Playing is somewhat of a hot topic among these parenting world these days. I first became aware of the drama around “play” when I read this piece in the New York Times Magazine, which prompted me to write this piece for Babble.com. I still think it is a bit ridiculous to not teach your kids to read because they don’t get enough play time — the two are not exclusive of each other, and kids learn so easily when they are young it is foolish not to take advantage of their spongy brains when you have the chance. Kids can play and learn and still have enough energy to drive a mom to tears, I’ve found.
But yes, playing is important and necessary. So important and necessary that kids will find a way to play with whatever they have, be that blocks or pots or letters or sticks, as long as they have time to do it. It is even possible that fewer “toys” promotes higher quality of play (play that stimulates their creativity, develops social skills, encourages problem-solving, etc.) because they have to use their imaginations to transform their blocks or pots or letters or sticks into people or houses or chess sets or animals. Or whatever. I have witnessed Manchild 1 pull wings out of blankets and boats out of couches and I am pretty much sold on the fact that play will find a way.
I recently came across an interesting historical account of playgrounds that goes along with kids and playing and imagination and fitness. The July 5 issue of The New Yorker included a piece called “State of Play,” by Rebecca Mead. When New York City’s first playground opened on the Lower East Side in 1903, 20,000 children showed up for the opening ceremony. They overwhelmed the 200 police officers who were there to keep the peace. Ha! The playground had been a project of the Outdoor Recreation League, whose purpose was “to secure the recognition of recreation and physical exercise as necessary to the moral and physical welfare of the people.” Actually, the playground was also built to stop kids from playing “war” in the empty lots that had been created when tenement buildings were torn down. “There, and at many city playgrounds . . . phys ed was favored over fantasy. Exercise was more important than imagination,” Mead writes.
But it seems as though the pendulum is swinging back the other way. Playgrounds, which have, apparently, been more focused on “exercise” than imagination and have traditionally included swings, slides, sandboxes, monkey bars, ladders, etc., are being joined by playgrounds that have more in common with junkyards — or the empty lots that turn-of-the-century children played “war” in. One that is opening in Manhattan later this summer at the South Street Seaport will include a dual-level sandpit, a pool with running water, masts with ropes and pulleys and hundreds of “loose parts” — lightweights blocks made from molded foam meant to stimulate children’s natural creativity by letting the blocks function as whatever they imagine them to be. There will also be wheelbarrows, car tires, plastic barrels and other things associated more with junkyards than playgrounds.
I am looking forward to seeing how it all works in practice. I am sure it will be quite popular and as much fun for parents to watch as it is for the kids to play. The thought of an intentionally built junkyard for kids to play in is appealing to me, and I like the idea of kids being able to imagine the loose parts into anything they want. But I don’t think this is so different from the traditional playgrounds of slides and swings. Kids do a lot of climbing and monkeying and generally physical things on such playgrounds, but that is mostly because they are running from the monster, staying out of the quicksand, maintaining their hard-won kingdom, or searching for their prey — not because they are interested in building their biceps.