NEW YORK -- In 1888, the psychologist Stanley Hall published a story about a sand pile. A minor classic, it describes how a group of children created a world out of a single load of sand. These children were diligent, they were imaginative, they were remarkably adult.
More than a century later, at the architect David Rockwell's Imagination Playground in lower Manhattan, small humans scurry back and forth all day long, carrying Rockwell's oversized blue foam blocks from self-devised task to self-devised task. These children are intent, they are co-operative, they are resourceful. The scene resembles nothing so much as Stanley Hall's sand pile -- with each grain of sand much bigger and much bluer.
More than any playground in recent memory, the Imagination Playground has inspired an outburst of excitement. After a century of creating playgrounds for children, of drilling swing sets and plastic forts into the ground, we have come back to children creating their own playgrounds. Loose parts -- sand, water, blocks -- are having a moment.
The resurgence of loose parts is an attempt to put the play back in playgrounds. The late 1960s and early 1970s were a time of exuberant playground design. Then the grownups got skittish. Down came the merry-go-rounds and the jungle gyms, and in their place, a landscape of legally insulated, brightly-coloured, 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.
A lot of people agree that playgrounds are now too boring.
"People talk about making playgrounds more risky," says Susan Solomon, the author of American Playgrounds, which charts their demise. "But there's this sense that if you talk about it, that's enough. There's this very real reluctance to get involved in anything that might at least potentially cause an injury."
In Europe, the assumptions are radically different. Even the head of play safety at England's Royal Society for the Prevention of Accidents has said that "children should be exposed to a certain degree of risk, not because an activity is risky per se but because it is fun, exciting and challenging."
As the psychologist Ellen Sandseter has pointed out, the American attitude is a fundamental miscalculation of the risks: Kids who are bored stay inside and staying inside is ultimately far worse for your health than a broken arm.
Talk about why we can't have nice playgrounds here typically begins and ends with lawsuits. But potential legal action is too easy an excuse for not rethinking playgrounds, says Darell Hammond, head of the play-promoting nonprofit KaBOOM!. Change "requires all of us doing something different, not just a few law changes." In short, it requires all of us to be a little less panicked, and honestly, that's probably too much to ask, at least in the short term. Which is why loose parts may be the best hope for the future of playgrounds right now.
Rockwell's playground is still an adventure playground -- a construction site with all the splintery edges sanded down. It's what an adventure playground looks like in a risk-averse culture. And it promotes the kind of play we think children should be doing now: not with just their bodies, but with their minds. The Imagination Playground is a much more cognitive vision of the playground. No one would confuse it with a jungle gym.
Of course, loose parts don't have to be designed by David Rockwell -- they can be junk from your basement. Detroit's Arts & Scraps is a loose parts-focused organization where the loose parts are, well, scraps. Early childhood educators, for their part, adore loose parts for the open-ended, spontaneous sort of play they encourage, which is very much in line with the new orthodoxy of how young children learn. "When you have loose parts, you don't have the same repetitive pattern of play," Hammond says. "It's much a more circuitous path." And that's what you want from play. "You want to see kids escape into this zone in which they lose themselves."