Reconsidering Getting Kids to Go Outside

carriages trodheim

American kids, when they have unstructured free time, seem to favor playing inside. Conventional wisdom cites computers, video games, and TV programs as some of the primary culprits that seduce kids into staying indoors. These beliefs are so entrenched that some manufacturers of playground equipment are finding ways (I think foolishly) to bring electronic gaming into outdoor spaces.

While it is easy to blame electronics, we haven’t looked diligently for deeper, more systemic causes. The problem may be both simple and easily rectifiable: we don’t expose children to the outdoors when they are very young. We don’t introduce American children to cold weather as infants and then we don’t consistently make sure that they continue to spend time outside -in all weathers and all climates- when they are toddlers and preschoolers. When they get to elementary school we bemoan the fact that they do not play outdoors; it may be that by that time the kids have grown so “addicted” to the indoors that their habits are hard to break.   Why should 7 or 8 year olds want suddenly to play outside when it has not been part of their routine since birth?

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Do We Know How To Get Information?


How can we learn what children utnd adults want and need in playgrounds? And how can we make sure that those playgrounds are a vital public space?

These questions were front and center when I participated in a recent review for students in a graduate program for landscape architects.  The focus of the course was how to create playgrounds that would stimulate creative, harmonious, healthy urban living.

One of my fellow jurors chastised (rightfully) these young designers for failing to diligently observe how local folks – young and old- used the designated spaces during the course of the day.  How did participants and their activities change as the day progressed?  Who interacted with whom? What did they DO?

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Lessons from Superkilen, Copenhagen


I worry about public space that is captured in images that are “too good to be true.”  Such is the case with Superkilen, an urban linear park in Copenhagen.  And like the old adage, the on-the-ground experience is not as good as the photos.   When I saw it this past summer, I came away thinking that Superkilen is a wonderfully photogenic one-kilometer long stretch, one that sadly does not live up to its promise. It’s a pity the results are not more positive because millions of people are already familiar with it (they might not know its name) thanks to an iPhone ad that placed it on magazine covers and billboards this past spring. Readers might remember the dramatic images of white squiggly lines on an undulating black surface.  The cost of Superkilen- over $8 million-compounds my feeling of unease.

The results are all the more dispiriting because heartfelt intentions underlay the Superkilen concept.  It represents a potent belief that design can ameliorate social shortcomings and foster community.   Creating Superkilen was an attempt to improve the everyday life of newcomers who have arrived in Copenhagen over the past decade.  Many are poor and live jammed together in the roughest area of the city, Nørrebro  (although to American eyes this neighborhood appears much more benign than inner cities in the USA and there is at least one street, previously notorious for killings and crime, which now hosts upscale restaurants). Superkilen was introduced as a respite space, a series of outdoor hubs where local residents could gather.

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The Nature of Nature


Taking a cue from Richard Louv, I suggest that we consider “Nature Design Deficiency.”  Nature playgrounds in the US usually have to be constructed– albeit that that is an oxymoron- or they can be naturally wild areas where the kids are left to be on their own. So far, we haven’t done a particularly good job with the former and we rarely see evidence of the latter.

While it has been hard to find exciting American areas for exploration of nature, Europe does not lack in excellent models. Two of the best, each distinguished by large expansive sites and opportunities for varied experiences, are the adventure playground in Valby Park (Copenhagen, 2001) designed by Helle Nebelong and the Environmental Education Center at Sloterpark (Amsterdam, 2012) designed by Carve.  Nebelong called for an organizing circular boardwalk built from dead trees from the site.  Nearby are multiple opportunities for scampering on other dead trees, playing in sand, hiding in dense brush, accessing a series of hillocks.  Carve’s creation is particularly noteworthy for ways in which kids can play near streams and even ford them with variously arranged logs or sail over them on a zip line; they can run on a bridge over the water while being aware that there is a railing (for wheelchair accessibility) on just one side.  Carve’s work gives children lots of chances to wander where animals nest and to get lost in deep brush or wade into thick swamps.

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Two Ways Philadelphia is Encouraging Public Play Space


Patronage of play spaces continues to expand.  Once the province of municipalities, public playscapes are now supported by percent –for-art programs; housing authorities; even the Olympic redevelopment corporation in London.  At the same time, charitable foundations are showing a keen interest in playgrounds as public venues and as centers of kid based learning.  It is lovely to see that foundation support, which was essential for modern playgrounds in the 1960s ( e.g. M.Paul Friedberg’s Jacob Riis Houses; Richard Dattner’s Adventure Playground), is continuing a legacy.

Two organizations, both in Philadelphia but with very different constituencies, recently came to my attention.  One is based in community design and the other is an advocate for local business. While these seem disparate organizations, each has produced a model for improving city neighborhoods through innovative play areas funded largely by local philanthropic resources.

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Good News: A Report on a Report


Is the glass half empty or half full?  I was struck by that eternal question when I read the ClaimStat Alert report that the New York City Comptroller Office issued in March. The subtitle, “Protecting Kids on NYC Playgrounds,” does not immediately explain that this is a compilation of personal injury claims brought against the city during the period 2005 to 2014. It covers all of NYC’s almost 1000 playgrounds.The New York Post immediately made a half empty assessment in its coverage of the release of the report. Their headline screamed “City shells out $20M over kids’ playground injuries.”

I suggest that there can be a totally different conclusion from the same data, effectively the half full approach.  I believe that this is a remarkable document, one that dispels many concerns about liability held by those who commission or design playgrounds. It also shows the shallowness of arguments that urge tort reform as a prerequisite for flourishing of innovative playground design.

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An Artist Designed Playground and Its Unique Patron


Something magical can happen when artists -and here I include painters, sculptors, architects and landscape architects- design public space.  There is a good chance they know how to organize environments and how to make them both comfortable and stimulating for the people who will be using them: they understand the complexity of materials and know how to exploit those for a range of experiences; they frequently can do more with less money.  For public playgrounds, artists may have the insight and interest to listen to clients, especially children, and translate their unarticulated dreams into reality.

A daunting glitch is how to secure funding for these unusual designs or identify donors who seek extraordinary projects.

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How Strange are our Dangers? How Dangerous are Strangers?


I have vivid memories of the trip my husband (who is also my trusted photographer) and I made to the Princess Diana Playground in Hyde Park, London. The playground opened in 2000 and we made our way there in 2004.  It was a bleak, bitterly cold December morning, just after the opening hour.  There were no children anywhere.  We walked up to a high gate and heard from an anonymous voice (with hindsight, the camera and speaker system were stunningly advanced for a decade ago) that we could not enter without a child.

The faceless gate did not want to hear that I had a contract to write a book about playgrounds and that this was a professional visit.  No kids meant no access.  I was that told that somewhere- quite far away-I could appeal the judgment but we were actually headed to the airport.  We settled for walking around the perimeter; my spouse took copious photos by placing his close up lens through the bars of the fence.

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After the Deadline


I am honored that Playscapes has asked me to write a column every other month.

Professional liability is often the proverbial elephant in the room when it comes to playground design. Patrons, especially municipalities or school boards, usually choose off the shelf equipment because they believe it limits their exposure to lawsuits. Many designers prefer standard issue equipment for the same reason. Most manufacturers, aware that they may have to carry the greatest insurance burden, stick with conservative designs and – in order to protect themselves- charge high fees. The resulting playgrounds tend to be directional and repetitive with few challenges, all for a high cost.

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