A beautiful new play structure was installed a few years ago at a park near our house. It's one we've visited frequently this summer, both for it's proximity (we can ride our bikes there!) and the fact that it's physically challenging for both my children. When they grow bored of swinging on the monkey bars or climbing up the slide, they play tag. When tag becomes tiresome, they simply sit on the swing and relax.
In a few spots, the equipment is labelled with QR codes, with prompts for parents to scan the codes. Doing so "unlocks a new level of interactive play"—or at least that's what the labels promise. It's nothing I've ever been tempted to do, first because there's no cell service at the park, and second because my idea of interactive play involves joining in on a game with them. What could be more interactive than that?
The idea of marrying technology and outdoor play isn't new. Playground equipment manufacturer KOMPAN has a line of equipment similar to what is installed at our neighbourhood park. Again, there are QR codes connected to an app that parents can install on their smart phone to download read-along stories, games and other learning activities that the company says enhances a child's playtime. The KOMPAN playground structures are based on famous fairy tales, whereas my local playground offers animal-themed games.
I've yet to see a parent pull out their phone and scan a play structure. Most parents are like me and choose let their kids use their own imaginations to guide their play. But then again, most of the time we have the playground to ourselves.
Dr. Yoni Freedhoff has a theory on why today's generation of kids don't play outside the way we used to. In addition to parents thinking that outdoor play is risky, Freedhoff thinks nature isn't all that interesting to kids. Rather than trying to coerce them to enjoy nature in it's natural state, Freedhoff wrote in The Globe and Mail earlier this week that we have to make the outdoors more attractive.
Two ideas that excite the University of Ottawa assistant professor and author are self-driving cars and augmented reality. The cars, he suggests, will ease traffic congestion and lead to safer streets. Augmented reality, in the form of special glasses that beam images to a child's eye, could help kids imagine they are elsewhere. Calling some current parks "dreary," Freedhoff says that with augmented reality, kids could feel transplanted to somewhere more entertaining. Two such projects are in the works.
While the concepts sound cool (I've been to a few dreary parks that made me wish I was somewhere else, too), I can't help but wonder if forward-thinking technology, when applied to our natural spaces, is actually a step backwards. By adding a "digital layer" (what KOMPAN calls their playground apps and could also be said of the proposed virtual reality goggles for kids), you're putting an even greater wedge between kids and outdoors. Sure, that cool piece of technology might get your kids excited to step outside, but once they're bored with the tech, what will bring them back out again?
I've written before about Nature Deficit Disorder and how it's the only trend that really scares me. I stand firmly behind my belief that if we can get kids outside and connected to nature—barefoot, dirty and full of wonder at the world around them—they will stay outside. I don't think the barrier is boredom. I think the barrier is parents who just need to be brave enough to open the door and let their kids roam free.
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