adventure playground

Give kids unstructured time! (How to raise an adult, task #1)


How can our new-kind-of schools help cultivate adults? Step one: give kids unstructured time. 

(Today's the first installment in a series on the question of how to raise an adult. I'm drawing extensively from Julie Lythcott-Haims book of that name — my thanks to Prof. Lythcott-Haims for her work!)

As evolutionary psychologist Peter Gray has persuasively argued, the urge to play is the primary evolutionary adaptation to prepare juveniles for adulthood. Indeed, other mammals play, too — but perhaps none more than our species.

And parts of our society are squeezing out play. In the last few decades of U.S. history, play has morphed from an unstructured activity to a formal, structure, supervised enterprise.

This is bad for kids.

How can our schools bring back unstructured play?

In school, we can make time for it: give students perhaps an hour a day of outdoor time (regardless of the weather) in which to run, skip, jump, dash, and make merry. Climb in trees! Splash through puddles! Wrestle, play games, make-believe! (For more on this, see our plans for an adventure playground on school grounds, and the series of posts on the book How to Raise a Wild Child.)

Children's lives are (in the middle-class population I work with) overscheduled. Free play is dying in part because there's no time for it. This we can definitely fix.

In school, we can prompt kids to do it — and maybe even give them a little instruction. I know what you're thinking: if an adult is participating in it, it's not unstructured play. I, too, once thought this, and was horrified to hear there was a company — Playworks — that was teaching kids how to play at recess.

Ridiculous! Preposterous!

And then I read that Lenore Skenazy, the progenitor of the "free-range kids" movement, was a convert. Her brief article describing her support for Playworks — Even ‘free-range kids’ could use help with recess — is excellent reading.

Play is a natural, spontaneous human activity. Forms of play, however, are also cultural activities passed from kid to kid through the ages. A single group of kids, by themselves, may not invent the rich diversity of play ideas that is available to them.

Quote Skenazy:

We may like to think of play as innate, but what’s innate is the desire to play. It isn’t innate to come up with the rules of four square, or a rhyme about a wardrobe malfunction. Those are things handed down from generation to generation.

When they’re not, it is like a lost language. If a parent speaks Spanish, but not to her kids, the kids don’t automatically learn it. Likewise, just because we all knew how to organize a game of “Mother May I?” doesn’t mean today’s kids will, if they haven’t been taught by the older kids, or even just watched them play it.

So we might teach delightful games to play, provide costumes for imaginative play, and encourage them to do it. Kids can be lazy, and just want to lay around — and part of our job is prompting them to get over their short-term wants, and into things that will bring them lasting joy.

After school, we can limit homework. Grade schoolers should have next-to-no homework — and I'm not convinced that middle and high schoolers ought to have much more.

We have names for adult jobs that demand more of our time than the 40 hours spent at the work site — we call them stressful jobs, jobs that'll burn you out. They are, frequently, bad jobs.

Going to school should not be a bad job. Long slogs of homework should be an exception, not a norm.

This may necessitate lengthening the school day. But I wonder if parents, at least, would be happy to make this trade, if it means that their time with their kids can be less tense and drillmaster-y. It's not fun to have to, night after night, force your kid to do worksheets.

Finally, throughout a child's K–12 education, we can help work with parents to cultivate a culture of free play. I wonder if, to this end, the book How to Raise an Adult might be good mandatory reading. We can teach the principles in this book, and conduct the sort of Socratic seminars with parents that we do with their kids.

And we can be even more helpful: help parents organize to get kids together to play at the park, have cookouts, have campouts.

And we can invites parents to share their struggles with bucking the trend: a squeaky wheel gets the grease, but the nail that sticks out will be hammered. Parental peer culture can be intense, and rejecting the norm of helicopter parenting might invite antagonism from other parents. We, perhaps, can help create a tribe of like-minded parents who support one another through difficult choices.

If a new kind of school can succeed at doing some of these things, I wonder if we can bring back the culture of unstructured play time that nurtures healthy kids, and healthy adults.

(Image courtesy of — thanks, guys!)

Can schools reverse the "indoor migration"?

Suddenly, kids are spending nearly all of their time indoors — a wrenching historical change. In the last generation, Scott D. Sampson writes in How to Raise a Wild Child: The Art and Science of Falling in Love with Nature, our society has witnessed an "indoor migration":

One study found that the average American boy or girl spends four to seven minutes a day outdoors....

By comparison, those same average American kids devote more than seven hours daily to staring at screens, replacing reality with virtual alternatives. Most boys rack up more than 10,000 gaming hours before age twenty-one....

The net result of these staggering statistics is what author Robert Michael Pyle has dubbed "the extinction of experience," highlighted by the gaping chasm between children and nature.

Ho boy.

I struggle not to be anti-screen in a simplistic, knee-jerk sort of way, but when I mull over the rising rates of depression among young adults, and the simultaneous lowering rates of outdoor play, it makes me nervous.

(I'm open, by the way, to any evidence suggesting that the two are not linked. Correlation ain't causation, and all that.)

Sampson suggests that this flight from nature isn't something that parents want. Quite the opposite, actually:

In the United States, 65 percent of respondents regarded this issue either as "very serious" or "extremely serious." Parents believe that developing a connection with nature is critical to a child's development. Among American parents, 82 percent regard time in nature to be "very important" to their children's development, second in priority only to reading.

What I take from this is the realization that there's a huge desire for ways to give kids real experiences in nature. There are other organizations who do this, of course — the Scouts come to mind! But because schools engage with childen five days a week, they seem to offer an even greater possibilities for reordering childhood to something more healthy.

So, our big question o' the week: how could a new kind of school regularly connect children with nature?

That's one of the riddles we're trying to unravel.

So far, our answers include bringing animals and plants into the classroom and cooking lunch together. We're also considering some manner of adventure playground. Though I haven't yet written about it here, we're also planning to engage in what Kieran Egan has dubbed "whole school projects" with a local natural site: a riverbed, for example, that we can regularly experience and intensively study for a number of years.

But let me raise this explicitly: how else can we do it?

How can a new kind of school lead the charge in re-connecting kids with nature?

Why you should give your 2-year-old a hammer


Yesterday, we went to an ADVENTURE PLAYGROUND! I first ran across the notion of an "adventure playground" in architect Christopher Alexander's watershed book, A Pattern Language. In it, he writes:

A castle, made of cartons, rocks, and old branches, by a group of children for themselves, is worth a thousand perfectly detailed, exactly finished castles made for them in a factory.

I think this strikes many of us as perfectly apt: our culture glorifies a certain DIY-ness among young children. We romanticize the good ol' days when kids were afforded more freedom than our helicopter-parenting age allows.

If you don't have time to make a fort when you're a kid, well, when do you have time to make a fort?

Alexander goes on:

Set up a playground for the children in each neighborhood. Not a highly finished playground, with asphalt and swings, but a place with raw materials of all kinds — nets, boxes, barrels, trees, ropes, simple tools, frames, grass, and water — where children can create and re-create playgrounds of their own.

Adventure playgrounds are rare in the United States: Wikipedia lists just five of them. Delightfully, one is 20 minutes from our apartment — oh, the perks of living around Seattle!

Here's what we found!

As we entered, our kids were given a box of tools (containing hammers and nails, screwdrivers and screws, tape measures, levels, etc.), and an optional safety goggles and hard hat:

Adventure playground 5

And then we entered what I can only describe as a magical shantytown: a grove filled with the zany forts and citadels constructed by successive waves of children.

At the summer's beginning, the grove was empty — kids and parents built up structures little by little over the three months. One of the only rules is that while you can add to what others have built, you can't tear anything down.

When you're two, there's something liberating about wielding a hammer:

Adventure playground 2

Even we parents got into the fun:

Adventure playground 3

I saw older kids adding more elaborately to the various structures. Near the end of our sojourn here, our 5-year-old decided to build something a bit more simple: a teeter-totter.

Adventure playground 4

Simple, but boy, was it deligthful!

He and I had a blast experimenting with gravity. I'd stand at one end, and he'd see if he could lift me off the ground — by jumping, by moving the fulcrum, by asking me to come in closer...

Now, we could talk about levers abstractly, using diagrams and algebraic variables:

Lever diagram

... but he's only five. (Well, he'd insist five and a half.) We can safely postpone those — right now, it's more important to get an embodied understanding of how levers work. Later, when he engages physics formulae, he'll do so with intuition on his side.

Other than early physics education, why are we so excited about pursuing having adventure playgrounds attached to our schools?

We could list a host of reasons:

  • developing skill with manual tools!
  • nurturing a maker's mindset!
  • getting that hard-won sense of personal awesomeness that comes from building something!

Today, though, I'd like to focus on what might be the most important reason of all: danger.

I'll state this plainly: kids need danger. 

Yesterday, at another corner of the park (far away from the adventure playground), Kristin fell into conversation with another mom —

Kristin: Good gravy isn't that adventure playground great?! Other mom: I don't know... it sounds a little dangerous. Kristin: Yes! Dangerous! Absolutely! That's the point!

Most American children, in the present era, don't experience much danger.

Obviously — this should go without saying, but it's the Internet, so one must be explicit — obviously, we don't want to plunge our beloved children into profound danger. We don't want them to lose limbs, poke out eyes, or have brain damage.

But I suggest we do want them to scrape their knuckles, bruise their butts, and occasionally thwack their thumbs with hammers.


Hannah Rosin explores this brilliantly in her 2014 Atlantic article, "The Overprotected Kid".

Ellen Sandseter, a professor of early-childhood education at Queen Maud University College in Trondheim, had just had her first child, and she watched as one by one the playgrounds in her neighborhood were transformed into sterile, boring places.

Sandseter had written her master’s dissertation on young teens and their need for sensation and risk; she’d noticed that if they couldn’t feed that desire in some socially acceptable way, some would turn to more-reckless behavior.

She wondered whether a similar dynamic might take hold among younger kids as playgrounds started to become safer and less interesting.

Humans seem born with an urge to experience danger. The strength of that urge seems to vary quite profoundly: I was a skittish kid; my son seems to crave peril. (My wife and I joke that our image of him at age 16 is on a dirt bike, holding a beer, at the top of a flight of stairs.) Vive la différence! 

If we don't experience a danger when we're young, some of us will seek it out.

If we don't provide a little danger, we're putting our kids at risk of greater danger. 

Rosin again:

In 2011, Sandseter published her results in a paper called “Children’s Risky Play From an Evolutionary Perspective: The Anti-Phobic Effects of Thrilling Experiences.”

Children, she concluded, have a sensory need to taste danger and excitement; this doesn’t mean that what they do has to actually be dangerous, only that they feel they are taking a great risk. That scares them, but then they overcome the fear.

That is: Children need fear to grow into fearless adults.

If we want our kids to mature safely, we should find opportunities for danger.

That adventure playgrounds allow children to moderate their own risk seems crucial. If a child is still skittish around heights, they can start by sticking to the ground, and engage heights gradually. If a child is worried about thwacking their hand, they can start by avoiding hammers altogether, and try hammering only when they're ready.

Small, repeated exposures to risk, directed by the children themselves, can lead to being comfortable with real life.

Rosin looks at some of the details Sandseter found:

In the paper, Sandseter identifies six kinds of risky play:

  1. Exploring heights, or getting the “bird’s perspective,” as she calls it—“high enough to evoke the sensation of fear.”
  2. Handling dangerous tools — using sharp scissors or knives, or heavy hammers that at first seem unmanageable but that kids learn to master.
  3. Being near dangerous elements — playing near vast bodies of water, or near a fire, so kids are aware that there is danger nearby.
  4. Rough-and-tumble play — wrestling, play-fighting — so kids learn to negotiate aggression and cooperation.
  5. Speed — cycling or skiing at a pace that feels too fast.
  6. Exploring on one’s own.

This last one Sandseter describes as “the most important for the children.” She told me, “When they are left alone and can take full responsibility for their actions, and the consequences of their decisions, it’s a thrilling experience.”

There's so much more to talk about with this issue: how would we handle bigger safety concerns in a school-run adventure playground? How do we handle the ever-present threat of litigation? How can this interact with our desire to reduce levels of depression and anxiety in young adults?

If you'd like to probe our thoughts about those (or other) questions, shoot me an e-mail!

But I'll end by stating the basics: that we're making schools for humans means a lot of things, but foremost among them is that we're redesigning schools to match with the obvious facts about what students are. And so we want to bring adventure playgrounds into the school experience. Because:

Risk can lead to well-being. Danger can lead to flourishing.

My thanks to the wonderful crew working at the Mercer Island Adventure Playground — and to the city of Mercer Island for making this happen!

Adventure playground 6