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The Potential of Play Spaces


This week I was part of a group visioning session at the Madison Children's Museum. I was honored by the invitation and impressed by the process the museum team is committed to using as they develop plans for their 'back yard' space. 

"What gap can this downtown, outdoor space fill for the children in our city?" 

This question drove the 2 hour discussion among experts and leaders from a bunch of relevant fields. 

We were prompted, in one exercise, to close our eyes and call up a strong and happy memory from childhood. I pictured the little woods-house under the pines in my childhood backyard, and collecting walnuts with friends in the neighborhood. Only two people, out of a group of 24, fondly remembered indoor settings.

It turns out that this is typical. We were told that 95% of adults remember an outdoor activity from their childhood and that almost universally these memories are without adults, nor are they in school.


Nature is the great generous opposite of mean and greedy commercial culture. -Tom Hodgkinson in The Idle Parent 

I love that the Museum is talking about their former parking lot now as a Back Yard. It's a simple concept, one that makes sense in the world we live in, where we all inherently understand that kids have too few opportunities to feel themselves part of the natural world. A back yard is full of potential.

One of the reasons play places are interesting to me is that they are typically in parks. And parks are the public backyards in our cities. 

Kids make the playground equipment serve their own imaginative games. So, in some sense, the structures don't matter that much. They are just a jumping off point. And luckily, the kids jump right into the woods or fields or beach adjacent to the playground. 

Nature, if it is nearby, becomes the setting for the play.

Unlike nature, playgrounds are there by design. They can be designed by architects, philosophers, artists, by kids themselves. I'm inspired by the variety of play spaces worldwide, and I'm hopeful we might push innovation on a local level. 


Can playgrounds be designed so children can find there what is otherwise lacking in society? 

She doesn't play with them in those life-draining, spirit-sapping hellholes called playgrounds; she plays with them on the floor at home. -Tom Hodgkinson in The Idle Parent

I am better at playing outside. My favorite kind of play is adventurous and it involves exploring, discovering, and getting a taste of the world. There is a whole world in our backyard, but I also like to load the kids on our Big Bike with a vague sense of destination. 

Over the past 6 months or so, we've been more deliberate about seeking out new playgrounds along the way. I am so inspired by the fact that Madison is has 175 playgrounds, more than any other city, and that we can bike to so many of them. 

Talking playgrounds with other parents, I thought it could be useful to build a catalog of 'reviews' and stories. This led to a family collaboration called Madison Playground Review: Adventures of Playground TouristsMy daughters are providing their earnest commentary on what they enjoy and letting me take a batch of pictures while they play. 

I admit I've felt shy about going public with this project. When I read the quote above in a hilarious book a friend made a point to get into my hands (thank you Janet!), I understood some of my own deep-seated unease with the subject. 

Playgrounds are not exactly cool. I mean, the image of the bored mom being bossed by her toddler to 'push me higher! Again!' at the playground is the bane of parenthood. This is not a scene I like to visualize myself starring in. Yet there I am, too often to mention, just a mom pushing her kid on the swing.

This week, meeting with others who believe that play spaces hold huge potential, reminded me that playgrounds don't have to be boring at best, spirit sapping at worst. It reminded me that they may even be life changing, world charging, beautiful places

So with that sense of purpose, I am excited to invite you to join me in a year of thoughtful play: Madison Playground Review: Adventures of Playground Tourists 


Thanks for your feedback and help and community participation! At playgrounds, I have met neighbors, made new and dear friends, and grown as a person and a parent. These conversations are perhaps better in person, but online holds potential, too. Thanks for reading! 

PS: We pick our playground visits haphazardly and post erratically. We are just having fun, after all. Subscribe to Madison Playground Review to get an email so you don't miss a new review!






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