A Boring Playground is Dangerous

Children grow up playing. No one really teaches them how. They just play on their own and figure things out. But when parents pick out a toy for their children to play with, or a safe playground for them to play in, are their choices really the best? More often than not, parents’ choices don’t provide the best ‘play environment’ for their children. What are some of things that children need to enjoy genuine type of playing? We asked playground designer and columnist Haemoon Phyen more on this matter.

You’ve been a ‘play activist’ for most of your career. What exactly do you do?
‘Play activist’ is a rather comical job to have. Naturally, children are expected to play, and yet I have to advocate and encourage people to recognize it. But to elaborate, I would call myself a ‘mediator who makes playgrounds that are compatible with children’s desires.’ Those who make playgrounds are completely different from those who use the playgrounds. In that process, the people who have the most authority are adults. And conversely, those who have the least say in how the playgrounds are made are the children, the children who will actually play in the playgrounds. I’m the mediator between these two groups. People also call me a playground designer.

The authors of books like < For Children, Play is Like Eating > and < Children Come to the World to Play > emphasize the importance of play itself, rather than the effects or results of play. How would you define what ‘play’ is for children?
I usually don’t use the word ‘play.’ The word has been very misused over the years. Some people think of playing with marbles and hopscotch to be the only types of ‘play.’ Those are more like games. I think ‘freedom’ more accurately describes what ‘play’ is. ‘Play’ is something that you want to keep on doing. The desire to keep wanting to do something, or not wanting to do it, that is what ‘play’ is.

So do you mean that ‘play’ can be defined as freedom or autonomy? In other words, a sense of independence?
We tend to think of children as subjects that need our help. ‘To play with,’ usually comes with the attitude that adults are superior to children, and that children are inferior. But ‘play’ is not something someone else does for you. It’s simply doing what you like to do. It would make more sense if we viewed children as independent beings who make their own decisions, but most times, we don’t. When you watch parents “play” with their children, you’ll notice that they want the children to listen to them. But that’s missing the point. It’s not about children just obeying their parents. That’s not ‘play.’ That’s just a program or schedule that parents make for their children.

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Miracle Playground located in Suncheon. The city of Suncheon is currently developing the ‘Miracle Playground’ using the hill near the children’s park located on Lakeside 3, Yeonhyang District 2. Together with head designer Haemoon Phyen, local residents and children will be in charge of the design and overall maintenance of the playground.

You say that a child needs ‘space, time, and a companion’ in order to play. In the city, children don’t really have these options. You moved back to your hometown Andong 10 years ago. How is it different there? How do the children play?
You’re probably expecting something totally different, but it’s really the same. Many people think that moving to the countryside provides a better environment for children.
It doesn’t matter where you live, it’s the parents’ attitude towards play that needs to change. There are parents in the city that can create that free environment for their children, and then there are parents in thr countryside who fail to let their children play freely.

In your book, < For Children, Play is Like Eating > you said “If you asked me to pick the best type of play, it would be parents working hard on their own duties and the observant children imitating them.”
Unfortunately, children in the city usually don’t know what their parents do for a living. This is a huge problem. I remember when I was younger, the type of ‘play’ I did with my mother was helping her make kimchi. But you rarely see households that make kimchi these days. The best ‘play’ that parents can offer to their children is to have them join in on the most detailed parts of their lives. That’s the best type. But when fathers are away all day at the office, staring at a computer screen, children can’t understand exactly what their fathers do at work. Parents don’t necessarily have to put in the extra effort to play with their children, but as long as they’re by their side, observing the work that they do, it can naturally lead to imitation. This is a great way for children to focus and move closer to genuine ‘play.’

You said that we can’t teach children how to play. Then what is it that parents can do for their children?
There are many parents who just buy their children toys because they don’t know how to play with them. But this is how ‘consumption’ becomes a type of ‘play’ for children. More and more children only know how to be happy in
that brief moment of purchasing something. ‘Playing’ isn’t consuming something that someone else made but it’s something that they create themselves. Children should be able to play whenever they want to and do what they want to do with the people they choose to do it with. Children should be able to make their own decisions. But parents have unknowingly been raising children to be slaves, not owners. How can we expect them to be creative? Children are experts at playing. When they’re bored, they play with whatever’s around them. But the most important thing here is for the parents to provide a secure environment. Children can’t play when they feel uneasy. It’s completely normal for a child to be wild. As parents, we should be thankful that our children have a desire to move, to do something. We should be encouraging them but instead many of us do the opposite and try to make them sit still.

As ‘play’ became consumption-oriented, there seems to be a more noticeable gap between rich and poor.
I think ‘play’ can actually narrow that gap. Rich parents can probably buy their children drones but what more can a drone do? Children most likely will get bored quickly. Children want to get closer with friends, not toys. How many functions does a friend have? As parents, we need to help our children meet and make more friends. Toys are just an invention made to make a parent’s life easier.


Does this mean that parents cannot be their children’s friends?

That would be a parent’s misunderstanding. Of course, parents can be close with their children, but if you asked a young parent to live with their elderly parents in the countryside, do you think that would be fun? It’s the same with children. There are things that children can only learn through the relationships they have with other children and friends. But parents can’t forcibly make friends for thier children either. That’s why it’s inevitable that a parent’s social skills have an effect on a child. If a parent fails to make decent relationships in society, how can you expect the child be able to make friends?


Last year you released a book called < Playgrounds Need to be Dangerous to Be Safe >. In the preface you mentioned how the ‘ground’ is more important than the ‘play’ in playground. But you also mentioned earlier that it doesn’t matter whether children dwell in the city or the countryside.

The ‘ground’ I’m talking about here is the foundation of a playground. This doesn’t necessarily mean the physical playground per say, but the environment or the overall atmosphere of the space. When children play with their friends in a physical space, every social interaction imaginable happens. We need to create an environment in which children can play without worrying about what others may think. Without this environment, children will feel insecure and unable to play. But if it’s a safe, free environment, children can play wherever they may be. Parents tend to think that being a good parent means buying things for their children, ordering them around or interfering their lives.


You said, “Good parents ask the least of their children and great parents ask nothing of them.” What else can parents do for their children other than to let them play freely at playgrounds? Shouldn’t parents be there to also watch out for them and help them if needed?

Parents worry about their children getting hurt because they think that getting hurt is a bad thing. But if children never get hurt, they’ll never learn anything. Children become tied down because of the thought that they shouldn’t get hurt. This makes them unable to learn abstract concepts like inference. How would a child know what hot feels like if they never touch a hot pan? There’s no use in parents telling their children how hot the pan is. ‘Playing’ is when children get to experience life as it is. For example, we take away a knife because it’s dangerous. To a child, banning something makes them want it even more. A knife is a tool. If used improperly it can cut or stab someone. Instead of just taking it away, we need to explain the proper use. We need to respect our children’s interests in an object and not dismiss it. But this doesn’t mean parents should suggest activities. Again, this is a parent’s way of forcing a child. Children need to have their own desire to do something, whatever piques their interest first. Children need to be the owner of their play.


I heard you travelled globally to see all the world’s playgrounds. Are there notable differences?

Do you know what the first principle for playgrounds in Europe is? Europeans say, “It’s impossible to make a safe playground.” Europeans acknowledge that safe playgrounds are impossible to make. Principle #2 is, “Playgrounds are a place for children to experience danger and learn how to handle it.” But in Korea, we teach our children to avoid danger. Then how do we expect them to handle the danger they’ll face in the future? Adults shouldn’t help children but instead provide them the opportunity to face dangerous situations and overcome them. My book conveys my answer to the Sewol Ferry incident. It’s unfortunate that even after the terrifying incident, we’ve continued to block children from facing danger.


You also said, “The ideal playground is a playground without any playground epuipment.”I also heard that one of your recent projects, Suncheon’s “Miracle Playground” also doesn’t have any.

Playgrounds should be a place where children experience and meet diversity. There needs to be a variety of playgrounds, ranging from high-tech to empty playgrounds, but in Korea, they’re all standardized. But the best playground for children are their homes. Home is where they can stay the longest and and feel most comfort. Don’t go looking for playgrounds far away but allow them to play freely at home. How can they play anywhere else if they can’t even play inside their own homes? Parents need to shift their mindsets to recognize that “home is a playground.”


Anything you’d like to add to our Bold Journal readers?

Just like fathers don’t like to be interfered at work, children also don’t want their parents to interfere with their lives. That’s what playing is. And if you want your children to behave a certain way, don’t tell them to do so. Show them yourself. It’s definitely not easy. We’re always thinking about how we can teach and raise our children, but the best way to teach them is by letting them indirectly to experience things. Don’t just try to educate them— play with them and allow them to discover themselves. Children need to figure out their preferences all on their own. Allow your children to become the owner of this world. Being interfered with or kept from doing things they want is just torturous.

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Haemoon Phyen

Almost 20 years as a ‘play activist,’ he’s traveled all over Korea researching and collecting the types of ‘play’ that have disappeared over the years. He’s also traveled worldwide to report about the playgrounds of the world. He has a 9-year-old daughter and a 4-year- old son and the whole family have been living in a rural city, Andong, for the past 13 years, creating ‘optimal playgrounds’ with the help of the neighboring children. He believes that children come to the world to play and that playing is like eating for them. Last year he released a book that targets over-protected children in Korea, < Playgrounds Need to be Dangerous to Be Safe >. He is head of the project commissioned by Suncheon city, ‘Miracle Playground,’ which is a groundbreaking playground appraised for its lack of common playground features.