Giant swing sets and your three hidden senses with Meghan Talarowski of Studio Ludo

I recently had the pleasure of speaking with Meghan Talarowski, a renowned play researcher and playscape architect and the head of Philly-based Studio Ludo, about the importance of play for people of all ages. Meghan designs imaginative playgrounds and studies play behavior, advocating for more public play spaces that bring communities together.

In our conversation, she shared fascinating research on how activities like swinging stimulate parts of our brain beyond the five senses, keeping us socially engaged and better able to adapt to change. Meghan spoke passionately about her work designing the biggest swing set in North America, opening soon in Philadelphia’s FDR Park, and how shared play can forge bonds between people of all backgrounds.

Ultimately, she makes a compelling case that more play and joyful connection in public spaces could help address some of society’s biggest problems.

PS - she's got a tweet TEDx talk about these topics here.

Watch the full interview on YouTube here or listen via podcast audio here.

Swings and playgrounds

Meghan shares research showing swings are the most popular play equipment for all ages because the calming linear motion is good for our vestibular and proprioceptive systems. Swinging feels good and is scientifically calming for our stress response. Giant swings and treehouses also appeal to teenagers based on research observations.

Meghan's team designed the biggest swing set in North America, with capacity for 30 people to swing at once, opening soon in Philadelphia's FDR Park.

She explains swings help build social relationships, even between kids who don't speak the same language, as just laughing and swinging together is a shared human experience. Ultimately, she sees playgrounds as places for people to come together, find common experience, and see each other as fellow community members rather than "others", helping to solve problems.

The importance of play

Meghan explains that play activates different senses beyond the typical five, including proprioceptive, vestibular, and interoceptive senses. These relate to how we sense our body's position, motion, and internal feelings. Play stimulates these senses, keeping us socially engaged and helping our brains stay flexible.

"Play is what keeps us young, keeps us happy, keeps us healthy."

She shares research showing that animals who play more have higher survival rates during environmental changes since play builds neural connections and adaptability. For humans facing climate change, play can also build "leaders of tomorrow" with elastic brains adept at solving nonlinear problems.

Meghan also emphasizes play's role in fostering social bonds, beginning in infancy as babies seek eye contact and relationship.

Play is this literal, step-by-step way of building relationship with other human beings.

Meghan observes that children quickly learn cooperation and negotiation through inventing rules during play. Laughing together through play activates joy and endorphins, creating "magic of being human with other humans." 

If we can play together, maybe we can talk about the harder stuff too.

Ultimately, physical shared experiences like swinging together establish common ground, combatting the impulse to see others as threats.

Free printable activity sheets

Need some play inspiration? Studio Ludo offers free downloadable activity sheets you can use with kids (or fellow adults?)—get them here. 

Queso Dip

Meghan's husband Andy is really into smoking food. When he added smoked brisket to a queso dip, he decided to smoke the entire queso dip—so was double-smoked action that his local block party absolutely raved over.

Meghan shares a favorite "unhealthy" recipe that exemplifies building community through shared food experiences. Her husband created a smoked queso dip with smoked meat that was a major hit at their neighborhood block party.

Meghan explains how the communal joy of sharing laughs and food like the queso dip helps connect people across differences. The experience of enthusiastically recommending the queso dip to neighbors and bonding over a new food creation represents the kind of social cohesion Meghan aims to foster.

Food brings people together. Sharing recipes brings people together. It helps us develop an identity, individually and collectively.

Could queso dip and swings help solve the world's problems?

Watch the full video interview here:

Or listen to the audio here: