Here as elsewhere in the United States, parents taking their children out to a fast-food restaurant are apt to be steered toward one that has a Playport. A Playport is a compact, modularized arrangement of children's play equipment. When you first catch sight of one, it looks as if a child had gotten hold of a giant, colorful erector set and gone wild. Or as my wife said, ``It looks just like part of a space station.''
``The thrust for the Playport idea sprang from the realization that there have been no major improvements in children's play equipment for over 50 years,'' says Jack Pentes, the industrial designer-turned-entrepreneur who invented Playports.
``What most people consider play equipment is the traditional galvanized steel A-frame swings, the polished metal slides, the wooden plank teeter-totter, and so on. But I believe that this type of equipment is almost insulting to children when you consider the tremendous play potential inherent in every child.''
Mr. Pentes believes children become easily bored with the traditional type of play gear and as a result move into what he calls the ``reversal syndrome.'' This takes place, for example, when kids get tired of a slide and invent other ways of using it - like climbing up instead of sliding down.
Pentes has developed what he calls ``soft, high-tech play'' - equipment you can play in rather than on. He uses soft, flexible materials like foams, plastics, and vinyls, combining them into modular environments which encourage a child's inventiveness. So far 375 playports have been built in the US, and over 30 in other parts of the world.
People have sometimes questioned the Playport's safety, but the the ``soft tech'' nature of the gear is inherently safer than conventional playground equipment, Pentes argues. He says the record is good: After more than 10 million trips through Playports, there have only been 6 cases in as many years severe enough to require first aid. None have needed hospitalization.
``Because we can control the play environment, '' says Pentes, ``we feel we have really minimized any potential hazards. We realize we can't control kids' actions because they'll throw themselves around every which way. But by choosing our materials carefully and then applying their use in designed situations, which take into account what they might do, we believe can can provide a safe yet fun environment.''
The idea for Playport started to germinate in 1979. At that time, Pentes's firm was retained by Anheuser-Busch's Entertainment division, which had a joint-venture agreement with Children's Television Workshop to build the world's first play-for-pay facility in Langhorne, Pa. Called ``Sesame Place,'' it was to be based on TV's ``Sesame Street'' characters. Ironically, Pentes was not retained to design the play equipment but to create specific marketing materials. As a result, he was on hand to see the project develop.
While he believed the completed project was successful, he felt it was too expensive.
``They spent $14 million on just two and one-half acres of play,'' he says. ``This made me realize that while the children were very excited about what they found at `Sesame Place,' you had to bring the costs down to manageable dollar amounts if that kind of play environment were to proliferate. It was just too expensive to go across the country.''
As an industrial designer, Pentes was intrigued with the possibility of applying mass production methods to play equipment, in an effort to bring down the price. In the process, he concluded that children hadn't really been observed at play in depth and, as a result, there were design potentials that had simply not been exploited.
The fruit of his observations and research is a unique concept based on 6-foot-square modules. These standard parts can be combined to form an almost unlimited variety of play situations.
The king of Pentes's play environments is the ``Free Play One'' - an 18-by-24-foot, two-level configuration most favored by fast-food operations. With a capacity of ``playing'' 75 children at a time, it consists of the following elements:
Cargo Climb - soft, nylon cargo-type nets which elevate kids to the second level.
Junction Box - a tree-house-like structure with molded acrylic ports that function as connectors to other Playport areas.
Web Crawl - nylon webbing which forms an open, suspended connection between two Junction Boxes.
Super Slide - a tubelike slide, half plastic-coated metal and half clear acrylic, which emanates from a Junction Box.
Ball Bath - a pit covered kid-deep in three-inch diameter hollow plastic balls.
Walk-On-Water - a heavy-duty water bed.
Tube Bounce - heavy-duty truck-sized inner tubes.
Boppity Bags - molded vinyl hollow bags stacked on a 5-foot-long string.
Because of their compact design, Playports can entertain the same number of children in less than 5 percent of the space needed for conventional gear.
This compactness has helped lure Asian customers, who often must maximize use of space. Playports are currently installed on the rooftops of some department stores in Bangkok where moms ``park'' the kids while they shop.
The Playport concept is fast catching on for for both commercial (play-for-pay) and marketing (attendance-builders at fast-food operations, department stores, etc.) applications. But Pentes doesn't see it replacing the standard municipal equipment. He feel the galvanized steel swings and slides will always be in favor because vandalism, pinched budgets, and other factors wouldn't preclude his units.
``We eventually hope to design equipment that is exciting, that can withstand the kinds of abuse equipment in municipal locations still gets, and yet still offers play value,'' says Pentes. ``Play value,'' he explains, relates to how exciting something is to children, whether it it challenges them and holds their attention.
``Play is the child's work,'' says Pentes. ``Children play an incredible amount of their child-lives. Play is the laboratory in which kids develop motor skills, encounter creative situations, test their limitations, build confidence, and learn how to interact socially with others.
``I honestly believe that we've just scratched the surface [of play] ... that there are tremendous possibilities in play that have yet to be investigated and have yet to become evident.''
Though he doesn't profess to be an expert in child development, Pentes has observed children at play - both in his Playports and in other situations.
In fact, he's thinking of putting together a a film or book to be called ``Play Places.'' It would explore places children play, places that are not on the municipal playground or at the local Burger King. ``They're in backyards, in woods, in alleys, under bridges, in culverts, in junkyards, backs of factories, 1,001 places where you can find evidence that children have played there,'' says Pentes.
Pentes has seen enough to conclude that the kinds of play children invent for themselves is transferable into designed play. His Junction Box, for example, may actually be the high-tech equal of a treehouse.
Because the Playport is a relatively new idea, it hasn't yet stood the test of time. However, Dr. Mark Sokol - who recently was looking at Playports for day-care centers he owns and operates in central Massachusetts - is enthusiastic about the equipment.
``When you see it, you lose your objectivity,'' he says. ``The Playport triggers such an emotional response that when you see one you just want to climb in and try it out yourself.''
Sokol is betting on an equal response from his young charges. During long New England winters he's often faced with the problem of channeling children's energy when they're forced to stay inside. Since kids have such a natural bent for climbing, the Playports may provide an answer, he says.
But the best judges of Pentes's design prowess are the young users themselves.
If the children at one local Burger King are any indication, he would seem to rate an ``A.'' One small, blond youngster made an eloquent, if nonverbal, statement of approval. He stood tottering on the edge of the entrance to the Ball Bath and then executed a swan dive right into the middle, sank down out of sight, then reappeared on his back, arms up, smiling.