Inside: An interview with Missy Benson from Playworld, talking about the importance of outdoor play and inclusive play, and the new PlayForm 7 in the Boston area.
“Oh. my. Goodness!!!” my daughter shrieked with excitement. My son’s eyes widened and he took off running toward the playful chaos of the playground.
I vividly remember the exuberance from both of my children as we turned the corner and first laid eyes on the Jamie Bell Adventure Park. We were in Toronto for the summer, and I heard from other parents that this was the park we HAD to see. I was almost speechless - it was gigantic and colorful and full of happy, energetic children.
Have you or your kids ever been absolutely blown away by a playground? A place where your kids played for hours and didn’t want to leave?
I love finding these types of playgrounds for my kids, so I was thrilled to hear about some cool structures all over Boston. Extraordinary Playscapes is a free exhibition “showcasing the art, history, science, and importance of play”.
I recently got a chance to speak with Missy Benson from Playworld. Her organization has been creating some amazing playgrounds, and recently worked on the Extraordinary Playscapes exhibition in Boston with PlayForm 7 and the Play Cubes exhibits.
What got you interested in play?
I have a degree in landscape architecture from Virginia Tech and my first job out of school was working in Boston for a few landscape architecture firms there. Some of my very first projects were designing playgrounds so I became very involved in play over 25 years ago. One thing I realized is that designers and architects don’t get enough information about designing for children’s spaces, their developmental needs and the importance of play.
Why is play, especially outdoor play, so important?
In 1965 or 1966, my parents were divorced. It was unusual back then. People usually didn’t get divorced very often and I was pretty shy and socially awkward to begin with. I had access to a bicycle and I had access to a playground in our neighborhood and I had that freedom to go to those spaces, meet other kids my age and learn some skills that I think really helped me throughout my life.
I’m forever grateful for those opportunities that I had as a young kid and certainly what I see is the lack of opportunities for those children now. Not only the lack of free time because of over-scheduled lives, but the lack of spaces for play. And that’s why I think focusing on these pocket parks and urban play spaces is so important for kids who don’t have access.
Children are not outdoors as much as they should be. What kind of memories are being created for our children today? And how can we change that because if they’re not outdoors playing, how are they going to preserve outdoor play for the next generation if it’s not important to them now?
Playform 7 - it’s been wonderful to observe children playing there, it’s open ended and unstructured. The same thing can be said of our Play Cubes, it engages children of so many different ages. We’re so proud to be part of the Design Museum Foundation and it was a pleasure to work with City of Boston Parks & Recreation and Greenway.
Playworld has structures in Singapore, Boston, Washington D.C. and it attracts kids. It screams “this is for me!”, and they’re intrigued and want to go back. We need to build more challenge and risk into playgrounds while also meeting safety standards. But getting kids there in the first place in a big goal.
Playworld talks about inclusive play, the importance of making sure every child can access a playground. Can you say more about what Playworld is doing to make that possible?
I’m very involved in the research about inclusive play. We provide workshops in communities about inclusive play and how can we get designers thinking along those lines, for all disabilities. We are thinking not only about children with mobility devices, but children on the autism spectrum, low vision, low hearing, etc.
Playworld is a family owned company who has been just focusing on this and I’ve been working for them for the last 2.5 years and have been supported in every step. Equipment design matters, but also how you place the equipment next to each other that makes such a big difference. It’s also important to provide the different levels of challenge. We all learn through doing.
What we found with all the child tests we did with Playform 7 is that there are so many spots where children can transfer out of a mobility device onto the structure and be in the middle of play. They can feel the movement of the pads, or transfer onto the little hammocks underneath to be able to engage in play and be in the middle of play, and that’s the true advantage of this open ended concept of play.
They can play anywhere around the entire structure, in the structure, on the structure from every point. That really helps with our ability to design for everyone. We also need to think about grandparents and parents with disabilities. These children who have disabilities now, we want them to be able to have spaces for them to bring their children.
What was your favorite way to play as a child? And how do you like to play now?
As a child, it was climbing trees. I spent so much of my time in trees. I came back from a trip to Memphis last night. Some of those trees that I spent so much time in are still alive. Being barefoot and free to travel to spots with these trees.
Also the love of gardening that my grandfather taught me and being able to make mud pies. So many plants I still love today because they were the toppings of all my beautiful mud pies that I spent hours and hours creating.
Now, my favorite thing to do now is to dig in the dirt. I still like to bike ride and play soccer. Having access to outdoors is something I try to do every day to make me feel more sane.
Missy has such a passion for the topic of play!
The Play & Social Connection
Be intentional as a parent about making sure that your children have time to play outdoors. Before it was part of the day. Now you need to make sure that it happens. You have to take the time outside to play by themselves.
Playing at the playground, like the PlayForm 7, is a great way for kids to problem solve and be creative. It’s also an opportunity for them to practice their social skills with others in an unstructured environment.
There’s only a little bit of time before school starts - take some time to explore one of these new play structures. And for those of you living in Roslindale, I have good news - PlayForm 7 will be moving to your neighborhood soon, so be on the lookout!