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To Eric McMillan Even His Toughest Work Is Child's Play

updated 10/22/1979 at 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 10/22/1979 01:00AM

Most playgrounds are deadly dull, or as designer Eric McMillan puts it, "architectural graveyards—gray asphalt slabs. They've been built by adults who've forgotten how to play." To show that he hasn't forgotten at 37, the 6'2" McMillan plunges headlong into one of his playground creations—an immense floating membrane crammed with 80,000 red and yellow plastic balls. He freestyles through the oddball sea and then flips over on his back, covered to his neck by the small globes. "I design my equipment for the child in me," he says. "It's always something I would like to play on—or in."

Since laying out his first playground seven years ago, McMillan has built six major recreation areas in the U.S. and Canada (where he now resides). The costs have ranged from $150,000 to $1 million; now his newest design, Sesame Park in Middletown, Pa. is tabbed at $7 million. A joint venture with Busch Gardens and the Children's Television Workshop, it is due to open early next summer.

Though they may be related to the simple swing, slide and monkey bar, McMillan's contraptions are as distant from their schoolyard precursors as Moonraker is from a paper airplane. At Marine World in Redwood City, Calif., McMillan installed several cable-hung ladybugs, which children grab onto and glide 60 feet across a lagoon. There's also a sliding board wide enough to hold a dozen tumbling kids and an enormous net that looks like the web of a sci-fi spider. The idea is to inspire activity. "A child needs play areas he can affect directly with his senses and curiosity," says the British-born designer. "To a child, play and learning are the same process."

The son of a Manchester laborer and a cleaning woman, McMillan had few playthings as a child in World War II Britain. Instead, Eric, his brother and sister used their imaginations while roaming about the glass and rubble of the bombed-out city. The family moved frequently, with Eric attending nine schools in nine years. He was nearsighted and began focusing his attention on private doodles rather than the blackboard. At 15, hardly able to read and write, he dropped out. He might have become a life-long laborer if a youth counselor hadn't taken note of his inventive drawings and encouraged him to enroll in an art school. Eric won a scholarship.

Three years after graduating with honors in industrial design, McMillan was hired as an exhibition designer and brought to Montreal for Expo '67. He moved on to Toronto, where he fashioned an urban recreation center and eventually settled with his German-born fashion-designer wife Rosemarie and their two children.

With his reputation established, McMillan now contemplates radical changes in leisure. While crediting Walt Disney as the formative genius of play in this century, McMillan nonetheless regards the Disney parks as passive enchanted forests of hardware. "We've begun to realize that machines [powering rides] aren't the total answer," he says. "We have to use more of our own personal energy—and that goes for play." McMillan's Sesame Place, for instance, will feature computerized talking typewriters that challenge young minds to fit sentences together. But what he's really waiting for is the chance to build a playground for adults. "If adults played more," McMillan says earnestly, "there would be far less fear and more understanding, because play is an open and honest exchange."

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