Play Today

Since the nineteenth century, educators, mental health experts, and journalists have conceived and publicized wide-ranging theories and opinions regarding the welfare of children. This discourse has influenced the culture of children’s play as well as objects and environments for children’s play. In recent years, increasing concerns about children’s health and their lack of exercise and contact with nature has fueled a renewed focus on outdoor play as essential to the health and well-being of young people.

The growing alarm about children’s health is largely a response to the rapidly rising numbers of American children who are overweight or clinically obese. A public health crisis has developed: In 2003–2004, 21% of children between the ages of 2 and 19 years were found to be obese, and 18% are overweight—a three-fold increase since 1980.(4) In New York City, 34% of elementary school students are overweight or obese.(5) Studies suggest that a major factor contributing to this epidemic is a lack of physical activity resulting from changes in lifestyle and cultural attitudes. Children play outside less frequently. Instead, sedentary indoor activities predominate. Strained school budgets and increasing emphasis on academic curricula permit less time for recess and gym class. Concerns about safety and crime deter parents from allowing children to go outside unattended, and a proliferation of high-tech diversions occupy much of children’s attention and time well into their teenage years.

This increasingly programmed, indoor existence contributes to a growing disassociation from the natural world. Past generations of children spent most of their free time exploring local woodlands and playing in backyards and vacant lots. City children were able to roam on their own. Today, many children spend most of their free time indoors, watching television or using the computer. When they do play outside, it is more frequently through participation in programmed activities such as organized sports. Data do not support the perception that the world is less safe than it used to be, but a culture of fear has contributed to this shift from outdoors to in, from unprogrammed to structured. Because playing in nature is not highly valued in mainstream American culture, there is less expectation that it should be a part of children’s daily lives.

Some educators and experts believe that a lack of exposure to nature can further compromise children’s health and negatively affect their development, education, and well-being. In his book Last Child in the Woods, Richard Louv coined the phrase “nature-deficit disorder” to describe this phenomenon. Louv argues that post-industrial society needs to focus on natural play. “Time in nature is not leisure time,” writes Louv, “it’s an essential investment in our children’s health.”(6) Exposure to the natural world has long been associated with physical and psychological health. This connection was a prime motivator for the creation of Central Park and subsequent emergence of the park movement. Recent studies have substantiated that contact with the natural world has restorative effects ranging from helping children with attention disorders to generally improving cognition and a sense of well-being in children and adults.(7)

Reactions to Louv and other advocates of play in nature have varied. The translation of their core premise into popular culture has tended to focus less on the nature component and more on the idea of making play more intrinsic to children’s lives by creating additional time and opportunities for unstructured and imaginative play. Ironically, this idea has spun off an organized movement to support play. In October 2010, a group called “Play for Tomorrow” organized an event in Central Park called “The Ultimate Block Party.” Conceived as a response to the effects of diminished free time for play and outdoor activity, the event convened vendors, play advocacy organizations, and representatives from local schools to lead games and provide art materials and play areas. The organizers, who describe their mission as a social movement aimed at championing the importance of play, created a “playbook” for the event and developed a licensing process for others to bring the concept to their city.(8)

Other initiatives in New York City demonstrate how those responsible for playgrounds and open spaces have responded to concerns about the sedentary lifestyle of children today. The City of New York has identified creating more access to open space as a key goal of PLANYC 2030, the City’s planning initiative for a more sustainable future. Specifically, the plan established an objective that all New Yorkers live within a ten-minute walk from a park or playground. The intended result is that children and adults can more easily integrate recreation and physical fitness into their daily lives.(9)

Many similarly motivated initiatives have emerged in New York and elsewhere. They include a resurgence of children’s gardens, most often affiliated with schools, which address poor eating habits while providing direct contact with and education about nature. Play equipment companies have created lines that have a more-natural feel and provide suggestions for integrating plants and other natural features and materials into playgrounds. Some playground designers have experimented with creating spaces comprising more naturalistic elements. Landscape architect Michael Van Valkenburgh had this in mind when he designed Manhattan’s Teardrop Park. The two-acre park serves primarily as a playground comprising varied small-scale landscapes for children to explore as well as slide, sand, and water areas that are integrated into the overall design.

Other play advocates and designers have looked to the past, particularly to the playgrounds of the 1960s and 1970s, as a counterpoint to the proliferation of typically unchallenging, mass-produced equipment that complies with safety standards. Lower Manhattan’s Imagination Playground, designed by architect David Rockwell and opened in 2010, features “loose parts”: large foam blocks in various shapes, which children can use to build structures or mix with sand, water, and other materials. Inspired by the original adventure playgrounds in Europe, Rockwell’s playground provides opportunities for manipulative and creative play and employs play leaders who distribute materials, facilitate play, keep the playground clean and safe, and lock up the materials at the end of the day.