From SSIR: A Different Way to Play

The article “A Different Way to Play” featured below was published this fall by the Stanford Social Innovation Review (An incredible publication).

Why is a journal as highly regarded as the SSIR discussing child’s play you may ask? It turns out that play allows children to use their creativity while developing their imagination, dexterity, and physical, cognitive, and emotional strength.

It might be the most important, yet also oftentimes most undervalued, component of a child’s development.

Now, read on and enjoy…


In 1903, on the opening day of New York’s first municipal playground at Seward Park, 20,000 children stormed the site, climbing over iron fences and pushing past 200 policemen stationed there to keep order, excited to try out the swings and sandboxes that offered them a new way of playing. Today, the city has hundreds of playgrounds, many based on the Seward Park model. But kids are spending less time outdoors than previous generations did.

In reaction to the spread of structured, careerist activities for children, such as voice lessons and fencing, eight Brooklyn parents, educators, and community members have created a nonprofit called play:groundNYC that aims to re-engage kids with outdoor play. In place of a traditional playground’s swing sets and slides, play:groundNYC gives kids raw materials and lets them decide how to use them. This summer, after two years of pop-up events around the city, the nonprofit is hosting six weeks of summer day camp and free weekends open to all on Governors Island, a public park only a short ferry ride from Manhattan and Brooklyn.

The site there resembles a junkyard, full of donated wood and cardboard scraps, twine, tires, and tools such as hammers and saws. “Playworkers” watch over the children and demonstrate how to safely use equipment, but they don’t interfere with play. Kids can do anything from building forts from plywood to cutting snowflake designs out of umbrellas. At the summer camp, which costs $550 a week per child (with some opportunities for financial aid), children between the ages of 7 and 13 also learn how to compost through a partnership with the nonprofit Earth Matter NY.

This sort of “adventure playground” isn’t new—the first opened in Denmark in 1943—but it’s relatively uncommon in the United States. And it’s a welcome option for parents who want their kids to be able to play in the same way that they themselves did while growing up. “This is as close as playing with scraps in the backyard or garage as we’ll get in the city,” says one parent, Allison Silver Adams, as she watches her two sons, Lazlo, 7, and Luca, 10, duel with sticks on a Saturday morning in June. “We have to make special accommodations for unstructured playtime.”

“I wish my friends from school were here,” says Lazlo. “I think they would have fun with me. But I’m also making new friends here.” That’s an important part of the adventure playground experience, says Peter Gray, a Boston College psychology professor and author of Free to Learn: Why Unleashing the Instinct to Play Will Make Our Children Happier, More Self-Reliant, and Better Students for Life. “The main thing that children learn in play is how to organize amongst themselves,” he says. “How to make a plan and follow through on a plan, how to get along with your peers, how to solve your own problems.” Also important, he says, is the potential for risk-taking and even injury, something that families at play:ground acknowledge when they sign a waiver agreeing to “assume all of the risks existing in this activity.”

Ellen Beate Hansen Sandseter, a professor at Queen Maud University College of Early Childhood Education in Norway, has written extensively about “risky play” and agrees that outdoor environments and changing conditions stimulate children more than predesigned play spaces. “And not just mental development—motor development, like building motor competency and physical development, is nurtured with adventure playgrounds, too,” she says.

Those aren’t play:ground- NYC’s only advantages. According to educator Jaclyn Katz, one of the organization’s board members, it costs only about $50,000 to fund play:ground for a season, not including the physical space. (Governors Island donated its space for the summer.) For comparison, the cost of building a traditional municipal or school playground in the city starts at $500,000 and can run up to $2 million, not including maintenance fees. This year, tuition from play:groundNYC’s summer camp is helping to subsidize hundreds of kids’ participation in the free weekends.

But for play:groundNYC to succeed as a permanent fixture, it will need to convince many more New York parents that unstructured playtime with simple materials is just as important as iPads, Kumon tutoring, and ballet class. Ultimately, Katz says, the team would like each neighborhood to have a year-round adventure playground. “We want to have school group trips,” she says. “We want to be open for as long as possible—for free—because we want people from every possible background to come.”


One thought on “From SSIR: A Different Way to Play

  1. I would like to see more long term studies done on the effects of structured vs. unstructured playtime on children. I’ll bet the long term benefits would show that having more free time to roll around in the grass or enjoying the experience of conquering a jungle gym would far outweigh anything that could be learned from an adult. Thanks for a thought provoking article.

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