Discover Playfulness: Bridging Generational Play Gaps

In her book Designing for Play, Barbara Hendricks states, Playfulness teaches us as adults to step back and recognize that while we played when we were children, we lack the experience of contemporary childhood (Hendricks 2011).. This divergence offers a profound lesson for adults, highlighting the evolution of play and its impact on both generations. Our memories, filled with unstructured outdoor adventures and imaginative games, starkly differ from the technology-driven entertainment that captivates the younger generation. This shift from action-oriented play to object-focused activities reveals more than just changing playthings; it signals a transformation in how play is perceived and integrated into daily life.

The Evolution of Play and Playfulness

Historically, play was synonymous with physical activity and the outdoors. It was common for children to be seen creating their own games, climbing trees, or exploring unknown paths—all unsupervised. These activities not only fostered creativity but also taught important lessons in risk-taking and independence while promoting playfulness. Fast forward to the present day, where technology sits at the core of childhood entertainment. Screens have become the main source of play, with many children preferring video games and television over the unpredictable adventures of the outdoors.

One significant change in the realm of play is the focus shift from the act itself to the objects involved in it. Modern children are often surrounded by toys and gadgets designed to entertain, leading to a more passive engagement with play. This object-centered approach can limit opportunities for creativity and spontaneous discovery, which were once inherent to the playful experiences of previous generations. I venture to say that the current interpretation of the meaning of Loose Parts correlates to the focus on the object rather than the action and interaction children have with the objects. Thus diluting the value of the Loose Parts Edcuational Philosophy.

What is Playfulness

Playfulness is a quality that can bring so much joy and excitement to our lives. Being playful means embracing the present moment and allowing ourselves to let go of any inhibitions or constraints that may be holding us back. Playfulness encourages creativity and imagination, nudging us to think outside of the box and become part of something larger than ourselves. As adults, it is our responsibility to cultivate a culture of playfulness in our communities, taking the time to appreciate and participate in moments of joy and fun. Let’s tap into our playful spirit and make the world a more vibrant and exciting place to be.

Understanding the Shift in Play That Leads to Playfulness

The transformation in how children play over generations—from outdoor, unsupervised adventures to more structured, technology-focused activities—has not only changed the landscape of childhood but has also created a disconnect between the play experiences of adults and children. This gap in understanding can inadvertently affect how educators relate to the play experiences of their students.

Historically, play was largely unrestricted, encouraging creativity, risk-taking, and social interaction in physically active settings. Today, children’s play often revolves around digital devices, structured classes, and closely monitored play spaces designed with safety in mind. This shift towards object-focused play, with a heavy emphasis on toys and technology, has fundamentally altered the way children interact with the world and each other.

Educators having grown up in a different era of play, might find it challenging to fully grasp the nuances and implications of these modern play patterns. Recognizing this, educators can benefit from exploring the concept of adult play and considering its application both in their personal lives and professional practices.

The Changing Landscape of Playful Playgrounds

Another aspect where this generational shift is evident is in the design of playgrounds. Those of us who grew up scaling towering structures and testing our limits on high swings now witness a new era of play spaces characterized by heightened safety measures. Today’s playgrounds, with their carefully engineered equipment and cushioned surfaces, reflect a societal push towards minimizing risks. Playgrounds have been sanitized to the point that they are depriving children from understanding their physical capacity. 

While these changes are well-intentioned, aiming to protect children from harm, they also reduce opportunities for children to learn risk assessment and build resilience through play. The sanitized playgrounds of today are a far cry from the less restrictive environments of the past, where the freedom to explore and the potential for minor scrapes and bruises taught valuable lessons. Adults have lost their memories of risky play and have further moved from the playgrounds of their childhood. 

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Cleaning and Disinfection the playground with spray chemicals to preventing the spread of epidemic.

Understanding Contemporary Childhood Play and Its Impact on Playfulness

I will never forget when a college student argued that play had to be guided by adults. He could not understand how children could play without adult guidance. After a long conversation, he shared that he had never played as a child. He was always invovled in organized sports and had to time to play. I started to question if we had created the first generation of young adults that have never played.

Our challenge as adults—which is crucial for educators and families alike—is to bridge the gap between these generational play experiences. Recognizing the vast differences in contemporary childhood play is the first step towards appreciating the unique challenges and opportunities it presents. Failure to acknowledge this disparity can lead to misunderstandings and missed chances to connect with and enrich the lives of the younger generation.

To support the development of well-rounded individuals, there’s a need for adults to adopt a more inclusive view of play. This perspective involves valuing various forms of play, from the traditional to the technologically driven, and understanding the benefits and limitations of each.

Fostering a Balanced Approach to Play

Encouraging a balanced blend of physical, imaginative, and technological play can offer children the best of both worlds. Incorporating elements from our own childhood experiences—such as unscheduled outdoor playtime, creative games without predefined rules, and opportunities for unstructured exploration—can enrich contemporary play experiences. Simultaneously, acknowledging the role of technology and guided play activities in developing certain skills ensures that children remain equipped to thrive in today’s digital age.

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Seesaw swing in preschool yard with soft rubber flooring at night.


The evolution of play and playfulness from one generation to the next provides critical insights into societal changes and childhood development. By understanding these shifts and adopting a more flexible approach to play, adults can better support the growth and learning of today’s children. It’s through this understanding and adaptation that we can bridge the generational play gap, fostering environments where children can explore, learn, and develop in rich and varied ways. The playfulness of our past, combined with the innovative potentials of the present, can inspire a future where play continues to serve as a foundational pillar for learning, playfulness, creativity, and growth.

Your Turn

What Do You Thin?
Miriam’s Bitmoji in pensive pose

What do you think has created the generational gap in play?

What can we collectively do as a society to rekindle the power of play?