Bringing back the play in playgrounds—and school

Imagination Playground (from

Imagination Playground (from

In his recent article in Slate, “Tear Down the Swing Sets,” author Nicolas Day writes about the emergence of a new type of playground. Instead of fixed jungle gyms and plastic forts, children are surrounded by large blue foam blocks and other found objects, as exemplified in Imagination Playground. Designed pro bono by architect David Rockwell (known for the Kodak Theatre, the new Disney Museum in SF, many upscale hotels, and his work in theater, among other projects), the goal of Imagination Playground and other like spaces is for kids to create their own playground, with wonderful results. As Day describes, “These children are intent, they are cooperative, they are resourceful.”

Bay Area Discovery Museum (

Bay Area Discovery Museum (

I have seen one of these playgrounds in action at the Bay Area Discovery Museum, and it is fantastic. I’m fascinated watching what kids do when there isn’t an obvious plan in place for play. It makes me think of the joke of buying an expensive toy for a child and then watching him or her find more enjoyment in the box it came in. My sons, Henry and Jack, are a little too small for this kind of playground, but I can tell that they are waiting for the day when they have the dexterity with the foam blocks. Like many toddlers, they are already very excited about Legos and other building toys. These playgrounds are similar in concept, but better: larger, outside, and with the capacity for many children to join in.

A more conventional contemporary playground

A more conventional contemporary playground

It’s interesting to see the changes in playgrounds over the last few decades. Day explains, “Down came the merry-go-rounds and the jungle gyms, and in their place, a landscape of legally-insulated, brightly-colored, spongy-floored, hard-plastic structures took root. Today, walking onto a children’s playground is like exiting the interstate: Regardless of where you are, you see the exact same thing.” Rockwell’s Imagination Playground is a welcome respite from the interstate of playgrounds as it allows children to break out of their comfort zone—albeit, in a safe way—and exercise their minds as well as their bodies.

Students preparing to swim with salmon on an outing

Students preparing to swim with salmon on an outing

In many ways, the introduction of an unstructured, creative environment is a metaphor for education in independent schools like Marin Academy. Gone are the rote memorization, the solitary studier, and teaching for the test. What we now practice—experiential education—allows for calculated risk-taking and exploration, whether that’s in the classroom, on an outing or minicourse, during an end-of-year-project, or in some other way. I have written extensively about experiential education in this blog—from Capoeira in Brazilian History to Halloween science experiments to service-learning and beyond. It’s one of my favorite topics, and there are many examples here at MA that I can write about.

Marin Academy students playing dodgeball at lunch this fall

Marin Academy students playing dodgeball at lunch this fall

But experiential education is not the same as play. What’s great about play is that you don’t know what the outcome will be. You don’t know what skills will be mastered. You do know that students will be creative, will discover new things, and will collaborate. And it’s fun.

All of these things are very important at MA. Yet in high school—even at MA—we forget about play. I think we sometimes have an unconscious sense that it’s somehow not purposeful. But that’s the biggest gift of play—it makes you more open to what could happen. Plato wrote in The Republic, “Do not…keep children to their studies by compulsion, but by play,” and that this was a way to ascertain the “natural abilities” of children. With adolescents, I think play opens a window into what they truly love—and what they may want to focus on later in life.

What if we were able to build play into everything that we do? What might that look like?


About Travis

Head of School, Marin Academy.
This entry was posted in experiential education, parenting, place-based education and tagged , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

6 Responses to Bringing back the play in playgrounds—and school

  1. Our 2 older kids are not allowed to go out to play at recess (they are in a Texas public school, elementary school) unless their “lunch monitor” feels that they behave well enough at lunch to earn recess.

    It seems like he is depriving them a lot of opportunities to develop. I’m going to talk to the principal, having read this. Thank you!!

    • Travis says:

      Thanks for your comment, Little Bird’s Dad. I’m glad you’re inspired to speak up for what you think is important. Good luck—and congratulations on your new baby!

  2. dsinaiko says:

    This issue brings so much to mind:
    • Bill Cosby’s hilarious bit about playgrounds (the old kind) and how they were so dangerous they were actually a conspiracy by the parents to kill their children.

    • Adventure Playground, in Berkeley, which is one of the earliest examples of the new-style playgrounds described above, where the kids are encouraged to build and create. It is a fantastic place where my kids spent many hours in their younger days.

    • The importance of arts in education as an antidote to the, often necessarily, structured learning that schools employ. Sports is universally acknowledged as a way to stretch and challenge oneself physically, as a balance to the intellectual stretches and challenges of the classroom. The arts provide the students essential opportunities for imaginative and creative stretches and challenges. And play is, in turn, an essential component of the arts, both visual and creative.

    We should all champion play as an essential element in educating the whole person.

    • Travis says:

      David: I love it! All of it–Cosby, Adventure Playground, and your reminder about the arts. I completely agree–especially after seeing the fantastic performance of A Hard Day’s Midsummer Night’s Dream last night. Thank you!

  3. Jeremy says:

    Thanks Travis for this crucial approach to what you’re doing–I’m with Plato all the way! I was delighted years ago to watch my uncle writing pages of squiggly symbols interspersed with more recognizable digits; when asked what he was working on, he explained that he was “playing with an idea”. Seeing him at play in math and physics totally changed my perception of academics.

    Another aspect of this conversation is the absolute need to incorporate some degree of risk-taking–during play–as a vital element of individual development. As a parent it’s the hardest thing to allow, but I have seen “risk-prevention” behavior to have terribly damaging effects upon a child’s later life. In the absence of foam blocks, just as Bill Cosby says: try vacant lots, an assortment of tree branches, old bedsheets, cardboard boxes, piles of rocks, dirt, construction debris…It’s what kids naturally gravitate to. We all did–and mostly survived.

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