
The concept of layering may
also pertain to levels of meaning. An object may have
several levels of interpretation or degrees of
complexity. These are discovered, and perhaps
enhanced, by the child over time. For instance,
imagine a large sculpture set in a playscape that is
approached from the rear and appears to be, at first
viewing, a large mammal of some kind with splayed
legs. As it is approached, however, the front legs
turn out to be wings. Upon further examination, the
wings turn out to be slides and yet another set of
legs come into view, which turn out to double as
sitting benches. Furthermore, it is discovered that
when the nose is pressed, water comes out of the
mouth. A simpler example would be those large,
open-mouthed lion or hippo sculptures that are also
trash receptacles. A “not only / but also” rather that
a merely “either / or” situation is thereby created.
Rarity, unusualness, specialness, unpredictability and incongruity—these are all things that intrigue youngsters. To come upon something that cannot be immediately categorized stretches the limits of a child, again opening the way for a multitude of interpretations. A playground having something not found anywhere else in town in unique. A sense of pride and specialness is endowed to those using it— an elevated state that a mere catalogue playscape will never provide.
What if your playground had
a nicely made totem pole with neat, funny and scary
faces, one that a child could even climb? Or what
about the famous giant Rokugo Tire Dinosaur in the
Ota-ku, Tokyo, playground? Or an extensive music
center including Trinidadian steel drums, a real
oriental brass gong and giant xylophone? Wouldn’t the
mere novelty alter and expand children’s perceptions
of the their world? Shouldn’t the playground
super-structure integrate some novel elements—a pipe
telephone system or a unique enclosure for house play?
What is it about fog or a snow storm that can so transform any landscape into a wonderland? And what is it about twilight that can render the most mundane and known places into magical realms? Children love surprises and discovery. The game of hide-and-seek is a popular as ever; and we know how intrigued kids are by the unfamiliar, if only by the popularity of spook houses and scary stories. We also know, from our own lives, how refusing to acknowledge and face those “things that go bump in the night” can ultimately confound our ability to function later as whole and centered adults.
Let’s admit that the
mysterious is an integral part of life. Allow a few
areas in children’s world to remain a bit secret and
obscure. Keep the playground such that it can’t be
comprehended at once at the child’s eye-level. Leave a
few nooks, crannies and hidey-holes; or consider how
the play yard might be softly lit and used in the
evenings. Create an “enchanted forest” with vines,
bushes, tall grass, hills, bridges, tunnels and other
features children love so much; then add some
appropriate music or sounds to complete the mood.
The mesmeric and transporting qualities of things that sparkle, glitter and shine are as old as history. “Every paradise abounds in gems” (Huxley, 1954, p. 101). In earlier times there were ancient bonfires, the stained glass of gothic churches, the fireworks of the Chinese, Christmas tree decorations and the rich pageantry of the Olympic games. In recent times we’ve experienced the full, transporting power of modern stage lighting, outdoor floodlighting, neon, the colorful, stroboscopic light shows and fireworks spectaculars, the enveloping OMNI-MAX- IMAX motion picture and laser sculptures. Probably our all-time favorite light spectacle throughout the millennia has remained the glowing, colorful sunset. Children who have not yet been exposed to these various entrancing art forms are especially delighted by them. Infants and toddlers are enraptured during their early trips to the kitchen, with all its gleaming chrome, porcelain and tile. To them, all that glitters really is gold. Crystals are especially intriguing to youngsters, as are fire, glitter, the metallic colors in their crayon sets and polished surfaces.
There are countless ways to
make sure that play spaces offer these kinds of
experiences. Surface mosaics of tile, polished stone,
marbles, mirrors and even shells are not only
attractive to children, but are also something they
can create themselves. What about the use of gold,
silver and copper enamel to paint a door? Or embedding
quartz crystals into a wall or tunnel? Or perhaps one
could impregnate clear polyurethane resin with color,
glitter and other shiny objects. Could prisms be hung
to liven up a wall at a certain time of day? Could we
fit a play yard with low-voltage colored night lights
having dimmer switches simple enough for children to
safely use at night? Even a mural of rich saturated
colors or a densely planted bed of brilliant flowers
with a mirror ball could create an extra-special
effect that would open up new vistas.
RICHNESS AND ABUNDANCE
So many yards and play spaces remind us more of sensory-deprivation chambers of post-holocaust deserts than anything else. There is no magic in them because very little can be created in a vacuum. We prefer an environment rich in possibilities, abounding with stuff, with no sense of scarcity.
A child feels freer, more powerful and confident when not constantly scraping the bottom of the junk barrel, reusing the same old toys or having to ration whatever is available. The environment must say, “As part of a rich and abundant universe, I support you fully.” Whether it be in terms of details, things, building supplies and tools, vegetation, events, color and other sensual experiences or merely time, the play environment should be a varied cornucopia of endless possibilities. Yet, more is not always better when it comes to play environments for kids. More raw materials for creativity and more natural features do not necessarily mean showering children with an endless stream of store-bought trinkets and toys.
CONNECTION WITH OTHER TIMES, OTHER PLACES
Age and history bestow a mystical aura. A hoary old oak has more magic than a sapling. It may be because in previous times magical thinking was more prevalent and purely rational thinking did not dominate. Perhaps it is simply the richness of implied experience. Or could it be the unknown quality that leads to speculation as to what it may have been like back then, thus expanding the use of the imagination? It’s as if an old place or object, having been through so much, is somehow alive and has more tales to tell.
It seems to be the nature
of things past to develop a patina, an aura of the
dream state. So important is this evocation that in
the late 1800s there was a cult movement of Romantics
who, longing for antiquity and all it suggested to
them, would go as far as to build “ruins” from
scratch! The underlying attraction to old things,
often wrapped up in a fear of the dehumanizing
tendencies of the Industrial Age, is still with us
today. For instance, it is not often that modern fairy
tales and modes of illustration affect us the way
older ones do. Ancient, ivy-covered walls are
“hallowed”; new bare ones are not. And it wasn’t until
the Velveteen Rabbit was really used that he became
real. Creating “instant age” can be touchy business;
but often in creating an environment choices will
arise which allow one to opt either for something
brand new, mechanical and hard or for something soft
enough to show the passage of time or already having a
sense of history. Many builders will scrape a site
bare of all trees and stones, no matter what their
age, before building. Right there is an opportunity to
keep the older elements of the site intact. Whether to
have child care in a new or older building is an
opportunity to tap into the past. Choosing between
new, fired brick and used, unfired brick for your
patio or walkway is another. In general, when choosing
materials for any building project, think of which
materials “feel” older, which ones will gracefully
reflect the effects of time and use (Alexander, 1977).
Isn’t that a major reason we seem to prefer, for
instance, tile to concrete, additive building methods
such as brick to poured or monolithic materials such
asphalt, or thinker and more solid walls and columns
to thin modern ones?
Children’s imaginations are
also piqued by the exotic, that which is foreign,
intriguingly not of their culture. Ali Baba’s cave,
Tarzan’s jungle, King Arthur’s court, the Taj Mahal.
Oz, Morocco, China, even Hawaii&Mac226; these are
places that all conjure up potent images for the child
in all of us. Many children’s stories and movies get
mileage from the fact that they take place in a
“far-off land” where everything’s strange and anything
could happen. Since children don’t know what it’s
actually like there, they are forced to fill in the
gaps; and that is where they gain their magical power
over such worlds, very unlike their own everyday world
where all the answers are accomplished facts.
What seems exotic to
children? Spiral columns? Onion-shaped domes? Pointed
arches? Filigree? “Jewels” and metallic colors? A
yurt? Mosaics? Hieroglyphics? A sculpture of an
elephant or lion? Palm trees? A turret? Zebra skin
patterns? Doo Dog statues? Keep an eye out for what
intrigues them and put it in their play space. Make it
as detailed, multifaceted, lavish and lovingly as you
In driving through a neighborhood of hideous architecture, Huxley (1954) discovered that “within the sameness there is a difference” (p 61). A bank of geraniums was entirely different from a special stucco wall, but the “is-ness” or “eternal quality of their transience” was the same.
Objects, beings and places
that have no other purpose than just to be express a
meaning beyond utility and apparent reasoning. Much
vision-producing art and architecture, magical in
intent and rich with potential, don’t really do
anything. They merely are. The cherubim and heroic
figures of antiquity, the great mausoleums and
monuments for old, fountains whose function is to
elicit reflection and awareness of a larger order of
things, Oldenberg’s great floppy canvas fan, the
Olympic flame, mandalas, natural cloudscapes, all of
these have suggestive and transporting qualities far
beyond their static natures. Their very uselessness
allows them to do or mean whatever the beholder wishes
and suggests transcendency and ritual in a larger
Not everything in the play
yard needs to be functional. Add something whose sole
appeal is in its “Thing-ness”: a statue, large sphere
or other geometric solid; a flower garden; a tree
hanging; a freestanding arch or vault; some graphic
design, symbol or map of an imaginary country.
Whatever it is, it can be heraldic, whimsical,
archetypal, mysterious, anything, as long as it has a
profound, attractive and tangible energy that speaks
to that which is not yet expressed in the children,
something you know they will feel and notice.
PARTS AND SIMPLE TOOLS
Places built by kids themselves, even children with special needs, using scrap or natural materials are often more magical to them than those designed and built by adults. A hammer is the child’s magic wand; we are constantly amazed at how, with a little support and encouragement, the child can bring about the transformation of mere junk into Rube Goldberg-ian wonderlands. The Japanese author Daisaku Ikeda (1979) understood this when he spoke of the overindulged as “glass children.” Many children in industrialized countries have no toughness, so weak you expect then to break. Their fearful parents won’t allow them to use tools for fear they might injure themselves, so ready-made plastic kits have supplanted the need. Seemingly minor matters such as these, repeated over and over, tend to shape the direction of the child’s life.
THE ILLUSION OF RISK
There’s no magic in avoiding challenge. The peak experience that occurs during a moment of risk is a potent one: the mind is in a state of alertness, resourcefulness and expectancy; the body is ready and open to change. The two are aligned in the face of perceived danger. It is a thrilling, exhilarating moment. Mastering the threat results in a concentrated, almost tangible growth spurt with transformational and empowering qualities. Each success has the potential to be a triumphant affirmation of life and personal power. The focus is on the timeless present, and this is a heady place to be. This is one face of rapture. This is a magical state of being.
On the other hand, not
being allowed to take chances causes a debilitating
timidity and fearfulness in later life. Risk is
necessary in play, and children (not to mention adults
deprived in childhood) will instinctively seek it out
in unsafe and life-threatening places if it is not
offered in safe ones. Growth simply demands the making
and overcoming of mistakes. Play experiences can
include heights without actual exposure to long falls,
speed (such as zip lines, long slides, tall swings,
bikes, sleds, skateboards), motion of all kinds
(especially spinning), darkness, adventure hikes in
the wilderness, diving, supervised play with fire, use
of tools (scissors, saws, hammers), difficult
balancing and climbing events (with resilient surfaces
below). A common error of adults is assuming that
“safe” on playgrounds means less challenging. With
skillful planning we can have it both ways.
When Christopher Robin (Milne 1928) told Pooh, “What I like doing best is nothing,” he was living in a world that allowed daydreaming, reflecting and playing or not playing. Few contemporary children enjoy such luxuries. Rather, theirs is a tightly structured world of lessons, practices and schedules—a world that no longer values recess, free time, leisure and fun for fun’s sake. Adults unwittingly assume that television fills the need for privacy and reflection or reading; but in reality television structures time, distorts reality, channels thought and robs children of their own reflection and dreams.
The wise play leader
understands that children must have time and places
for truly free play. They must have opportunities for
selecting their own playthings and themes, freedom
from adult rules and restrictions, opportunities for
messing around with valued friends in enchanting
places, and time to just be kids and have fun.
The power to visualize, create and risk in a safe setting—these are the elements of childhood enchantment. They are important steps in the development cycle and a sound basis for developing children who are thinkers, wonderers, builders and who at the same time are confident, resilient and tough.
In sum, we propose design principles intended to transform traditional, mundane, over-slick, sterile or hi-tech places into magical enchanting playscapes. They are not the only qualities to be considered in designing playscapes, but they do address our children’s need for the mystical and magical and their sense of wonder. Such playscapes extend possibilities; expand awareness; transcend the common; and enhance opportunities for children to wonder, create and experiment, and thus to grow.
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