From Play Structures to iPads: What’s Happening to Children’s Play Spaces?

A couple of weeks ago, I saw a news story about a transformed play space at the Guildford Town Centre (a mall) in Surrey, British Columbia. The mall play space went from being a place where kids could run around, climb, and go down a slide, to a place where children can engage in interactive play with…iPads. Parents are not happy, and I don’t blame them. As someone concerned with youth physical activity levels as well as positive youth development, I share some of the same concerns parents do.

iPads for interactive play area

New indoor “interactive play park” at Guildford Town Centre

Mall Response

“More active play and can result in children being hurt”: The mall response was that in their experience providing slides and things for climbing leads to much more active play and, apparently, children being hurt. It seems that the mall is just another example of how risk is being systematically eliminated from children’s play areas. Adults seem so concerned for children’s safety that they feel almost compelled to eliminate any potential sources of danger. Playgrounds are disappearing or are behaviours within them are strictly regulated. Last year, a story surfaced about a New York middle that school banned hard balls like soccer and footballs during recess and would not allow tag to be played without adult supervision citing these activities as dangerous. Other schools are taking out swings or banning games of tag – also perceiving these as potentially dangerous activities. It seems adult fear and anxiety about child safety (and perhaps insurance company’s concerns over liability) is changing the nature of the experience of childhood… in neighbourhoods, on playgrounds, and now, it seems, at the mall play space.

“We’re pleased to offer a quiet play environment for children”: There are lots of times and places where children are expected to be “quiet” – libraries, nap time at day care, waiting rooms at the doctors offices, during the school day, while a younger sibling is sleeping, and while adults are having a conversation and have asked not to be interrupted. Play areas and playgrounds are normally designed to allow children to let of steam and to have fun – to shriek with joy and to laugh and yell, “Hey Mom/Dad… look at me”. This would be especially true, I would think, when toddlers and younger children are out at the mall with a parent. In stores, children are told to not touch and to keep their voices down (or at least this is often what I see and overhear). Some children are in carts or strollers – somewhat confined while their parents try to complete their errands without having to worry that their child will wander away if something catches their eye. The play area is a place parents can take their child to offer him/her a break from parental errands and the restrictions of a stroller or cart. So, personally, I do not see the value or even the logic of offering “a quiet play environment”. If parents want a quiet play environment for their child, I’m sure they’d head to the library or home, but not to the mall. I can imagine that for some children, the mall is a very stimulating place and perhaps there is a need for a quiet space or quiet time after being there, but in reading articles and seeing news clips of parents’ reaction – a “quiet environment” does not seem to be what parents or children need or want.

What Bothers Me Most About the iPad Play Area

Already too much screen time: The youngest generation of youth – digital natives as they are sometimes called – already spend a significant portion of their time in front of a screen consuming media. According to the American Academy of Pediatrics, the average amount of screen time for kids is seven hours per day. The Academy recommends that children under the age of 2 consume NO television or entertainment media because children’s brains develop best by interacting with people, not screens. Why would we want to replicate an experience children could have at home in a public play space? In a society where we are regularly getting failing grades on children’s physical activity levels (Active Healthy Kids Canada, 2012; 2014), why would we want to turn an active play space into a screen-dependent one?

The importance of learning to manage risk: The spread of technology and the fact that it is being designed to engage children from infancy has changed the landscape of childhood has contributed to children spending less time exploring their worlds. Add to that, parents’ anxiety about stranger danger and injuries (Brockman, Jago, & Fox, 2011; Gill, 2007), which is in part a result of messages parents receive in the media and even from public health agencies (Public Health Agency of Canada, 2012a; 2012b) about safety during play, the current generation of children are not given the chance to take risks. Canadian researchers who recently completed a study on children’s play (Alexander, Frohlick, & Fusco, 2014) argue that risk taking is an integral part of children’s play preferences and supports their development. Through risk taking, children get to challenge their abilities and move forward in their development; they explore limits; and they and learn to manage risks and deal with uncertainty – all of which are important for their development into adults who can function in a world that has risks.

Will Change Come?

Alas, despite parents expressing outrage about the Guildford Mall play space – arguing that the play area is not fun for their child, arguing that this doesn’t support the idea that parents are supposed to be helping their children to be more active, and arguing that the installed iPads offer nothing unique from an experience they could offer at home – the mall stands by its decision. Perhaps it is too much to expect that a commercial organization (concerned mainly with making money) might seek to offer something that supported children in moving their bodies and interacting with other children. However, for those consumers who are parents and to whom the play area is important… this decision could hurt the traffic at the mall and retailers bottom line.

References and Further Reading:

Active Healthy Kids Canada. (2012). Is active play extinct? Report card on physical activity for children and youth. Toronto, ON, Canada: Author.

Active Healthy Kids Canada. (2014). Is Canada in the running? Report card on physical activity for children and youth. Toronto, ON, Canada: Author.

Alexander, S. A., Frohlich, K. L., & Fusco, C. (2014 – online first). Problematizing “play-for-health” discourses through children’s photo-elicited narratives. Qualitative Health Research, doi: 1049732314546753.

Brockman, R., Fox, K. R., & Jago, R. (2011). What is the meaning and nature of active play for today’s children in the UK? International Journal of Behavioral Nutrition and Physical Activity, 8(15), 1–7.

Future Foundation. (2006). The changing face of parenting: Professional parenting, information and healthcare. London: Future Foundation.

Gill, T. (2007). No fear: Growing up in a risk averse society. London: Calouste Gulbenkian Foundation.

Public Health Agency of Canada. (2012a). Funding to prevent injuries in outdoor play spaces: Fact sheet.

Public Health Agency of Canada. (2012b). The Government of Canada supports safe outdoor play spaces.

Rosen, H. (2014, March 19). The overprotected kid. The Atlantic.




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2 thoughts on “From Play Structures to iPads: What’s Happening to Children’s Play Spaces?

  1. Jean October 30, 2014 at 10:35 pm Reply

    How odd that iPad play area.


  2. […] Source: From Play Structures to iPads: What’s Happening to Children’s Play Spaces? […]


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