The Slide is an Oppressive Toy

If playground objects had political aspirations, the slide would be a dictator. It dictates you what to do, a colleague at the Vrije Universiteit pointed out over lunch, referring to a recent publication in Frontiers in Neuroscience. The story ended with a beautiful anecdote of how the city of Amsterdam built playgrounds that rebelled against the slide’s oppression. I thought it would be nice to share it here to close the August series on exploration.

Objects with a clear function reduce exploration

When you see an object, you also perceive what you can do with it: the objects’ function. There is only one thing you can do with a slide: slide from it. When you do differently, chances are high someone will correct your inappropriate behavior. Therefore we will always use a slide in the same way. The slide reduces exploration. Other toys, such as wooden blocks, are used in various ways and can stimulate exploration. Does that matter?

The function of a pair of scissors is cutting.

Exploration is key to human learning. When we vary in our behavior we can discover accidental successes. Most importantly: we may be able to discover successes that work for us personally. When we learn to use an object in an intended way, we only repeat what others conceived for us.

Aldo van Eyck’s playgrounds

The design of an object contributes to your perception of what you can do with it.

The Dutch Architect Aldo van Eyck wanted to design playgrounds that stimulate exploration for the city of Amsterdam. His playgrounds consist of simple geometrical shapes: circles, squares and triangles. These basic shapes lack a clear function. As they can be used in various ways, they stimulate exploration.

A famous example is the play dome, pictured below on the left. The play dome can be used for climbing, as a shelter, as a mountain to sit on top or in any way you can imagine.

Stimulating exploration matters

I think that playing with objects that stimulate exploration benefits development. Humans learn from exploration. They learn even more when they explore cleverly. You for instance learn more when you make smaller changes when success is near. To sense that success is near you need experience.

Moreover, I believe that we should learn that it makes sense to persist even when success is absent for a while. Read why it makes sense to persist even when you don’t know what to change next in my blog ‘Thoughtless Exploration.’


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