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.

Evergreenslide

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.

BillyJensen2

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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