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16 of the Coolest Playgrounds in the World

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Snohetta

The modern playground is, to be honest, sort of boring. The bright-colored, safety-engineered plastic of cookie-cutter prefabricated jungle gyms can’t make up for the thrilling fun of admittedly rickety seesaws, slick metal slides that burned on sunny days, and super-fast merry-go-rounds. 

And that’s terrible for kids. Scientists have found that playing is integral to developing a healthy brain and body. One 2011 study from a pair of Norwegian psychologists concluded that taking risks (and overcoming them) during play is an important part of child development, and that preventing children from encountering risks may lead them to develop anxiety. Thus, playgrounds where children can climb high, spin fast, and potentially hurt themselves aren’t just more fun—they’re better for childhood development. 

A diverse range of playground activities is also important to keep kids active, which improves motor skills [PDF] and combats childhood obesity. In a study of schoolchildren in Denmark, concrete play areas encouraged much less movement than other playground types. Children playing on paved surfaces that weren’t marked for any specific games, like basketball, tended to stay sedentary, while kids moved more on grass and play equipment. 

Luckily, while most playgrounds have traded fun for lawsuit protection, there are still a few places in the world where unfettered childhood joy is possible. Here are some of the coolest playgrounds from around the globe. 

1. Neptune Park

A 30-foot-tall climbing pyramid (taller than most two-story homes) in Saratoga Springs, Utah opened in 2012.The pyramid’s structure is metal, and rope netting inside prevents kids from falling more than 6 feet. It designers tout it as the largest play pyramid in the western hemisphere. 

2. Swarovski Crystal Worlds

Image Credit: Snohetta

Kids may not care about the history of the Austrian crystal company Swarovski, but the company museum offers a playground that makes any tour worthwhile. The four-story play tower features a trampoline, rope swings, a 45-foot-tall climbing net, and slides. 

3. Lake Macquarie Variety Playground

This Australian playground is designed for children of all abilities, including visually impaired and wheelchair-bound kids. It’s got a 40-foot climbing tower, a 30-foot spiral slide, a zipline, wheelchair-accessible swings and a play boat, musical play equipment, and more. 

4. Imagination Playground 

At this playground in New York City, designed by acclaimed architect David Rockwell, kids make their own fun. This minimalist park is designed to get kids playing with little more than sand, water, and a set of blocks. Kids can stack, connect, and maneuver the abstractly shaped blue blocks into new playthings.

5. Nagasaki School

Image Credit: Studio Bauhaus, Ryuji Inoue via Curbed

In Nagasaki, Japan, a multi-story urban school provides a new way to have recess. A playground on the roof deck of a school designed by architects Hibinosekkei has a climbing net that leads up from a playroom downstairs. Inside, there’s even a fireman’s pole to slide down! 

6. Harry Thomas Sr. Playground

This Washington, D.C. playground is math-themed, taking its design inspiration from the Fibonacci sequence, a numeric pattern in which the next number is always the sum of the last two. The curves of the paths and play equipment are shaped in Fibonacci spirals. 

7. Woodland Discovery Playground

In a quest to create the playground of the future, the Shelby Farms Park Conservancy in Memphis built a park within the woods where kids have to “look for opportunities to slide, climb, run, scramble, swing, build, find and discover,” according to the designers at James Corner Field Operations (also the architects responsible for Manhattan’s High Line). The designers worked with the input of local kids to determine how they wanted to play. The result is a playground separated into different “play nests” with slides, treehouses, climbing nets, sand, and more, all connected by a winding walkway covered in ivy.

8. The Land

The Land (Teaser) from Play Free Movie on Vimeo.

Inspired by the junk playgrounds proposed by Danish architect Carl Theodor Sorensen in the 1930s, this Welsh playground is filled with trash. Largely unimpeded by adult supervision, kids play with hammers, climb trees, build dens, and light fires. The idea is that “adventure playgrounds” allow kids to learn how to take risks and cooperate with each other in ways that playing on a low-slung slide with a watchful adult hovering nearby does not. The trailer above comes from a documentary film about the playground that premiered this past April. 

9. New York Hall of Science 

The New York Hall of Science’s Science Playground in Corona, New York is the largest of its kind in the country. The 60,000-square-foot outdoor play space is designed to let kids explore motion, balance, and simple machines. Kids can play with waterworks, clamber up a giant spider web, ride a giant seesaw—and of course learn the physics behind it all. 

10. Wallholla

Image Credit: Goric

Designed to accommodate a large number of kids in a small space at a school in Purmerend, the Netherlands, Wallholla is the playground equivalent of a skyscraper. The structure packs a lot of activity in a space only a few feet wide. Ribbon-like platforms run throughout a wire mesh cage that 30 kids can climb in, out, and around at the same time. The structure is now being sold in the U.S., too. 

11. Takino Suzuran National Park Playground

Image Credit: Masai Koizumi via Net Play Works


Japanese artist Toshiko Horiuchi MacAdam began turning her crocheted artwork into sculptural playgrounds in the mid-1990s. This one, at Takino Suzuran National Park in Hokkaido, Japan, opened in 2000. The rainbow net took three years to crochet.

12. Children's Railway Station 

Image Credit: Monstrum

Danish playground designers Monstrum created this indoor playground at the Danish Railway Museum, inspired by the local railway station in the town of Odense in the 1960s. The locomotive-themed playground has a ticket office, a control tower, a train with passenger carriages and an explorable engine compartment, and more. 

13. Anthill Playground

Image Credit: Monstrum

Monstrum is also responsible for this awesome forest playground at Klehund Dryrehave, a former hunting plantation in Denmark. There’s an 8-foot-tall slide shaped like a giant ant, an anthill to climb, a “lumberjack hut” to picnic in, and a 65-foot-tall watchtower to hang out in. 

14. Bounce Below

Image Credit: Bounce Below

At Zip World in northern Wales, a Victorian slate mine has been converted into an underground playground with giant trampolines and bouncy nets connected by walkways and slides. The cavernous subterranean play space has different levels, with the highest chamber 180 feet from the floor. This past year, they introduced a kids’ experience that’s designed for young ‘uns 3 to 6 years old. 

15. City Museum

Image Credit: Chris857 via Wikimedia Commons // CC BY-SA 3.0

St. Louis’ City Museum is essentially one big giant playground. Inside, it has a giant treehouse and a 10-story spiral slide that you can use to whoosh into the building’s basement. Outside, there’s a 30-foot-tall Ferris wheel on the roof, multiple airplanes you can crawl into, a rope swing, and more. 

16. The Green Heart at Shaw Park

Image Credit: TGO via Gizmag

Playgrounds don’t have to be just for kids. The Green Heart, an outdoor gym in Kingston upon Hull, England, is an adult playground. It has stationary bikes, step boxes, cross trainers, and more. The grown-up jungle gym is human-powered—it glows at night using energy generated by using the gym equipment. 

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technology
Man Buys Two Metric Tons of LEGO Bricks; Sorts Them Via Machine Learning
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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva

Jacques Mattheij made a small, but awesome, mistake. He went on eBay one evening and bid on a bunch of bulk LEGO brick auctions, then went to sleep. Upon waking, he discovered that he was the high bidder on many, and was now the proud owner of two tons of LEGO bricks. (This is about 4400 pounds.) He wrote, "[L]esson 1: if you win almost all bids you are bidding too high."

Mattheij had noticed that bulk, unsorted bricks sell for something like €10/kilogram, whereas sets are roughly €40/kg and rare parts go for up to €100/kg. Much of the value of the bricks is in their sorting. If he could reduce the entropy of these bins of unsorted bricks, he could make a tidy profit. While many people do this work by hand, the problem is enormous—just the kind of challenge for a computer. Mattheij writes:

There are 38000+ shapes and there are 100+ possible shades of color (you can roughly tell how old someone is by asking them what lego colors they remember from their youth).

In the following months, Mattheij built a proof-of-concept sorting system using, of course, LEGO. He broke the problem down into a series of sub-problems (including "feeding LEGO reliably from a hopper is surprisingly hard," one of those facts of nature that will stymie even the best system design). After tinkering with the prototype at length, he expanded the system to a surprisingly complex system of conveyer belts (powered by a home treadmill), various pieces of cabinetry, and "copious quantities of crazy glue."

Here's a video showing the current system running at low speed:

The key part of the system was running the bricks past a camera paired with a computer running a neural net-based image classifier. That allows the computer (when sufficiently trained on brick images) to recognize bricks and thus categorize them by color, shape, or other parameters. Remember that as bricks pass by, they can be in any orientation, can be dirty, can even be stuck to other pieces. So having a flexible software system is key to recognizing—in a fraction of a second—what a given brick is, in order to sort it out. When a match is found, a jet of compressed air pops the piece off the conveyer belt and into a waiting bin.

After much experimentation, Mattheij rewrote the software (several times in fact) to accomplish a variety of basic tasks. At its core, the system takes images from a webcam and feeds them to a neural network to do the classification. Of course, the neural net needs to be "trained" by showing it lots of images, and telling it what those images represent. Mattheij's breakthrough was allowing the machine to effectively train itself, with guidance: Running pieces through allows the system to take its own photos, make a guess, and build on that guess. As long as Mattheij corrects the incorrect guesses, he ends up with a decent (and self-reinforcing) corpus of training data. As the machine continues running, it can rack up more training, allowing it to recognize a broad variety of pieces on the fly.

Here's another video, focusing on how the pieces move on conveyer belts (running at slow speed so puny humans can follow). You can also see the air jets in action:

In an email interview, Mattheij told Mental Floss that the system currently sorts LEGO bricks into more than 50 categories. It can also be run in a color-sorting mode to bin the parts across 12 color groups. (Thus at present you'd likely do a two-pass sort on the bricks: once for shape, then a separate pass for color.) He continues to refine the system, with a focus on making its recognition abilities faster. At some point down the line, he plans to make the software portion open source. You're on your own as far as building conveyer belts, bins, and so forth.

Check out Mattheij's writeup in two parts for more information. It starts with an overview of the story, followed up with a deep dive on the software. He's also tweeting about the project (among other things). And if you look around a bit, you'll find bulk LEGO brick auctions online—it's definitely a thing!

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Health
200 Health Experts Call for Ban on Two Antibacterial Chemicals
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In September 2016, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) issued a ban on antibacterial soap and body wash. But a large collective of scientists and medical professionals says the agency should have done more to stop the spread of harmful chemicals into our bodies and environment, most notably the antimicrobials triclosan and triclocarban. They published their recommendations in the journal Environmental Health Perspectives.

The 2016 report from the FDA concluded that 19 of the most commonly used antimicrobial ingredients are no more effective than ordinary soap and water, and forbade their use in soap and body wash.

"Customers may think added antimicrobials are a way to reduce infections, but in most products there is no evidence that they do," Ted Schettler, science director of the Science and Environmental Health Network, said in a statement.

Studies have shown that these chemicals may actually do more harm than good. They don't keep us from getting sick, but they can contribute to the development of antibiotic-resistant bacteria, also known as superbugs. Triclosan and triclocarban can also damage our hormones and immune systems.

And while they may no longer be appearing on our bathroom sinks or shower shelves, they're still all around us. They've leached into the environment from years of use. They're also still being added to a staggering array of consumer products, as companies create "antibacterial" clothing, toys, yoga mats, paint, food storage containers, electronics, doorknobs, and countertops.

The authors of the new consensus statement say it's time for that to stop.

"We must develop better alternatives and prevent unneeded exposures to antimicrobial chemicals," Rolf Haden of the University of Arizona said in the statement. Haden researches where mass-produced chemicals wind up in the environment.

The statement notes that many manufacturers have simply replaced the banned chemicals with others. "I was happy that the FDA finally acted to remove these chemicals from soaps," said Arlene Blum, executive director of the Green Science Policy Institute. "But I was dismayed to discover at my local drugstore that most products now contain substitutes that may be worse."

Blum, Haden, Schettler, and their colleagues "urge scientists, governments, chemical and product manufacturers, purchasing organizations, retailers, and consumers" to avoid antimicrobial chemicals outside of medical settings. "Where antimicrobials are necessary," they write, we should "use safer alternatives that are not persistent and pose no risk to humans or ecosystems."

They recommend that manufacturers label any products containing antimicrobial chemicals so that consumers can avoid them, and they call for further research into the impacts of these compounds on us and our planet.

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