Playgroundology: An Emerging Social Science

What happens on the playground -- the social, emotional and physical development, as well as the old fashioned fun -- is something that has turned into a bit of science for one play advocate
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Few of us think much of pulling up to the playground at the end of the day, swinging open the car doors and letting loose the wild children in the back seat.

But what happens on the playground -- the social, emotional and physical development, as well as the old fashioned fun -- is something that has turned into a bit of science for one play advocate. Alex Smith of Halifax, Nova Scotia runs Playgroundology, a website whose name derives from a term which he describes as "an emerging social science."

Though we may take our neighborhood playgrounds for granted, the truth is that there is an art and science to creating a unique and creative play space. Smith has dedicated himself to finding playgrounds all over the world that inspire children and adults to play. As he puts it, play is "our lifeline to balance, emotional well-being and physical fitness." In other words it's really, really important.

Smith grew up in urban Toronto. He remembers his days as a free range kid, a description coined by advocate and writer Lenore Skenazy, which he describes in terms many of us would find familiar:

We'd wake up in the morning on weekends and holidays, play till lunch, scramble back out until supper and then back out again squeezing it dry until the sun dropped from the sky. It was all play, all the time....We were able to wander, to stumble into adventure and gather up a bunch of friends if the boredom became too extreme. The only machine that really resulted in play interruptus was the 4 or 5 channel universe of the TV.... We were not human islands in a sea of technology.

Even though many of us grew up this way, when we reach adulthood we lose ourselves in seas of cubicles, mortgage payments, lawn care and grocery bills. Smith believes there is an underlying cultural value system that propagates the idea that play and work are antithetical. Although there is little empirical evidence to back this up, it is how we tend to live in the west.

Playgroundology, however, keeps Smith, his readers and most of the adults he knows familiar with what it means to play. He dispenses friends and family across the world to scout out new playgrounds as they travel. He connects on the web with advocates, parents and teachers across cultures. Advocates like Amowi Philips of the Mmofra Foundation, which is working toward building a natural play movement in present day Ghana. Shortly, Smith will be writing about this movement on Playgroundology, as well as featuring a book about fifty years of play in Ghana.

While the focus of Playgroundology may be the study of play far and wide, inspiration for his site sprung from his life as a father of five children. He admits to having caught the play bug and takes exploring playgrounds around his native Canada pretty seriously. He and his kids have played at over forty playgrounds in Halifax and at least that many in other provinces of Canada. But he's not fearful of losing inspiration; after all, he finds its tiny faces looking intently at him over the breakfast table each morning, waiting for a day of play and exploration.

What all that play time has taught him is that playgrounds need to be more creative and adventurous. While safety is certainly important, there is too much focus on it. As he puts it, "Surely we're not going to start sending (kids) out to play with helmets and protective body gear to further reduce the incidence of injury."

What Alex Smith portrays well in his message on Playgroundology is that kids need play and adults need to be active participants in creating innovative spaces for playtime. All over the world one of the few things children have in common is the need and desire to play. And Smith does have plans to explore the many cultural implications of play on Playgroundology. In the meantime, it's safe to say that his site stands out as one of the most informative sites on play on the Internet. It deepens readers' understanding of the social, artistic, creative implications that playground design can have on the individual and on the community. It gives an adult who may have forgotten the simple but necessary act of play a chance to dive back into an imaginary, active world in which play structures are the architecture of the imagination.

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