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Creativity in Our Playground

When you look at the playground at Albemarle Montessori or Culpeper Montessori Children’s Communities, you’ll see lots of grass, some bushes, and trees. It is a natural environment. What we want to offer is a blank canvas to our children when they spend time outside at recess or during the afternoon. That blank space, much like the blank canvas for an artist, frees the child to use his imagination however he or she wants to create, to build, to collaborate, to imagine.

Increasingly in our society, we are limiting opportunities for our children to develop their natural ability to create. Look on the shelves of a toy store. In previous generations, there were simple toys that sparked creativity: a box of Legos, a simple Spirograph kit, tubs of Play-Dough, building blocks, and other basic materials that served as props for a child’s imagination. Today, those toys are no longer there or they have been modified to take the child’s creativity out of the process. Legos now primarily sells kits with pieces designed to build one specific scenario. Those other simple toys, if you can still find them, have constrained a child by laying out precise ways to use them.

A December 2011 article in USA Today noted this evolution: “Even blocks are changing, says Susan Niebur, an astrophysicist and mother from the Washington, D.C., area. She has discovered that a basic set of Lego bricks — one of her favorite toys for encouraging creativity — is getting ‘incredibly tough to find.’”

“More and more, stores are replacing the basic blocks with elaborate sets based on movies, which encourage kids to follow instructions rather than create their own designs, says Susan Linn of the Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood. Yet studies show that kids play more creatively with “generic” toys than with those linked to movies and TV shows, Linn says.”

“’The best toy is 10% toy and 90% child,’ Linn says. “We’ve got all these toys embedded with computer chips that talk and sing and play and dance at the press of a button. But what they do is deprive children of the ability to exercise their creativity. The toys that really foster creativity just lie there until they’re transformed by children.’”

“Kids learn about the world through play. ‘Play is a really big part of a child’s development,’ says Steve Snyder of The Franklin Institute, an interactive science museum in Philadelphia. ‘We don’t play by accident.’ Any toy can be a learning tool, he says. ‘Ask what would happen if we did this? Why might this happen?’ At some point, kids stop asking questions. We want them to always ask questions.’”

And so our playgrounds are designed to spur creativity and imagination.

We have smooth rocks, various shapes and sizes of wood, and cardboard boxes. The rocks have been IMG_0173used to create labyrinths, a pyramid, and shapes like an arrow. There is dirt for digging and exploring what’s in the ground. There is a sandbox as well for “cooking”, “excavating”, or other imaginative play. There are long pieces of wood that have served as balance beams for developing gross motor skills and equilibrium; shorter pieces have become a set of stepping stones or a pattern. There is enough weight and heft to these materials to help with the child’s unconscious development of his or her gross motor skills and dexterity as they build and create; what you don’t see (and what doesn’t happen enough in most playgrounds) is the development of the brain as the child builds, imagines, and creates.

There aIMG_0181re two bins carrying balls, hoops, and other materials to spur physical activity and exercise. There is also enough space for lots of running in our playgrounds! The bins also carry pale blue, foam pieces of different shapes and sizes. This is the Imagination Playground material. There are no directions for its use. It is there for the child to use however he or she wants. The pieces have been used to create headlamps for “bear hunting”, cars, houses, and monsters (friendly).


There are cardboard boxes that the children use to make forts, houses, cars, and any number of other things. The cardboard, after the box breaks apart from vigorous use, becomes a canvas for art and other purposes.


What you won’t find in our playgrounds are traditional climbing equipment sets. As you’ve seen above, there are already a number of other ways to develop a child’s gross motor skills in our playgrounds. When you add slides and climbing equipment, you find that a child uses them correctly for the first few times and then, because the equipment is limited in its ability to spur creativity, that same child uses his or her own creativity to use the equipment inappropriately. Examples include going down a slide head first or backwards and swinging too high on swings or not holding on.

There are opportunities to explore that kind of playground equipment elsewhere. There are too few opportunities to explore creativity and imagination elsewhere. That is why we nurture imagination in our creative playgrounds.

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