Guest Column - April 2014
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Play Is in Peril
Saving Unstructured Outdoor Play

By Ian Proud

To encourage outdoor play, we must create play environments that are meaningful and relevant in today's world, not yesterday's. To entice children to engage in unstructured outdoor play, we must make the play experience relevant to how we live today, as compared to decades ago. Think back to your own childhood. If you are older than 30, chances are your parents didn't even have to tell you to go out and play or plead with you to run around outside to burn some energy. In fact, you would probably beg to remain outdoors for one last game of kick the can or four-square before bed. Back then, unstructured outdoor play was a natural part of childhood.

Times have changed. Today, we must thoughtfully and deliberately place value on time spent in unstructured outdoor play. To ensure that outdoor free play is an integral part of our lives, our industry must look at the equipment we design and make it delight and engage kids and parents alike. There are now specific product lines designed to unleash the transformational power of play. For example, there is electronic outdoor commercial play equipment that incorporates technology to get kids outside and active. The product line blends the exhilarating and heart-pumping excitement of video games with the aerobic rush of outdoor fun.

Manufacturers, academics and researchers must work together to better understand the physical, cognitive, social and emotional aspects of what happens when people play—whether they're embarking on an imaginary adventure to a far away land or playing tag. From there, we all need to use that knowledge to create experiences that embrace and encourage creativity and build strong communities. Play is powerful, and the playground is a powerful place, the intersection of reality and fantasy.

It's unfortunate that unstructured outdoor play isn't part of everyday life today the way it was years ago. But it's time to create unstructured outdoor play for the future. Together, let's ensure that outdoor play is as important to today's children as it was to us. Let's not wait any longer to change the course of play. Now is the time to change our industry and shift society's perception of play from luxury to necessity.

Ian Proud has led the Inclusive Play initiative at Playworld Systems since its inception, culminating in the development of the Inclusive Play Design Guide, a manufacturer-neutral, inspirational and educational resource for inclusive play. He championed development of the nation's first electronic outdoor play product, and created the company's first market research department. Proud has a lifelong fascination with trends, the future and how we manage change. He is currently the research and public relations manager for Playworld Systems. For more information, visit