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.”
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.
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.
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.
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?