Toy Car Playground Mountain, Montsouris Park, Paris

If you haven’t been keeping up with our Playscapes correspondents lately, take some time out to do so! Eloise, Playscapes correspondent in France, has some particularly great posts lately,  including a play intervention completely new to me:  a fabulous ‘mountain’ for toy cars in Montsouris Park in Paris!  Designer unknown, it is “a small landscape with mountains and bridges, and roads for little cars, marbles, or small kids!”  Far more than a typical car ‘track’, the mountain is big enough for the kids to climb around on as they race their cars.  Brilliant.  More playgrounds should have these.   If you’ve seen another somewhere, let me know.  

Bernhard Luginbühl, Brutalist Play Sculptor

Bernhard Luginbühl play sculpture1Bernhard Luginbühl brutalist play sculpture playhouse1Bernhard Luginbühl brutalist play sculpture playhouse2Bernhard Luginbühl brutalist play sculpture zyklopsBernhard Luginbühl brutalist play sculpture playhouse3

Given the current penchant for hashtagged days of the week, I hereby declare this #PlaySculptureSaturday.  If Swiss sculptor Bernhard Luginbühl were working today he would be tagged as #steampunk, though he began making his iron contraptions long before that particular mash-up. Luginbühl’s works–mostly welded from massive pieces of industrial scrap–are dystopian, menacing, even hazardous.  But two works in particular are of note to play design.  He did a series of Zyklops, abstractions of the mythical monster, with jutting metal ribs which proved irresistible for climbing, including to a group of kids famously photographed clambering over the art when it was on exhibit in 1967.  At the same exhibition there was also a play house, the ‘Big Boss’, with a slide, which Luginbühl himself demonstrated for the cameras.  The Zyklop is still outside the Kunsthalle in Hamburg (unfettered by the addition of safety surfacing) and the Big Boss house, softened by vines, resides at a Botanic Garden in Munchenstein, though the slide has been lowered to half its original height.

Junk playgrounds…but in a very different way than Theodor Sørensen envisioned!

[period imagery via Gaby at architekturfuerkinder, contemporary imagery via wikimedia commons.]

Artistry and Adventure, Aldo and Theodor

AldoAldoTheodorTheodorSynthesis of Aldo and Theodor by Paul Friedberg at the Riis Playground, 1965Adventure and Artistry at the BASE playground in Parc Bellevue, Paris, 2008

One of the really interesting things to me about the contributions of Aldo van Eyck and Theodor Sørensen is that they were quite different responses…but to the same type of site, the vacant and broken spaces of a city.

Aldo’s approach was fundamentally artistic:  refined compositions with strong geometries, sculpted forms, and incredibly thoughtful layouts.  He chose to intervene–strongly–at these sites, and some of the most compelling images of his work are the ‘before’ and ‘after’ shots that show order arising out of chaos.  Too much intervention, some play theorists might argue.  But using that same architectonic model, Aldo was able to transform other neglected parts of the city as well; even carving out space for play out of the city streets of Amsterdam.  And when was the last time you heard of space for cars being eliminated in favor of space for play?

Theodor chose to intervene only lightly in the rubble-strewn lots of Denmark, and I wonder how much this was because he was a student of landscape, while van Eyck was a student of architecture.  Each designer chose, in a way, to follow their own biases and interests as they made space for play, and that is as it should be.  Theodor’s choices emphasized the inherent adventure of ‘junk’, and celebrated the chaos of self-construction–even of DEstruction–as acts of the child’s autonomy.  But Theodor’s ‘junk’ playground (the original name, unappealing to some, was changed to the ‘adventure’ playground) was not as versatile within the city space as Aldo’s ‘cleaner’ artistic constructions.

They each have their advantages, and all of the great playgrounds since stem from these two responses.  (Excepting equipment, whose ancestry is the gymnasium, and natural playgrounds, which in spite of the present scrum of people trying to promote themselves as the originators of nature play, actually arose in the social concerns of the 19teens and 20s, and have been present in play design ever since.)

I’m often asked what gets a playscape featured on this blog.  Ultimately, it must have, for me, something of  artistry and something of adventure.  Most manufactured playgrounds fail at both:  they are too ‘safe’ to be adventurous, and too banal to be artistic.  And so you won’t see them here.   I will forgive a highly artistic work for being only lightly adventurous, and a highly adventurous space for lacking some artistry, though the best playgrounds are a true synthesis of both, and the best playground designers are reaching out for both in their work.  Aldo and Theodor, artistry and adventure.

2014 ‘Heroes of Play’ Blocks: C. Theodor Sørensen, Junk Playgrounds

c theodor sorenson junk playgrounds adventure playground history2c theodor sorenson junk playgrounds adventure playground history1c theodor sorenson junk playgrounds adventure playground history3c theodor sorenson junk playgrounds adventure playground history5aldo and theodor package set1aldo and theodor package set2

“Of all the things I have helped to realize, the junk playground is the ugliest; yet for me it is the best and most beautiful of my works”.  Carl Theodor Sørensen, 1951

Just in time for the holidays, I’m pleased to continue the tradition we started last year with a set of wooden blocks honoring play hero Aldo van Eyck. This year we honor C. Theodor Sørensen, father of the adventure playground, with his own set of blocks, exclusively designed and hand-printed for Playscapes by the ever-creative Jen Bulthuis of Fidoodle.

In honor of Sørensen’s ideals, the blocks are accompanied by some ‘junk’:  a rubber band, a locust twig, some twine, and a muslin flag.  Some blocks  have holes so that they can be manipulated along with the junk…make your own construction to remind you that kids should still, seventy years on from Theodor’s ideas, get to play with junk!

We’ll be talking much more about Sørensen’s legacy over the next few weeks.  But go ahead and order now to be sure of Christmas delivery, since the blocks are handmade in small, loving, batches and quantities are limited.

You can purchase the Theodor blocks, or the Aldo blocks, or both sets in the Playscapes store…save $10 if you order a package of both!

This library slide is in a private home, the Panorama House by South Korean architect Moon Hoon, but it’s a playful idea for interior play idea easily adapted for schools or public libraries.  [via thisiscolossal].

Playable roofs–really just large inclined planes–continue to be a playable-architecture design trend.  This one, covered in red safety surfacing, is by C.F. Moller for a children’s school in Odense, Denmark.  Strangely, the roof looks way more fun than the small playground (just visible deep in the photo)!  I am always baffled when otherwise ambitious architectural projects include uninteresting playgrounds  Did they just not know what to do?

Playful architecture round up this week….the ‘grid’ style playground climber is a classic; I’d love to see it reinterpreted in new natural materials, ala this proposal (for a house) by Sou Fujimoto (also responsible for the strikingly playground-like Serpentine Pavilion last year in London).

[image via solo-houses]

Plaza Brasil Playground, Santiago Chile, Frederica Matta & Ana Maria Rodriguez, 1993


In 1993, artist Frederica Matta designed a series of 22 play elements for  Santiago, Chile’s Plaza Brasil, all based on the idea of Chilean identity.  The city of Santiago offered spare industrial materials, and Frederica created a series of playground forms–benches, swings, climbable  ‘boulders’ and a volcano slide–mostly executed in concrete, and painted in her characteristic colorful and whimsical motifs.  They are still there over twenty years later; when a standard 90s plastic install would be well past its sell-by date.  The idea that standard manufactured playgrounds are ‘the most durable’ is specious, and should be challenged.   Matta’s work was a very innovative installation for 1993–at the height of the poles-and-platforms era–when deviating from the playground norm took courageous designers and supportive patrons.  Those remain, still, the two essentials for innovative playground design.

I never fail to be inspired by a visit to the Noguchi Museum, and by discussions with its committed, creative staff.  The collection is so broad that all of Noguchi’s play work can’t be on display at once  (see a previous post showing the poignant bronze casts of the sculpted playscapes he never got to build), but this time they had his models of the Slide Mantra on display.   It is difficult to do a short post on Noguchi, because his contribution to play is so broad and so complex.  But lots of Noguchi conversations are planned for next year, so stay tuned!  For now, be reminded that Noguchi said that his Slide Mantra sculptures, which he worked on for two decades, would be completed when the slide was polished by the action of many kids sliding down it.

Immaculate Conception School Playscape, Katie Winter, New York City, 1997

katie winter immaculate conception playground playscape bronx new york2katie winter immaculate conception playground playscape bronx new york1katie winter immaculate conception playground playscape bronx new york3Mount Carmel Holy Rosary SchoolyardMary Walton Children's CenterThurgood Marshall Lower Schoolyard

I’m just back from a three-city barnstorming trip to the East Coast; many thanks to all those who participated  in scintillating conversations about play and playscapes.  It’s a great moment for play, with lots of exciting things planned for the new year.  Watch for exhibitions and installations and even digital interactions with and on the playground!

Thanks to Susan Solomon’s book launch (get The Science of Play already!) for introducing me to Katie Winter’s subtle playground designs.

Katie had a “tiny, tiny budget”  to make a playable landscape at Immaculate Conception school in the Bronx.  In 1997, when almost every playground installation was the same standardized equipment (and there weren’t any blogs for inspiration),  Katie looked around and knew that the manufactured solutions were not only too expensive, but boring.  And that their forced age segregation, far from enhancing safety,  tempted younger children off of their own dull equipment and onto that designed for the older kids.   Plus, all the equipment only provided a single, discrete function , limiting the play.  [see a great interview with Katie in House&Garden].

Seeking greater beauty as well as greater versatility, a key part of Katie’s design was using simple elements, as well as the arrangement of the landscape, to create patterns:  a forest of poles (simple fence posts, painted red and blue) whose perspective shifts as you move around it, a pavilion of chain link raised off the ground and painted red,  twin grassy mounds for tumbling and rolling, and a steppable scattering of round pavers set flush in gray grit.    All simple, inexpensive, and very playable installations which allow the landscape itself to shine through.   Katie’s work at Immaculate Conception led to other playground commissions from the New York diocese, all in rough parts of the inner city, all utilizing the same emphasis on pattern, and restraint in both design and expense.   Beautiful work, whose playfulness whispers to you rather than shouts.

Playable architecture/Active Design note:  Anytime you are building an outdoor structure and using a squared post,  consider using a round pole instead.  They inevitably attract children who spin around it.  It’s an incredibly easy way to add a playable feature to your space!  Slides-should-be-wide, playgrounds-should-not-be-flat, and posts-should-be-round.   Oh, and swings-should-be-arbors.

And the winner is…Greg Pawlica! The random number generator at picked the number 2, so it’s you, Greg…email me your postal address. And for those of you who are frustrated that amazon still shows The Science of Play: How to Build Playgrounds That Enhance Children’s Development as out of stock, Susan Solomon’s publisher has come to the rescue, offering free shipping (until 12/31/14) if you order from!
For San Francisco residents, Susan is speaking TONIGHT, 7 pm, at Green Apple Books!

Space Age Playgrounds by Fred Schumm, Colorado Springs, 1957-1958

Boulder Crescent Park Play Sculpture, 1957Conjejos Park Play Sculpture, 1958Conejos ParkWelding the Boulder Crescent play sculpture 1957Conejos Park modelConejos Park 'Feathered Serpent'making the 'Feathered Serepent' of Conejos Park

Fred Schumm of Colorado Springs is one of those artists I love to rediscover…largely unknown characters, generally sculptors,  who constructed a few playground pieces in the exciting milieu that was mid-century play design.  Fred was friends with photographer Myron Wood, who documented his play sculpture in Conejos and Boulder Crescent Parks.  Fortunately, RadioColoradoCollege conducted an oral history interview with Fred shortly before his death in 2010 at the age of 85.  The playground memories begin at 4:17.    “Neither one of them are there anymore….”  Too bad for play.

[Images from the Pikes Peak Library Digital Collections]



Looking for a job in play? Active Design Specialists sought for NYC!

Looking for a job in play design?  The Fund for Public Health in New York City has two job openings for ACTIVE DESIGN (read “play”) SPECIALISTS who will seek to promote community health by “identifying new opportunities for physical activity in and around schools and….promoting physical activity in early childhood settings in NYC.”  This is a great opportunity for someone interested in play design that truly promotes physical activity, not just some sedate climbing and sliding.  Thanks to Sarah at the NYC Health Department for sending this in…full information in the link!   Active Design Specialists playground job posting.

Win a copy of Susan Solomon’s The Science of Play!

The thing I appreciate most about Susan Solomon’s new book The Science of Play: How to Build Playgrounds That Enhance Children’s Development is its boldness.  She doesn’t shrink from calling out playground manufacturers and suppliers, municipal officials, helicopter parents, and even the natural playground movement.

Some samples:

“Large American cities, which frequently allocate$2-3 million to upgrade a playground, are currently getting very little return on their investment.”

“We can no longer feign surprise that kids avoid playgrounds.  We have curbed their excitement and fearlessness.”

“When we look at today’s stock playground, we see an aesthetically unappealing place with few opportunities for personal exploration or social development.”

“We need innovative solutions, yet playground patrons often forgo architects, landscape architects or other artists because they believe (mistakenly) that their expertise and their designs will be too expensive.”

“An irony is that parents are risking traffic accidents as they drive kids around because they are not comfortable leaving them alone at a playground.”

“[Safety surfacing]…can double the cost of a playground without adding to what children can do.”

“In spite of absolutist rhetoric from advocates, natural playgrounds do not have a lock on exploration, sustainability, or ‘sense of place’…the term ‘nature play’ is being used indiscriminately.”

And yet, “This is a positive moment for play spaces in America.”  I agree….with all of the above.

If you care about play and spaces for play you need to read this book!  To win a copy, make your own bold statement about play and or playgrounds in the comment section.    One will be selected at random NEXT Monday to win a copy of The Science of Play.  Please note that a contest will also run on the Playscapes Facebook page…feel free to enter both, though you can only win once!

P.S.  The book shows as either temporarily out of stock or long shipping times at Amazon…they have assured Susan that this will soon be remedied. International readers, note the low shipping costs!

Susan Solomon and the Science of Play

Koch Landscape Architecture. Overivew of Helen Diller Playground at Dolores Park

(2012), San FranciscoKoch Landscape Architecture. Stone climber/hiding space that Steven Koch designed for

Diller Playground.Koch Landscape Architecture. Close up of stone wall that Steven Koch designed for Diller

PlaygroundKoch Landscape Architecture. View of wood climber (foreground) and elevated sand pit

(background) that Steven Koch designed for Diller PlaygroundGroundView Design. Water spray, which can support a movie screen, at the entrance to

Chuckie Harris Park (2013), Somerville, MA.GroundView Design. Grass mounds provide more ground plane, allow for exploration,

and for insertion of wide, high slides at Chuckie Harris Park.Patrick Dougherty. Peekaboo Palace (2012) at the Bay Area Discovery Museum,

Sausalito, CA.

 I‘m so pleased to welcome Susan Solomon to Playscapes! Susan is the author of American Playgrounds: Revitalizing Community Space, and is America’s preeminent historian of play.   In her latest book, The Science of Play, she tackles the issue of what kids actually need to thrive, and then looks at how playgrounds can provide that.  For too long there has been a disconnect between what playgrounds provide, and what serious research says that children need, particularly in the area of risk-taking.  Susan will post here every other month,  addressing risk and fear and neurology and the ‘serious’ beat of academic publications and policy papers.

The Science of Play is available (pre-ordering until November 4, 2014) atAmazon and Barnes & Noble, or independent booksellers:   The Doylestown (PA) BookshopMcNally Jackson (New York), Parnassus Books(Nashville) and Green Apple Books (San Francisco). 

Or check back here at Playscapes Monday morning to win a copy! 

 “After the Deadline”

 I am honored that Playscapes has asked me to write a column every other month. The title,“After the Deadline,” reflects the lag that exists between completion of a manuscript and its publication. With the Science of Play there was a 16-month hiatus, a time during which I learned more, read new interpretations, saw exciting fresh projects. I am delighted that I now have a forum in which I can share, and comment on, some of these recent findings.

Professional liability is often the proverbial elephant in the room when it comes to playground design. Patrons, especially municipalities or school boards, usually choose off the shelf equipment because they believe it limits their exposure to lawsuits. Many designers prefer standard issue equipment for the same reason. Most manufacturers, aware that they may have to carry the greatest insurance burden, stick with conservative designs and – in order to protect themselves- charge high fees. The resulting playgrounds tend to be directional and repetitive with few challenges, all for a high cost.

Is this necessary? Are all of these players acting with old information and perhaps continuing myths that might not be valid today? Since other myths (“stranger danger,” hypodermic needles in sand) often orchestrate playground design, is it possible that liability concerns are unnecessarily driving the creation of playgrounds? Could it be that fear of being sued is another myth that needs to be exposed?

I wish that I could say that there is overwhelming evidence that fear of lawsuits is unjustified. That is not entirely the case, although evidence is beginning to support that notion. On the negative side, many lawyers believe the number of liability cases continues to soar and lawyers are finding ever more creative ways to originate suits for plaintiffs. Attorney Phillip Howard, the founder of Common Good and frequent contributor to the Huffington Post, believes that there is an abundance of suits and nothing will improve until we accept (and codify into law) the concept that the normal risks of childhood are acceptable. Another New York lawyer, who has experience representing design professionals and engineers, defended a landscape architect in a non- playground dispute. In that case, the plaintiff sought damages that would have far exceeded the insurance proceeds. That is a harrowing thought. In this instance, the case went to trial and the landscape architect was vindicated.

Prof. Charles Epp teaches at the School of Public Affairs and Administration at the University of Kansas and he holds a different perspective. His extensive research, which focuses on the social construction of rights claims, shows that there have never been large numbers of legal actions on behalf of playground injuries. He believes that Tom Baker’s thesis in his book, The Medical Malpractice Myth (2007), has a parallel in the playground world. Epp maintains that there is a consensus among playground administrators that many consumers are suing when most are not; the press tends to overemphasize the few suits that do emerge. Teri Hendy, a premier safety inspector who has assessed and helped develop play projects throughout the world, concurs. She thinks that parents tend to sue when they think their child might have a future career as a “chin model” or similar occupation and therefore cannot afford a slight lasting blemish. Hendy says that when suits do occur, parents are usually hoping to recover the cost of their out of pocket medical bills. They rarely seek inflated sums.

There are other encouraging signs, ones that patrons and designers should consider when they nix the possibility of a unique design. Portland (OR) landscape architect Steven Koch (Koch Landscape Architecture) accepted a challenging playground project in San Francisco. The Recreation and Park Department, the donor, and the local friends group were united in demanding something that would not be a “cookie cutter” design. Koch had license to invent several pieces, purchase and adapt others, and shape an entire environment for the Helen Diller Playground at Dolores Park. Teri Hendy worked with him to assure safety compliance.

Almost three years since completion, there have been no serious injuries and no lawsuits. Another landscape architecture firm, GroundView Design (Wilson Martin and Eden Dutcher) of Massachusetts, was able to implement their own designs at Chuckie Harris Park (2013) in Somerville, MA because parent groups were willing to remove liability concerns from their design process. In nearby Cambridge, MA, that city’s 2009 “Healthy Parks & Playgrounds Task Force Report” proclaims that “play is experimental, challenging and sometimes risky.” That statement would surely never come from a municipality if they felt they were under siege of litigation.

Counter-intuitively, the most adventurous designs may be the least vulnerable to lawsuits. In other words, the work of artists is less likely to be the proverbial lightening rod to draw even the few suits that do develop. Sculpture can have fewer restraints. Teri Hendy explains that it is a matter of intent. If the sculpture is meant to be an interactive spatial experience, rather than a climbing or swinging one, then the primary issue to be addressed could be head entrapment.

Protective surfacing is often not necessary. Sculptor Patrick Dougherty’s sublime work is a good example. He is a master of willow construction. Many museums have commissioned his pieces for their premises. A number of children’s museums have hired him, too. When available to kids, these sculptures encourage fantasy, hiding, being alone; they offer the mystery of being in a unique enclosure. Common sense dictates that there be attention to random stray twigs that could injury the eye of a child running nearby.

There is a message here for all of us. Taking bold action- hiring a sculptor, architect, or landscape architect to design a playspace- may in fact be the best way to achieve an interesting solution and to shepherd it away from an arena of lawsuits, even if that arena appears to be quite tiny.

Resources: I plan to end each posting with some suggestions for further reading. These may be random. They could be books or articles that don’t relate directly to what I have written but are relevant to general concerns about playgrounds (and new to me!). Today, I start with two items that I do cite in this first submission. I am tremendously impressed by the materials that the Cambridge, MA city government has produced and published online (I thank the folks at Goric for pointing these out to me):

And I was blown away by Tom Baker’s The Medical Malpractice Myth (University of Chicago Press, 2007). It is meticulously researched and forcefully argued. He was director of the Insurance Law Center at the University of Connecticut School of Law and is now a professor of law at the University of Pennsylvania. Baker is someone I look forward to speaking to in order to learn more about the parallels between the medical and play cases. Stay tuned (especially after I read his earlier anthology Embracing Risk: The Changing Culture of Insurance and Responsibility which the University of Chicago Press published in 2002).