Playground Ideas was born by sheer accident. When my wife Willow agreed to marry me in 2006, it was on the condition that we would spend a portion of our lives together in some far flung region of the world doing something for the common good. That day arrived sooner than I thought and the following year the two of us stepped onto a plane bound for Mae Sot, Thailand with a single backpack each. Willow had been offered a job working with refugees along the Thai-Burma border. I left a great position in Melbourne, Australia and arrived in Thailand with absolutely no idea what I was going to do for the next 2 years. For the first time in my adult life, I was free to do whatever I wanted.
As I had nothing better to do, I said yes to basically anything asked of me. I built a geodesic dome sauna and taught photography to children. I dabbled in making motorbike trailers, bamboo and linoleum kayaks, solar ovens and hot water services from local materials. Then a local organization asked if I would help build them a playground, and I said, “why not?”
With a background in alternative education, a toolkit of basic building skills, and a generally inquisitive mind, I threw together a simple design. It was comprised of 2 see-saws made from used motorbike bearings and tree trunks, 2 rope and wood swings, a slide and a two-story icosahedron cubby house with a leaf-thatched roof. I recruited a crew of volunteers and builders and we set to work. Little did I know this humble little playground would thrust me onto a path of 8 crazy years of playground building and the birth of an open-source movement which has helped to change the lives of over 350,000 children.
Before we had finished that first playground, the headmaster of a nearby school asked if we could help them to do the same. And this is how the “Go Play Project” (one of our many early names) began. Requests began pouring in until we were building a new playground every 10 days. In the span of 2 years, with a rag-tag gang of volunteers, artists, builders, and makers we built 40 playgrounds along the Thai-Burma border.
The majority of the playgrounds were built at poor migrant schools located in a border region whose population had seen immense turmoil over the last 20 years. Massive influxes of refugees from minority groups in Burma had resulted in a scarcity of resources and jobs, fueling a divided society with the usual side affects of violence and racism. After the initial playground builds, we went back to interview the schools about the impact the spaces had made. Headmasters, teachers, and parents told us again and again how the playgrounds had become gathering places for both Thai and Burmese children — building unlikely friendships and creating space for the wounds and prejudices of the parents to slowly heal.
Those years of playground building were a time of constant learning through iteration in fast-forward, with every new builder, teacher, and group of kids adding their insights and advising us on what worked best. Each new play space became more stimulating, stronger, and safer than the last. And news began to spread. I started posting photos of our work on the internet and soon requests for playground building assistance were coming from other parts of Thailand and then from around the world. But by the end of those 2 years and 40 playgrounds, we were exhausted.
Beyond exhausted. In my last year in Thailand I became so burnt out that I contracted dengue fever, influenza type b, and had my appendix out. I couldn’t keep going like this, and neither could we as an organization. We couldn’t afford to fly across the world and help every community as the balance of funds that would actually hit the ground would be unethical. A better, more cost effective plan was necessary if we were going to meet the need that we were facing.
It was only when I took a step back and looked over those 2 years, that I began to notice something incredible. Of all the playground materials and labor, 70% was locally donated or self-funded by the schools and organizations themselves. Unlike many NGO’s that see a need and try to fix it, we had been given the opportunity to follow the communities’ lead and simply create the tools to make their ideas happen. This realization planted the seed for what Playground Ideas would become.
It was the enthusiasm of the headmasters, teachers, parents, and caretakers to take a stand for their children that inspired and drove us. They knew that 6-hours of rote learning in packed classrooms was not the answer to holistic education and they knew their children deserved better. They believed safe spaces for children to play were a priority for their community. They taught us about the importance of play for their children’s development and about the dire lack of safe play spaces in their communities.
They knew that 6 hours of rote learning wasn’t the answer to holistic education and they knew their children deserved better.
The cognitive benefits of play are something I only understand now. Through my work, I’ve had the opportunity to learn from play experts in the fields of of economics, psychology, child development, education and neuroscience, whose work has illustrated the fact that play is the most powerful tool we can give children. It is as important to a child’s brain development as food and sleep. Multiple long term studies have found early play interventions to increase IQ scores, psychosocial skills, schooling attainment, economic earnings, and lower rates of imprisonment. The community leaders I worked with hadn’t read this research. But they had seen the lack of play in their schools and communities and they knew first-hand that it needed to change.
If this was true in a tiny corner of Southeast Asia, I had a hunch it had to be happening elsewhere. The requests for playground assistance that were pouring into my inbox from all corners of the globe were confirmation. We began to believe that maybe with the right training, designs and resources, communities could fund and build spaces for play themselves. We started taking steps to document all of our best work into little step-by-step designs. We made manuals and instruction booklets that anyone, anywhere could build from on an extremely low budget and using only commonly found local materials and tools.
In 2010, everything changed. We stopped hammering nails and started hammering keyboards. The way we worked was reinvented when playgroundideas.org was born as an open-source hub of playground building resources and a global network of people and organizations creating time and space for play in their communities.
Fast forward to 2015, and now we hear from teachers, volunteers, and parents every day — most with no prior playground building experience — who are downloading our resources, organizing labor and funding, and making their playground dreams reality.
In 2009, working at our hardest we could build 20 playgrounds a year, and it cost us about $20 per child. Today, using an open-source model, that cost is down to $1 per child. In 2014, well over 300 communities used our resources to begin the journey to create playful spaces for their children. That growth isn’t even close to leveling off. Early this year, our network reached it’s 700th playground. Seven hundred playgrounds in 72 countries, bringing access to play for over 350,000 children.
What is referred to as the “developing world” is a diverse world, full of social entrepreneurs and passionate community members affecting change in their own communities. People around the globe are identifying the issue that time and space for play is crucial to a child’s healthy development and they are looking for people who can help them in their cause. We are honored to work with those inspiring teachers, community members, parents, and builders — wherever they are — to create stimulating spaces that can help to transform the education and wellbeing of their children. We’re standing alongside as they build futures where their children will thrive, not merely survive.
We’re on a mission to ignite a global play revolution. Visit www.playgroundideas.org to join us. Download our resources, start a project, volunteer, or donate to ensure every child can exercise their right to play.