A Call for Change

Being a parent is challenging. From sleep deprivation to an almost total eclipse of personal free time and disposable income, raising children is not for the weak of heart. My own challenges are no doubt the result of a personal fault: I have found that being with my children inside the house is so acutely painful that I rarely want to do it. Remove their highchair restraints and put them on the floor and they explode from neutral to fifth gear, bombing around the house like cartoon Tasmanian Devils, whirling, damaging property, a wild mess flanking out behind them like an ocean liner’s wake, the walls echoing with their cacophony of screams and wails….

On the other hand, give children electronics and they become zombies, glued to the screens with such ferocity that taking the device away causes a storm of emotions to rival a category five hurricane. And if you attempt to explain the constraints of time and space—“Don’t run into the wall,” “It’s time for dinner”—children transform into monsters, a species of their own making. This isn’t particularly surprising, since inside spaces are designed for adults. Indoors are meticulously optimized for adult operation, enjoyment, and entertainment. Put any wild animal into a cage and watch them do the same as young children…bounce off the walls.

To avoid this special kind of madness—certainly one that I regard as a personal failure—I found myself evicting the children—and myself—out to the backyard at every possible moment. And it was in the backyard where I humbly witnessed the demons gracefully exit my children. Bewilderingly amazed, I watched them bloom with imagination and a pleasantness that has made me love being a parent. Of course, it didn’t last. Not immediately, anyway.

Our backyard began like most. On the weekends we spent time manicuring it, planting new things, and dreaming of how we might landscape the grounds to create our ideal outdoor experience. There was a swing set and sandbox for the children, as well as a good-sized lawn with apple, maple, aspen, and poplar trees scattered about. We were working at making the space one that met our adult preferences.

Then it happened: the Geodesic Dome Day.

My daughter, Nyla, got a geodesic dome for her fourth birthday. As I labored, assembling the dozens of pieces and hundreds of bolts, I could barely contain my excitement. I fondly remembered the geodesic dome at a park from my childhood and was thrilled that my daughter was going to have one of her own—her very own!—that she could use whenever she wanted. I figured she would live on this thing. Live! I would herd us out from the living room into the long-stretching vistas of the backyard and there upon the geodesic dome she would play. The monster would be sedated and I would have a chance to breathe and unwind.

Hours later, the assembly complete, I invited Nyla to test the dome. I was so excited. She was so excited. She shrieked, she climbed, she hung. So much fun.

Nyla excitedly awaiting construction of the geodesic dome.

Nyla excitedly awaiting construction of the geodesic dome.

After that day, the geodesic dome wasn’t used all that much. She didn’t live on it. Weeks would go by where she wouldn’t even go near it. Like it was diseased. Every couple of days I had to remember to rotate and slide it a few inches to avoid the grass getting yellowed and decayed where the pipes rested on the ground, tainting my precisely manicured backyard. Each time I moved it, I resented how much it had cost, how it blighted my backyard, and, most importantly, how little Nyla was using it. How could this be? The pictures in the marketing materials, on the website, and in the videos were of children having so much fun. They were jubilant. Gleeful. Was something wrong with my daughter? Or me?

To this day, the geodesic dome remains an expensive and rarely used toy.

The geodesic dome is not alone. The bulk of toys we have, indoor and outdoor, are rarely used. I don’t mean to bash all toys or the type of play they facilitate. My daughter loves to put on skits with dress-up clothes. She’ll play Uno with me (cheating unabashedly) until we’re both starved from fasting on the couch with a sparse diet of lukewarm water and seedless grapes. My son loves driving his fleet of cars and trains around with such gusto that we now need to refinish our wood floor—Silas 1, Floor 0. Magnetic tiles and Legos are a huge hit too. I love those as much as the kids, and have often daydreamed of making my profession be one where I play, as an adult, with building toys for toddlers. And give the children crayons or an iPhone loaded with apps and they can disappear for an entire airplane ride.

But I’m talking about real value here—toys that get epochs of playtime. Good play that enriches their development. Toys and play that stir their imaginations and provoke beautiful social interactions. The kind of moments you want to take videos and photos of, post to Instagram and Facebook instantly, and treasure forever.

The disaster of the geodesic dome thrust me into research. With good fortune, I stumbled upon the surprising and wondrous world of Loose Parts, Adventure Playgrounds, and Playwork. While there’s much ado in parenting about picking the right school, feeding the right food, and disciplining and nurturing the right morals in children, I had to go looking for this world. It feels subterranean. Loose Parts doesn’t even have an entry on Wikipedia. Playwork isn’t in the majority of parenting books and magazines or talked about at play dates. Loose Parts, Adventure Playgrounds, Playwork, and my resulting experiments fly in the face of mainstream marketing of play and toys. They challenge the idea of how to optimally present unique educational and developmental opportunities for children. And Loose Parts are available at a price that fairly democratizes children’s toys.

Loose Parts are open-ended materials that children can manipulate on their own, are interoperable, and by definition have no fixed purpose. These can range from organic materials like stones and dirt to construction materials like lumber and rope, and even include textiles like sheets and pillows. They are simple, inexpensive, and often not thought of as toys. Yet give a child a cardboard box and see his imagination skyrocket far beyond that of the package’s contents. Loose Parts are highly effective toys for play, learning, and child development. Yet there remains little information, instruction, or resources for parents to easily fill their backyards with Loose Parts. It is not possible, for example, to go to Amazon and buy the deluxe Loose Parts set. This is a shame, because, from my experience, Loose Parts are the cheapest, best, fastest way to engage children in your backyard in a profound way. While I go into more detail about Loose Parts shortly, once I discovered their incredible value, I wondered why there isn’t more readily available information.

From the research that I’ve studied and that I share in this book, there are a number of factors that are influencing the limited visibility of Loose Parts. To begin with, we have companies that began to target children as a niche market in the 20th century.

Thunder Burp Machine Gun – Fully Automatic Cap Gun

Prior to 1955, advertising at toy companies was minimal and only allowed companies to promote toys on television during the Christmas season.

“But then came Mattel and the Thunder Burp, which, according to Howard Chudacoff, a cultural historian at Brown University, was a kind of historical watershed. Almost overnight, children’s play became focused, as never before, on things—the toys themselves” (The Evolution of Play, NPR, 2008). This changed toys forever, making play an industry and children a demographic—a target market that companies began investing in heavily.

Companies are profit-focused, so their goals are to increase the purchases of toys using sophisticated tactics that make toys extremely appealing and addictive (versus being crafted for learning, even though the toys are frequently marketed to support early child development).

Where did “go outside and play” go?

The environment for parenting has also changed dramatically. There is an increase in dual-working parent families and single parent families, and an increase in the emphasis on making sure children prepare for the future or “get ahead,” all reducing the quantity of unstructured free play time.

“Children’s free play and discretionary time declined more than seven hours a week from 1981 to 1997 and an additional two hours from 1997 to 2003, totaling nine hours less a week of time over a 25-year period in which children can choose to participate in unstructured activities” (Childhood Development and Access to Nature, Hofferth and Sandberg, 2001; Hofferth and Curtin, 2006).

Educational institutions and other structured programs foster the belief that learning requires adult-led activities, and devalue child-led playing. While there are exceptions, there is little evidence that children need more than what generations (centuries, in fact) of children have used as their tool to learn: play. Meanwhile, homes have increased in size, while publicly available land for play has decreased. Parents’ fear of allowing children to roam independently at early ages has led to a decline in the use of the outdoors as a learning and play environment. The concept of “go out and play” has, for the most part, gone out with the bathwater.

As I learned about Loose Parts, I discovered Adventure Playgrounds (seemingly the birthplace of Loose Parts from an academic perspective). Adventure Playgrounds are a specific type of playground with equipment, materials, objects, and an environment that children can manipulate and interact with through child-led activities. Adventure Playgrounds around the world put American playgrounds to shame. They also present opportunities for risky play that stunned me: children leaping off high heights, playing with fire, and interacting with waterways in spellbinding ways. As I learned about risky play and its importance in child development, I became acquainted with convergent and divergent play (convergent play, where a child solves a problem with a single solution, versus divergent play, where a child solves a problem with many solutions), open-ended toys, and Playwork (a formalized theory and practice of creating and maintaining spaces for children to play). I realized the folly of the geodesic dome, and the ineptitude of the majority of toys available to children.

Delving into the history of childhood, I discovered mind-blowing accounts of children’s capabilities at early ages, such as the long-held traditions of children in indigenous cultures when it comes to handling their own knives and spears and killing and cooking their own food at ages four and five—without any adult supervision! I began to wonder, are we raising inept children here in the West? How important is childhood anyway?

Child Health and Development

Childhood is the period of life in which the majority of our growth occurs—on a physical, emotional, and intellectual level. While puberty manifests major developments in children—growth spurts, hormonal changes, and the development of our talents and intellectual prowess in a structured environment—it is the growth that occurs between birth and early childhood that is actually most marked. Consider the fact that an infant is born at around one and a half feet tall and approximately eight pounds in weight, but can be over three feet tall and 40 pounds by age four. That is a doubling of height and 500% increase in weight in only four years, a growth spurt that most people won’t match again throughout the rest of their lives! Likewise, a vast majority of our emotional and intellectual growth occurs between birth and the age of seven. Our world views and beliefs about ourselves are largely programmed into us by the time we start school, and the exponential increase in our knowledge base in the years between birth (when we appear vegetable-like but are already wired for potential and profound innate talents) to first grade (by which time we have developed the capacity for language, reading, mathematics, and rudimentary abstract thought) is, again, unmatched throughout the rest of our lifetime.

Because this is such an important period of growth and development—arguably the MOST important period—it is essential that parents facilitate healthy growth, exploration, and learning when their children are young. Proper nutrition, attentive care, an emphasis on the importance of healthy socialization, and the value of learning are essential facets of successful child rearing.

But just as important is the facilitation of healthy, constructive play. When children are in the process of growing and discovering the world, the tool that they use for learning is play. Thus, the play that we allow, encourage, and facilitate will have a direct effect on their physical, emotional, and intellectual development. By facilitating child-led play that requires imagination and inventiveness—rather than the structured, marketed, often digitally driven play that has come to dominate our society—we can give our kids a huge advantage when it comes to their early childhood development.

Nyla discovering the joy of using a giant dandelion weed as a crown.

Nyla discovering the joy of using a giant dandelion weed as a crown.

The Backyard Play Revolution

From my experiences over the last six years and the accompanying research I’ve completed, I’ve come to understand the value of unstructured play and the opportunity that the backyard presents in our modern day.

Unstructured play is beneficial to my children’s health and physical, emotional, intellectual, interpersonal, and spiritual growth. The framework I’ve found that helps drive unstructured play consists of four core ideas: outdoor play, divergent play, child-led play, and risky play. In order to effectively facilitate unstructured play, Playwork and the role of the adult/parent Playworker provides tremendous guidance.

Loose Parts encourage children’s creativity and imagination, and, in many ways, are not always presented as toys at all. Instead, Loose Parts are things children will play with for hours, days, and seasons.

I believe that by adopting these ideas—simple changes to how we view the idea of play, toys, and our home spaces—we can transform the experience of our children and reap immediate and long-term benefits. Because the backyard is privately owned space, it presents an unblocked opportunity to revolutionize your children’s experience. This is what I call The Backyard Play Revolution.

I’m not advocating replacing all other play and toys entirely. I’ve found that adopting these ideas as a practice provides balance between many of the other play types and toys that seem to dominate our modern culture. I don’t have to work hard to make sure my daughter has Disney’s Frozen in her life—it’s coming from every direction. She’s seen the movie, has the books, has countless plastic figurines, and knows the songs by heart. Yet I have not participated in acquiring a single one of those items.

I’m advocating for these ideas because, without parents’ and caretakers’ direct influence, children likely will pulled in directions not necessarily of your conscientious making.

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