Profile: Taking Play Seriously

April 01, 1994 7 min read

So he teamed up with a colleague to convert a rezoned house into an early childhood center grounded in the philosophy of developmental psychologist Jean Piaget, who stressed the importance of movement and play in children’s early learning.

To balance the cognitive skills children were practicing indoors, Jambor planned an outdoor play space that would also enhance their physical and social growth. Dusting off skills he picked up studying drafting in high school and designing substations for the Wisconsin Electric Power Co. before he went to college, he blended trees, tires, sand, and other pliable materials to erect a swinging, swaying, running, jumping, and climbing paradise.

That feat--plus a three-story treehouse he built for his own children--earned him an unsolicited position as chairman of a committee to build a playground at his son’s first elementary school, which became the prototype for the more than 100 playgrounds Jambor has created in the years since.

Although most of the playgrounds are in Alabama, Jambor spent a year designing some with a colleague in Norway and has worked in several other countries, as well. A child’s need for safe, fun, and physically challenging play, his travels have taught him, is truly universal.

“A good playground balances all aspects of development,’' says Jambor, an energetic, wiry 51year-old who admits that playing on his creations delights him as much as designing them. Besides stimulating muscles and motor skills, an appropriate play space, he says, allows children to work out “a tremendous amount of social orientation, language development, problem solving, decisionmaking, and conflict.’'

Jambor’s playgrounds offer “different points of entry’’ for children at all ages and stages of development. No matter what their country or culture, he says, children will “enter the playground at their own level and modulate to the next level of challenge. There is a flow pattern: They play hard, practice, and then move on to something else.’'

Dotting the yards of schools, churches, and recreation sites throughout Alabama, Jambor’s play spaces are esthetically arranged to complement and capitalize on “the contours of nature.’' They intertwine ropes, railroad ties, and tires of all sizes, some slung from trees swing-style, and others linked side by side or heaped into climbable sculptures. Beams, bars, poles, and panels of differing heights and textures also provide variety and adventure while developing muscular and upper-body strength. Labyrinthian playhouses, besides summoning a make-believe world of castles and forts, offer ideal wallscaling opportunities or the chance to commune quietly in the crawlspaces. Some children survey the scene in bands or pairs, while others find privacy in their own cozy niches. But no one stays put for long; there are too many places and spaces to run up, over, and around.

The fact that children seldom get hurt on these playgrounds is no accident. Jambor, who with two physician colleagues has written a playground-safety manual that is being reprinted and promoted by the American Academy of Pediatrics, studiously shuns the flaws of steel-and-concrete playgrounds that spawn countless childhood injuries. “Children are at the mercy of the environments we provide,’' the safety manual states, “and it is our responsibility, as custodial adults, to provide the safest environment possible in which to play.’' Each year, 200,000 children are hurt badly enough on playgrounds to warrant medical attention, and such accidents, on average, cause one death a month.

One mistake schools often make, Jambor says, is to purchase one or two expensive “stand alone’’ play sets with several attractive features that draw most children to the same spot, setting the stage for collisions and falls. Jambor avoids this by spreading activities out “to disseminate children over a very large area.’' To buffer the impact of falls, he cushions the area with multiple layers of soft, resilient materials such as pea gravel, pine bark, and sand. Other precautions include sanding abrasive surfaces and coating chain links with plastic so that children won’t catch and jam their fingers.

The safety manual advises against merry-go-rounds and teeter-totters because they pose undue risks with “little developmental value.’' But Jambor’s play spaces do incorporate swings, slides, and climbing units that are in good condition and are outfitted with safety features. The manual offers guidelines on appropriate heights and construction of various items, and Jambor is adamant about the need for constant adult supervision.

At the same time, he seeks to balance the moral and legal obligations of professionals to ensure playground safety with the child’s need to extend his or her boundaries. “As we offer protections to our children through regulations and guidelines for playground design, we must remember that the playground is for the child and that the child will play there only if his/her developmental needs can be addressed,’' Jambor wrote in a 1988 article for the American Association for the Child’s Right to Play. If a play area is a boring place, he says, children will find exciting things to do--like fight.

Boredom doesn’t appear to be much of a problem for the 2nd graders squealing and smiling as they breeze from one piece of equipment to another on the playground at Hewitt Elementary School in Trussville. “This is the highlight of their day,’' says Donna Walsh, one of the teachers standing watch. On the old playground, she adds, “they would stand around at recess without much to do. Now, when they come in, they’ll be ready to learn.’'

“Even on weekends, my kids want to come to this playground,’' says Sandra Vernon, an administrative aide at Hewitt who was chairwoman of the committee that built the playground.

To help save schools money and generate enthusiasm among citizens, Jambor has developed a “community build’’ strategy designed to capture “the spirit of an old-fashioned barn raising.’' Although he lays out the specifications, Jambor’s chief role is to set in motion a well-organized process for schools and parent-teacher associations to enlist community involvement in all aspects of playground planning. Every detail is orchestrated leading up to construction, most of which takes place over one weekend when everyone works side by side with shovels and gloves.

Playground committees range in size from 50 to 250 members and include teachers, parents, administrators, students, retired citizens, community leaders, and businesspeople. They are intergenerational and inclusive, pooling the talents of the elderly as well as youths who, as Jambor describes them, are “drifting away from the norm of what is socially acceptable.’'

The committee is subdivided into teams responsible for materials and machinery, structure, budget, publicity, safety, and refreshments, which include breakfast, a cookout-style lunch, and snacks on the construction date. Through connections in the community, committees typically wind up getting many materials they need either free or at cost. “The response was incredible-- the only thing we purchased was pea gravel,’' notes Vernon of the Hewitt playground project. Local firms pitched in lumber, tires, rope, bulldozers--even hamburger buns and ketchup in abundance.

The average cost of these projects is $7,000, well under the $50,000 Jambor estimates a comparable commercial playground would cost. And the community’s involvement reduces the risk of vandalism, Jambor says, because people who share ownership will “take issue’’ with would-be intruders. But he stresses that everyone involved has got to buy into a maintenance plan to keep the playground running smoothly. People at each site must be assigned to monitor grounds regularly with a checklist noting structural deterioration or defects. “If you use kids as inspectors,’' Jambor says, “you will get real accurate reports-- they’re in every nook and cranny.’'

As an associate professor, Jambor sometimes involves his childdevelopment students in designing model play environments. An important part of the exercise is to encourage them to reflect on their own experiences growing up. A pleasant and vital part of that experience, Jambor fears, is being lost as schools cut down on time allotted to recess.

“With kids being confined inside and the increasing use of electronics,’' he says, “children are not passing on traditional rhymes and games. Children need to burn off excess energy to balance their mental and their physical selves.’' Jambor gets a kick out of helping them do just that.--Deborah Cohen

A version of this article appeared in the April 01, 1994 edition of Teacher as Profile: Taking Play Seriously