Modular Playgrounds for Kids and Adults

I have a vision: modular playgrounds like giant lego sets, available to everyone regardless of age or socioeconomic background. Integrated with nature in the middle of the city, I see laughing figures exercising their creativity and dexterity to build the structures on which they will play tag, or maybe a secret fort. Look, here’s a group building a tall tower, challenging their engineering skills and courage. I wonder what the view is like on top…

UC San Diego does not have a playground. I haven’t had a proper recess in a playground since elementary school. Adults are expected not to need playgrounds. Even since high school, lunch has always been about work. Playgrounds are designed for kids, not adults. Search up YouTube videos of adults on playgrounds and many of them involve breaking equipment, getting stuck, or otherwise failing due to the size mismatch and the presumably many years since their last playground experience. But there’s something charming about watching adults on the playground. Adults need to play too. Sometimes when I’m walking around campus on a stressful day, I feel the urge to climb a tree, climb onto the roof, or dig a hole for fun. But that would be acting against social norms. Why do social norms restrict adults from playing? Why can’t adults laugh and giggle and run around shouting just like when they were once children?

Playgrounds for adults exist, but feel contrived. Google has playground-like offices for their adult employees: a “fireman pole, slide, videogame, and hammock-filled workspace.” But those are out-of-place, pasty colored structures doomed to never realize a true playground environment, since an office is still primarily geared for work.

On the other hand, many playgrounds designed for kids are also contrived, especially themed playgrounds like pirate ships or castles. Themed playgrounds kill imagination by confining children’s mindset to predefined settings. This strips the player of the opportunity to imagine infinite original scenarios, even though most researchers agree creative play to be beneficial, if not integral to development.

Today, not only are most adults not using playgrounds at all, but many kids are also neglecting these valuable public assets, ditching reality for video game “cyber playgrounds.” For example, Minecraft is popular because it allows the freedom to both build and explore. This is in contrast to current playgrounds, in which explorable structures are static, and in contrast to Lego, in which built structures are too small to delve into. However, Minecraft also has a tradeoff: both building and exploring are done virtually, which lacks the benefits of physical exercise, realism in construction, and face-to-face interactions.

Here is the problem: Adults and children are segregated. In addition to expecting adults to be stoically “mature” and play-adverse, we also expect children to be incompetently “immature” to the point where they are incapable of creating their own games and equipment and adults need to help them by designing everything for them. For example, Lego sets for children designed by adults involves no creativity and is only a matter of shopping for something cool then following the assembly instructions, in contrast to starting from a heap of parts in which creativity reigns free.

My vision is that playgrounds are modular, like giant Lego sets, and are available to anyone, adults and children alike, to play both legally and socially. These can be cubes made of tubing that can be stacked on top of each other to resemble jungle gyms and secured using handcuff-like links or rope lashings. Thus, players build their own play structure while exercising their creativity and dexterity. There can also be additional parts like tarps, nets, ropes, poles, springs — maybe even motors! — to create interesting structures worthy of architectural merit. This not only boosts creativity, but is more realistic than traditional miniature Lego sets, exposing children with real-world engineering concepts and offering challenging play for adults. The playground will incorporate nature like trees as part of play “equipment.” This brings us closer to nature in an age of the internet, urbanization, and synthetic materials. All the playgrounds are free-for-all. There is no manicured lawn nor concrete. Players are even free to excavate holes and trenches in the earth.

Perhaps my description has been too romantic. But there are practical motives behind these vivid descriptions. Simple modular playgrounds achieve several goals at once: (1) The simplicity gives ample opportunity for players to use their imagination. (2) Modularity allows for affordable parts, making playgrounds accessible to disadvantaged communities. (3) A modular construction that shares parts with real world industry applications such as scaffolding teaches more readily transferable skills. It’s one thing being able to put together a Lego house, and another to build a real structure. (4) More challenging play makes it more attractive and socially normative for adults to play, benefiting both adults and the children who interact and learn from them.

Despite the numerous potential benefits, there are glaring safety concerns. First is the seemingly free-for-all style. How can we make sure structures are safe? This concern may be addressed through engineering safety features such as intuitive fail-safe ways to stack blocks or rapidly deployable safety nets akin to airbags. Another is that with the inclusion of adults on the playground, they are presumably more experienced and should have the responsibility to look over and teach less experienced players. As for the concern of adults being in a different weight class than children and thus posing a danger, perhaps players will instinctively group themselves according to playstyle and adults will be mature enough to actively ensure the safety of younger individuals. Nevertheless, the playground will need to be big enough to accommodate a variety of play styles. Another concern is the broken windows theory. A free-for-all setting may quickly become messy, risking becoming rundown or being taken over by gangs and homeless. To solve this, a community attitude needs to be adopted: every player shares a responsibility for cleaning up after use. Another risk is unfixed building blocks being stolen, as metal can be attractive to sell. The list goes on…

However, maybe some risk is beneficial on the playground, allowing it to translate to other domains in which risk taking can be positive, such as in entrepreneurship. InNo Fear: Growing up in a risk averse society,” Tim Gill concludes that playgrounds today are excessively risk averse. In addition, even conventional playgrounds designed for safety can be “misused.” I personally remember emulating older kids by climbing onto the plastic roofs of play structures — equivalent to being three stories high — and jumping off rock climbing walls. Thus, no play structure is safe, and it would be better to acknowledge that children will take risks, allow them to learn to take calculated risks, and support them from behind by engineering less intrusive safety solutions.

However, safety is still number one, and it is necessary to test and assess the risk of playgrounds. First, prototypes may be iterated by “young adults” who are able to make the bridge between “child” and “adult”: high school and undergraduate students who still remember their playground experiences, have enough technical skills to design a product, and are responsible enough to take risks during testing. This project would provide ample learning opportunities ranging from structural engineering to user experience design and would be implementable in numerous educational institutions, including UCSD, as part of a global project to reinvigorate playgrounds.

Today’s playgrounds are age segregated and static. It is not socially normative for adults to use playgrounds and even many of their originally intended users, children, are opting for virtual alternatives despite the health, social, and learning benefits of physical play. We are moving further into the digital age, the trend of urbanization continues, mental health conditions are on the rise, and the drug and obesity epidemics rage on. There is a lot to be done, both work and play.

Art by Allen Chen for The UCSD Guardian.

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