I have used both playpens and playgrounds in my practice. Where the focus was content, when possible, I create a playpen. With a small group of advanced middle school students, I set up series of WebLabs using Google sites where students could choose their target mastery level and work through a variety of games, readings and activities. No student ever chose the same combination, but it was a playpen. The truly passionate students did escape, however, we called it “going down the rabbit hole” (from Alice in Wonderland). Something fired their curiosity and they traveled beyond the original assignment.
When the target outcome is more open - a science fair experiment, a contraption, art piece or paper, I take a more playground approach. “Safety First” then let’s see where you go. At the farm where my children learned to ride horses, there is a horse named Cheyenne. Cheyenne is famous for his mischief making escapes. A social creature (horses like a herd), Cheyenne also releases other horses from their stalls to keep him company. My son wondered if Cheyenne was escaping not to escape, but because he liked to tinker. The stall door opening was just a side effect. So he built Cheyenne a “busy box.” It was a panel with chains, a rolling salt lick, items that could safely be manipulated with the horse’s mouth … and a stall latch! According to the trainer, Cheyenne would sneak up to the devices when he thought no one was watching and then play loudly. The busy box wasn’t a permanent solution, but it gave the stable team time to “Cheyenne proof” the stall latch.
We all aspire to provide an open and discovery centered learning environment. But, playgrounds are more resource intensive than playpens, the most valuable resource is time. Teachers may have just a few short weeks to present and test a set of learning objectives. A traditional hands-on Science Lab exercise comes with a materials list, a concept to explore and a procedure - a playpen. You can flip the model using all the same equipment and provide the students with a playground to discover the concepts with a less specific procedure, but the lab will need more time or some students will travel in an unexpected direction and you may need to scramble to integrate their discoveries with the original objective.
As a parent, I have used both playpen and playground environments. The key is to provide variety and give the the kids freedom improvise. It starts young: from building little kid forts with couch cushions and blankets to commandeering every small table in the house and borrowing small chairs and large plants from Grandmother in order to turn our living room into a 1920s French Cafe for a film project. Creative playgrounds can messy and cluttered, taking over the classroom, house or garage.
Some may think this style of discovery learning is a short cut, a day off for the parent or teacher. That is not true. Playground environments need very engaged adults who love playing.