Susan Solomon and the Science of Play

 I‘m so pleased to welcome Susan Solomon to Playscapes! Susan is the author of American Playgrounds: Revitalizing Community Space, and is America’s preeminent historian of play.   In her latest book, The Science of Play, she tackles the issue of what kids actually need to thrive, and then looks at how playgrounds can provide that.  For too long there has been a disconnect between what playgrounds provide, and what serious research says that children need, particularly in the area of risk-taking.  Susan will post here every other month,  addressing risk and fear and neurology and the ‘serious’ beat of academic publications and policy papers.

The Science of Play is available (pre-ordering until November 4, 2014) atAmazon and Barnes & Noble, or independent booksellers:   The Doylestown (PA) BookshopMcNally Jackson (New York), Parnassus Books(Nashville) and Green Apple Books (San Francisco). 

Or check back here at Playscapes Monday morning to win a copy! 

 “After the Deadline”

 I am honored that Playscapes has asked me to write a column every other month. The title,“After the Deadline,” reflects the lag that exists between completion of a manuscript and its publication. With the Science of Play there was a 16-month hiatus, a time during which I learned more, read new interpretations, saw exciting fresh projects. I am delighted that I now have a forum in which I can share, and comment on, some of these recent findings.

Professional liability is often the proverbial elephant in the room when it comes to playground design. Patrons, especially municipalities or school boards, usually choose off the shelf equipment because they believe it limits their exposure to lawsuits. Many designers prefer standard issue equipment for the same reason. Most manufacturers, aware that they may have to carry the greatest insurance burden, stick with conservative designs and – in order to protect themselves- charge high fees. The resulting playgrounds tend to be directional and repetitive with few challenges, all for a high cost.

Is this necessary? Are all of these players acting with old information and perhaps continuing myths that might not be valid today? Since other myths (“stranger danger,” hypodermic needles in sand) often orchestrate playground design, is it possible that liability concerns are unnecessarily driving the creation of playgrounds? Could it be that fear of being sued is another myth that needs to be exposed?

I wish that I could say that there is overwhelming evidence that fear of lawsuits is unjustified. That is not entirely the case, although evidence is beginning to support that notion. On the negative side, many lawyers believe the number of liability cases continues to soar and lawyers are finding ever more creative ways to originate suits for plaintiffs. Attorney Phillip Howard, the founder of Common Good and frequent contributor to the Huffington Post, believes that there is an abundance of suits and nothing will improve until we accept (and codify into law) the concept that the normal risks of childhood are acceptable. Another New York lawyer, who has experience representing design professionals and engineers, defended a landscape architect in a non- playground dispute. In that case, the plaintiff sought damages that would have far exceeded the insurance proceeds. That is a harrowing thought. In this instance, the case went to trial and the landscape architect was vindicated.

Prof. Charles Epp teaches at the School of Public Affairs and Administration at the University of Kansas and he holds a different perspective. His extensive research, which focuses on the social construction of rights claims, shows that there have never been large numbers of legal actions on behalf of playground injuries. He believes that Tom Baker’s thesis in his book, The Medical Malpractice Myth (2007), has a parallel in the playground world. Epp maintains that there is a consensus among playground administrators that many consumers are suing when most are not; the press tends to overemphasize the few suits that do emerge. Teri Hendy, a premier safety inspector who has assessed and helped develop play projects throughout the world, concurs. She thinks that parents tend to sue when they think their child might have a future career as a “chin model” or similar occupation and therefore cannot afford a slight lasting blemish. Hendy says that when suits do occur, parents are usually hoping to recover the cost of their out of pocket medical bills. They rarely seek inflated sums.

There are other encouraging signs, ones that patrons and designers should consider when they nix the possibility of a unique design. Portland (OR) landscape architect Steven Koch (Koch Landscape Architecture) accepted a challenging playground project in San Francisco. The Recreation and Park Department, the donor, and the local friends group were united in demanding something that would not be a “cookie cutter” design. Koch had license to invent several pieces, purchase and adapt others, and shape an entire environment for the Helen Diller Playground at Dolores Park. Teri Hendy worked with him to assure safety compliance.

Almost three years since completion, there have been no serious injuries and no lawsuits. Another landscape architecture firm, GroundView Design (Wilson Martin and Eden Dutcher) of Massachusetts, was able to implement their own designs at Chuckie Harris Park (2013) in Somerville, MA because parent groups were willing to remove liability concerns from their design process. In nearby Cambridge, MA, that city’s 2009 “Healthy Parks & Playgrounds Task Force Report” proclaims that “play is experimental, challenging and sometimes risky.” That statement would surely never come from a municipality if they felt they were under siege of litigation.

Counter-intuitively, the most adventurous designs may be the least vulnerable to lawsuits. In other words, the work of artists is less likely to be the proverbial lightening rod to draw even the few suits that do develop. Sculpture can have fewer restraints. Teri Hendy explains that it is a matter of intent. If the sculpture is meant to be an interactive spatial experience, rather than a climbing or swinging one, then the primary issue to be addressed could be head entrapment.

Protective surfacing is often not necessary. Sculptor Patrick Dougherty’s sublime work is a good example. He is a master of willow construction. Many museums have commissioned his pieces for their premises. A number of children’s museums have hired him, too. When available to kids, these sculptures encourage fantasy, hiding, being alone; they offer the mystery of being in a unique enclosure. Common sense dictates that there be attention to random stray twigs that could injury the eye of a child running nearby.

There is a message here for all of us. Taking bold action- hiring a sculptor, architect, or landscape architect to design a playspace- may in fact be the best way to achieve an interesting solution and to shepherd it away from an arena of lawsuits, even if that arena appears to be quite tiny.

Resources: I plan to end each posting with some suggestions for further reading. These may be random. They could be books or articles that don’t relate directly to what I have written but are relevant to general concerns about playgrounds (and new to me!). Today, I start with two items that I do cite in this first submission. I am tremendously impressed by the materials that the Cambridge, MA city government has produced and published online (I thank the folks at Goric for pointing these out to me):

And I was blown away by Tom Baker’s The Medical Malpractice Myth (University of Chicago Press, 2007). It is meticulously researched and forcefully argued. He was director of the Insurance Law Center at the University of Connecticut School of Law and is now a professor of law at the University of Pennsylvania. Baker is someone I look forward to speaking to in order to learn more about the parallels between the medical and play cases. Stay tuned (especially after I read his earlier anthology Embracing Risk: The Changing Culture of Insurance and Responsibility which the University of Chicago Press published in 2002).


3 Responses to “Susan Solomon and the Science of Play”

  1. Jessica G said:

    I’m looking forward to reading Ms. Solomon’s work and seeing how I might encourage the town I live in to re-think our parks and play spaces!

    September 02, 2015 at 4:23 pm

  2. Daniel Lambert said:

    I’m excited to know that you’ll be contributing to what is already an excellent curation of playscapes. I’m looking forward to reading your book! This was an incredibly interesting post and very topical for the playground designer.

    November 07, 2014 at 11:38 pm

  3. Susan D said:

    I am so happy to see this! Thank you! I went to the book signing of American Playgrounds back when it came out, and the room was over-full. Here I was, thinking I was the only person who knew about her and her work. Actually I think the organizers weren’t expecting so many people either. We were all pleasantly surprised to meet each other.

    I will definitely be buying the book… thanks for posting the independent stores above, I’ve never been to the one in NYC and it’s near my office! 🙂

    Looking forward to hopefully meeting other like-mindeds in NYC.

    November 02, 2014 at 10:37 pm

Leave a Reply