Photography by Charles Coleman / Tom Norquist

Tom Norquist is serious about play. The senior vice president of Innovation and Business Development for Chattanooga-based PlayCore/GameTime, Norquist has spent decades developing his own understanding of the benefits of play, and advancing practices and knowledge across the industry. As a founding board member of the International Play Equipment Manufacturer's Association in 1995, and a longtime representative of the American Society for Testing and Materials, Norquist has been involved in all aspects of the play industry. He has led the board of the National Institute for Play, and is project co-leader of the first known online database of scientific and academic research about the benefits of play. He has twice received Auburn University's School of Industrial and Graphic Design Distinguished Service Award for teaching design studios, and his home in Fort Payne, Alabama, features an elaborate 3-acre playground where many GameTime prototypes find a permanent home.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

You study the benefits of play — physical, emotional, intellectual. How has this challenging time emphasized the need for those benefits?

We know that stress is very very harmful to the human species, and COVID has added a whole new level of stress to every human on this planet. What happens is when we get stressed — and you may have felt this before, I know I have — we produce cortisol, and when we're producing that, it tends to make us very negative, very inwardly focused, low sense of esteem, and the answer to that is play is absolutely a vaccine to stress. I'm being very serious. There are four chemicals we naturally produce in play. Endorphins, which give you that physical high in your brain during strenuous play; dopamine, which is that accomplishment high, feeling good about yourself; serotonin, the respect high, sort of like accomplishment but at a higher level from mastering a complex challenge; and oxytocin, which is what I call the friendship and love high. Those four chemicals that occur naturally when we're in a playful state shut off the production of cortisol. People need play more than ever. I'm a big believer that if we can find our inner playful self and find some commonality with each other, we're going to be a much healthier society. We have hit bottom in terms of the stress level, this has been very difficult for everyone, and I hope we're able to hit that reset button and put play back into our lives and take a little more time for ourselves and our families and our communities and be more playful — which will lead to us being more productive.

How has the business of play evolved in your career?

When I got into the playground industry 37 years ago in Portland, Oregon, I was just doing a job; I wasn't hooked on play. Then I learned that if a child could balance on a balance beam, it was directly related to their ability to read. That opened this door to the developmental benefits of play in children, and I started learning more about it. When I moved from Oregon to Alabama in '93, I met Dr. Joe Frost, the father of play and child development in North America at the University of Texas. That was the beginning of a change in my whole belief system when it comes to play. Over a decade we did very in-depth research that led to a lot of the changes in the North American play environment, not just from a safety standpoint, but a use perspective. Through that, I met Stuart Brown, who is known as the father of the science play, and is my leading mentor. He has studied the brain and has proved through experimentation that we are all wired for play, just as we're wired for sleep and eating and movement — we're motivated to play. There's an unbelievable library of material on the benefits of play, the healing qualities of play. Play can be therapeutic, especially in times of crisis like right now in the pandemic. I study children at play and have for years. I was blessed to be with one of my 5-year-old granddaughters recently, and in every aspect of her life she's doing something fun. Just walking on a sidewalk, she'll interact with her surroundings in a playful way. As humans, that's our natural state, but we become so narrowly focused on tasks at hand.

How has the pandemic affected your industry?

We have seen as an industry, a tremendous slowdown in demand for new products, but at the same time we have created guidance for our customers and ways to share our stories and our wins. PlayCore has put together with GameTime a program called Good News TV specifically to target parks and recreation directors and employees that log on and listen and learn about what others are doing — how they're opening their facilities. There's tremendous demand in our parks right now. People are staying home, staying in their communities, and they're getting outside because it's considered a safe practice. I was talking to a colleague in Denver, and their outdoor fitness equipment has been used so much recently, there's more and more desire and demand to do things outdoors because of the lower risk for spread. We feel that though there's been a slowdown, it's only a temporary slowdown for our industry, and we forecast a real pickup because right now people understand the true value of their parks.

How will things be different once this crisis passes?

I'm listening to a lot 'I can't wait until this is over,' but the reality of what we've been experiencing is that this will influence the way we go forward for the rest of our lives. It's been a terrible time, but there have also been benefits to spending more time in our communities and with family and colleagues. Another benefit is the level of cleanliness — it's unbelievable how clean everything is. We've been traveling less, the air is cleaner. But the negatives from an economic standpoint have been very difficult. I hope we see an influence on all aspects of our industry that play is something more embedded in everything we do, including schools. Play is learning. Children that play have better propensity to learn and higher test scores. Recess is a very important and necessary part of our school life, and the lessons children learn in play and recess apply in the classroom, as well. Experiential learning sticks with you much better — why aren't we teaching physics on the playground? As we've seen the playgrounds open and talked to folks — and over half of the parents in America are now letting their children go back out onto public playgrounds — they're all happy to be there, there's joy and glee. And when you talk about this whole equity piece, we've always said play is the great equalizer. When we learn to play together, no matter race, language, ability, age, we have this appreciation for each other as humans and friends and colleagues. We learn those things and it teaches us empathy and compassion and it helps us care about each other.

Tell me about your place in Fort Payne. You call it 'The Boneyard?'

At my residence in Fort Payne, we have 5 acres with a 3-acre natural interactive play environment. There's a dry creek bed where we brought about 40,000 pounds of stone and set in a natural branch. The stones are all big enough where a child could turn them over but never throw them, so the kids could look for critters. We started adding some play equipment, primarily prototypes and first articles. The most famous thing in the boneyard is the zip line. We worked on it for years with several of my Auburn (University) students and industrial design graduates. We perfected it after five versions and shared it with GameTime, and they've added it to their product line. We also bought some antique GameTime playground equipment from the '50s and '60s, spring and rocking toys, and added some more first articles. We put in a cantilever swing design using cable tension technique, we put in a tree fort with a super fast slide on it. There are fitness and play stations, a play trail. We put in an in-ground bouncing device with some partners from Germany. We can't use that in public parks here because we'd need to get new regulations to allow it. We have the Expression swing — I have the first one of that hanging off my cantilevered swing — and the first Tri Runner, a three-seat rotating device that's super fun.

Sounds awesome. Who gets to come play?

I have five grandchildren and lots of neighborhood kids, and I have lots of friends. I think more adults have ridden my zip line than children. We had T-shirts made: 'I survived the zip line.'

Do you work from home?

I have a studio at PlayCore on Chestnut Street in downtown Chattanooga, and an office in Fort Payne. When the pandemic started, I worked from home for three or four months, and then we got back to work with masks and temperature checks. I'm back in the office as much as I can be. I'm definitely people person.