Epic Playgrounds: How one dad is reinventing where America plays

Do you remember the playground you used to go to as a kid?

Mine was at Abbey Lane elementary school in Levittown, New York. It was a massive wooden castle, complete with tiny hidden rooms throughout, a tire moat you could crawl through, and all sorts of twisty slides and bouncing bridges.

I loved that playground. I wanted my parents to take me there all the time.


A modern-day adventure playground in Hackney, London
(photo courtesy apesatplay.com)

Now I take my daughter to banal plastic structures that pale in comparison. So what happened in the years it took me to become an adult?

Billy Jensen has a theory: we got scared. Back in the 60s, our playground crafters took a cue from Europe’s and designed spaces unafraid to venture beyond the traditional four S’s: slide, seesaw, swing, and sandbox. We had giant rocket ships, hinged robots, fabulous circus wagons, and more—with all sorts of frills and thrills.

But they were too high. And too rough. Kids fell and broke bones. And got splinters. So we sued. Downsized. And in the process, Billy argues, stunted kids’ imaginations and contributed to the nation’s growing childhood obesity problem.

“What costs more at the end of the day?” he asks. “A broken arm, or diabetes?”

Billy, a digital media strategist, writer, and father of two teens, thinks it’s time we stop being so overprotective and return to the heyday of adventure playgrounds.

“When you have a playground, you’re really hitting everything you want to do with children: you’re engaging their imagination, having them work well with others, and they’re running around and exercising. There’s really nothing else that does that,” he says.

In December last year, Billy launched Epic Playgrounds, a Los Angeles-based nonprofit that will aim to get kids ages eight through twelve excited about being outside again before they start doing all those things you see on after school specials.

Inspired by Walt Disney, Billy’s nonprofit wants to construct signature playgrounds that encourage imaginative, open-ended play. And they wouldn’t be just for kids.

“They key is to create something really cool to look at that adults would want to play on as much as children,” he says. “And at the end of the day, a community can be proud of it and say, ‘This is one of the great things we have here. And it’s like no other playground in the world.’ ”

The playgrounds can also act as alternative classrooms by telling stories about the town’s heroes, like Boulder’s Scott Carpenter Park, a tribute to the local astronaut.

In short: bigger, better, and more fun.


Billy Jensen

To realize his dream of building the most inventive theme playgrounds you’ve ever seen all across America, Billy needs three things: artists to design, engineers to build, and most importantly, municipalities and other donors to pay. The project is entirely self-funded so far.

While he’s just starting out, what Billy does have are lots of excited responses from parents, along with a few designs, which he plans to get more of and curate in an art show. Afterward he’ll present them to local governments and encourage communities everywhere to clamor for an epic playground of their own.

“What we have right now are a lot of little hunks of plastic burning in the sun that nobody really wants to go on,” he says. “This really is a matter of: if you build something really cool, they will come. And play on it.”

If you’re an artist, builder, community developer, or philanthropist and Epic Playgrounds has captured your imagination, Billy would love to talk with you. Get in touch by emailing bill@billyjensen.com.

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Comments (12)

  1. Bethany Turner writes:
    September 4, 2013 at 1:56 pm

    Love this idea. Makes me want to be a kid again.

  2. Trish Davis writes:
    September 4, 2013 at 8:20 pm

    Love this idea and any other that encourages fresh air playing! Seems like there could be some partnership opportunities with an organization like KaBoom!

  3. Jen Coughlin writes:
    September 5, 2013 at 12:38 am

    This falls right in line with my own thinking lately. That we have somehow decided that pulling all our kids indoors will keep them safe. When did we stop using common sense as a way of protecting our children while at the same time letting them get on with the business of being kids? Exploring, taking slight physical risks, using their imagination and staying physically fit has got to be part of the equation. This is great! I can’t wait to see what this idea will produce!

  4. Jimmy writes:
    September 5, 2013 at 9:01 am

    Good idea. I wish I can do it to my orphanage school in Uganda. We have 235 children and we managed to by land for play ground to these kids to play. But we are limited with funds to put it to use.
    Is there any one over there who is interested in giving a hand. The school is deep in the rural area where playgrounds are very few and there are many many talents who would benefit from this project.
    I pray that Billy makes.

  5. Angie @ The Risky Kids writes:
    September 5, 2013 at 9:51 am

    I want to be best friends with Billy Jensen! (And help make this happen, too)

  6. Chris Swanson writes:
    September 6, 2013 at 12:38 am

    What a great project with such a relevant and worthy mission!!

  7. David Verbeck writes:
    October 21, 2013 at 7:58 am

    Adult enthusiasm over playgrounds seems more pronounced than the actual benefits achieved when encapsulating play into a designated space. How convenient it would be to salvage play by simply designing better playgrounds. I agree, most of these spaces lack imagination, but placing the imagination back into the playground fails to appreciate how our communities fail to allow entry to children anywhere else but the playground. Instead of building better playgrounds perhaps we should consider how to reschedule and organize or lives and communities to better accommodate children rather than excluding them.

  8. Toni writes:
    October 22, 2013 at 9:34 am

    I personally love this idea. I’m only 26 and yet I remember the playgrounds I was blessed to play on as a kid in school. Unfortunately those playgrounds were torn down over the years, and replaced with the generic playgrounds as we know them.

    I’m not sure how building more innovative playgrounds would exclude children? I suppose David Verbeck is referring to children with disabilities, and how the new playgrounds may not be universal? I think it’s important to note that Billy Jensen did not say he was going to knock down the old playgrounds and build his. With Billy’s creations there will truly be something for everyone. You’ll have the option to go to the generic playground, or to a fun one-of-a-kind playground.

    I love the idea of the playgrounds being multi-purposeful and acting as alternative classrooms. As an experienced gymnastics coach, I know the importance of structured and imaginative play. I think this is a great idea, and I can’t understand anyone seeing it otherwise.

  9. Lunch Links: Two for Tuesday « The Progressive Pulse writes:
    October 22, 2013 at 12:00 pm

    […] But over the years, we’ve allowed them — like tests — to become safe and standardized, Jensen says. As he tells writer Celeste Hamilton Dennis in this IdealistBlog piece: […]

  10. Mariana writes:
    March 14, 2014 at 8:55 am

    I comment when I appreciate a post on a website or I
    have something to add to the discussion. Usually it is
    a result of the passion communicated in the post I looked at.
    And on this post Idealists in Action

  11. Jamila "bunny" writes:
    March 15, 2014 at 4:51 pm

    I think this is a wonderful idea! I for one remember the playgrounds of yore and felt extremely disappointed in the playgrounds of today. The sterilized safe “one size fits all” motif!

    AS a outdoor educator, farmer, parent i find that Mother nature is the perfect classroom, and it offers a fresh perspective on learning. WE all need green spaces that challenge us both physically and mentally! I find that ideas such as this really has only the limits that we impose on them, so of course i believe the design will friendly and open to all!
    A truly unique idea is to have something we adults/ parents can play on too! How much more fun can I have with my kid when I can get on and play as well! As an artist and a community organizer i definitely want to support this idea as much as possible!

  12. Zeljko Dubroja writes:
    March 19, 2014 at 10:04 am

    It is very good idea !

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