Playthings on the Playground or, What I Learned from Brueghel

All this Brueghel has solidified some thoughts that have been percolating for some time. Notable by its absence in the painting is anything resembling playground ‘equipment’, unless you count the railing the boys are riding like a horse.

When did we decide that a child’s play was all about equipment? That play happened ‘on’ something, instead of ‘with’ something, or even ‘with’ nothing at all but imagination?

It’s also apparent that these kids are playing ‘with’ each other more than I’ve ever seen on a modern playground. There, children are mostly playing with…equipment.

The joy in the painting comes from the interaction of the children with each other and their delight in quite simple, moveable toys like hoops and tops, balls and sticks. They’re playing dress-up and stacking bricks, and joining in actual games whose rules and structure help a child learn about interacting with others within a framework.

I think playground equipment is great. I think it can even be wonderful; for play and for children. But I think we’ve relied on it too much.

Easy to add to any playground: jumpropes, hula hoops, balls, nerf ‘sticks’ (if you’re really so worried about the real ones); buckets (not so large that they collect rainwater and form a hazard), shovels (not those silly sand ones; a good durable garden trowel is much better) and moveable, stackable blocks. Also bright orange traffic cones, which in my experience the kids absolutely love. So they may disappear. With all the concern over childhood obesity, do we really mind if a kid takes a jumprope home?

I’ll be adding some moveable playthings to my church playground (which is where this all started) this summer.

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