#TBT Cable Car on the Playground, San Francisco, c. 1950

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There *once* was a decommissioned cable car for kids to play on at Golden Gate Park.  And I wish there still was!  “Real stuff”–train engines, fighter jets, and fire trucks–once provided imaginative play opportunities as well as local life context to playgrounds.  There’s no reason permanently parked items such as these can’t still be used in play spaces…it’s just fallen out of fashion and the grown-ups have forgotten how much fun it was.   Any ‘real stuff’ in the vintage playgrounds of your memories? [images from the san francisco public library, found via sanfranciscodays.  Unsure of the dates, but judging by the clothes and the Big Wheel you can see in the foreground of the second image, perhaps it was there from the 1950s to the 1970s.  If you know, please get in touch!]

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An artist designed playground and its unique patron by Susan Solomon

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Paige’s Note:  In her latest “After the Deadline” column, play chronicler extraordinaire Susan Solomon talks about one of everyone’s favorite playmakers:  Toshiko Horiuchi MacAdam and the unique patronage that enabled the creation of her recent piece in Rome.   It provides a model that I hope we will see much more of:  significant corporate sponsorship of ambitious, innovative places and pieces for play!

After the Deadline:  An artist designed playground and its unique patron
Susan G. Solomon

Something magical can happen when artists -and here I include painters, sculptors, architects and landscape architects- design public space.  There is a good chance they know how to organize environments and how to make them both comfortable and stimulating for the people who will be using them: they understand the complexity of materials and know how to exploit those for a range of experiences; they frequently can do more with less money.  For public playgrounds, artists may have the insight and interest to listen to clients, especially children, and translate their unarticulated dreams into reality.

A daunting glitch is how to secure funding for these unusual designs or identify donors who seek extraordinary projects.

Recently, a committed institutional patron and a superb textile artist united forces to create an outstanding play piece in Rome.  It’s an interesting marriage that could have long-term ramifications for who designs play pieces; where these are sited; and who pays for them.  In this particular case, Enel is the forward thinking patron.  Their name is not widely recognized in America.  They are Italy’s largest public utility.  An energy company that is publically traded and whose stock is largely held by the government. Enel is effectively a public private venture.

Enel, which has been a long standing patron of the arts and even a primary sponsor of the art world’s Venice Biennale, began in 2007 to commission unique works for public areas.  Most have been in Rome.  These were site-specific pieces, meant to promote conversation about renewable and sustainable energy.  In 2010, Enel altered the donation program by establishing the Enel Contemporanea Award.   The award sponsors a yearly invited international competition and a distinguished jury selects the winner.  The resulting commissioned work is then displayed for at least a year before Enel retains or donates it.  Carsten Höller won in 2011; his Double Carousel with Zöllner Stripes was on display at the Museum of Contemporary Art of Rome (MACRO).  This dynamic piece- where visitors could hop on and off carousels that rotated in opposite directions- resided in an entry floor gallery where anyone could come without an admission charge. The 2012 winner was Mike and Doug Starn; their Big Bambu, a 75-foot high construction, invited visitors to climb it at MACRO’s auxiliary site in the former abattoir (now art space) of the city.  While Enel wants their prize theme to be the about the intersection of energy and contemporary art, the successful works have been especially whimsical and playful.

Toshiko Horiuchi MacAdam won the Enel honor in 2013 and continued the spirited interactive tradition. The work of this Japanese Canadian fiber artist is well known to readers of this blog. Her wining piece, Harmonic Motion, was displayed at the main MACRO in December 2013. It should have come down a year later but its huge popularity resulted in its stay being extended.  MacAdam’s piece (created with her husband Charles MacAdam and structural engineer Norihide Imagawa) was suspended from the walls of a partially covered courtyard.  It, too, was at street level and without charge.

MacAdam used brightly colored and hand dyed crocheted nets, which she calls  “air pocket”, in her eye-popping Harmonic Motion. It expands some of the inquiries that are found in the somewhat smaller piece she did at the Hakone Open Air Museum in Japan: how do we “wear” air that has been fashioned by manipulating linear strings into three dimensional volumes?  In order to let visitors fully explore her concerns, she devised small openings that participants can crawl into; they have choices and have to plan how to navigate their bodies through crocheted tubes; eventually they reach a wide flat crocheted plane where they can run, bounce, and decide whether they want to climb higher along the sides.

The Rome piece is set apart from the Hakone one because anybody can enter, climb, and eventually jump on it. In contrast, the piece in Hakone is for children under 12 years old.  The differing ages at the Rome installation means that older folks have to be careful of younger ones and vice versa.  It also gives teens, who are tough to attract to playgrounds, a venue where they can challenge themselves and each other.  Their delight is evident in the amount of shouting and squealing that ensues.  The courtyard actually amplifies the dim so that all visitors are surrounded by the gleeful howling of excited kids.

MacAdam’s creation is an ideal playground. It enhances its context and fits effortlessly with it.  It is accessible to any age; there is nearby seating for adults who want only to enjoy the piece or the beauty of a courtyard where one end reveals an opening to the sky.  Participants have to take cautious risks and plan carefully how to make their way through this art object.  There is a great deal of camaraderie and joy when they succeed.  Even more importantly, it shows that a legitimate patron, a well-respected museum, and a famous artist could work together for a unique piece that encourages everyone to participate in a challenging, variable (and fun) experience.

We, in America, have generous corporations who often support art projects. We have some fantastic foundations that have been kind and creative in how they approach playgrounds.   We lack, however, a consistent patron who sponsors a yearly event that increasingly defines where art and play can cooperate and then makes sure that the best example materializes.  Let’s hope that some entity- a corporate or private one- will not only pick up the slack but also do it in a way that is deferential to the creative processes of artists and the exploring capabilities of young and older children.



Patrick Dougherty Stick Sculpture, Olympia Children’s Museum, 2014

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Artist Patrick Dougherty’s Stickworks are always play-ful, but the whimsical maze-like construction at the Olympia Hands-on Children’s Museum in Olympia, Washington, described as spiralling up “like whipped cream with towers”  is specifically designed for play with pathways and archways and secret hiding places.  Don’t miss the fascinating video (below) that shows the construction process (who knew that you needed a crew of leaf-strippers?).  And I love his enunciation of a concept that we’ve talked about here before at Playscapes as “feel-risky-play-safe”:  “You don’t want to lose your children, you just want them to feel as though they can be lost”.   Lost in a Stickworks sculpture is a great place to be!

#TBT Mercer Island’s Playground Dragon, Washington, 1965 and 2013

mercer island dragon vintage playground sculpture midcentury playscape1mercer island dragon vintage playground sculpture midcentury playscape2mercer island dragon vintage playground sculpture midcentury playscape3mercer island dragon vintage playground sculpture midcentury playscape4mercer island new playground dragon artist kenton pies1mercer island new playground dragon playscape2mercer island dragon vintage playground sculpture midcentury playscape6

For #TBT, the story of the dragon of Mercer Island park dragon, a rare happy ending for a mid-century playground sculpture!

Since its installation in 1965 on the island off the coast of Seattle Washington (photos are from a 1966 feature in Sunset magazine), the 50-foot long, six ton polka-dotted dragon by artist Kenton Pies had gradually become more difficult to keep in repair.   And here I want to point out that this is hardly a criticism; few playgrounds of manufactured equipment–though touted for their durability–would last for fifty years!   All play pieces require maintenance, and none last indefinitely.  But many wonderful vintage play sculptures have been unnecesarily ripped out by municipalities as ‘dated’ or even ‘unsafe’ (thank you, ASTM) without consulting either the artists that made them or the communities that loved them.  

Happily the Mercer Island Parks and Recreation Department was more enlightened than that, and they sought out Kenton, now 81 and living in Montana, to inquire about repairing the dragon.  After repair estimates proved to be too costly he proposed building a bigger and better dragon that would be around for many new generations of Mercer Island kids.   For $60,000.  And here I want to point out that this custom artisinal creation is *way cheaper* than most formulaic, boring, manufactured playgrounds, whose average municipal installation cost in the US is now around $175,000.    And the community will never love the play space, never build lifetime memories around it, like Mercer Island has around its dragon.

Still nestled in the trees, with the original dragons head close by in the underbrush as an extra play element and also to satisfy adults nostalgic for the play dragon they remember, the new Mercer Island Dragon should last another fifty years.

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ASTM still thinks grass is unsafe for kids: updates on the Great Safety Surfacing Debate


Paige’s Note:  Tim Gill of rethinkingchildhood updates us, below, on the fight to bring sanity to the ASTM’s playground committee, who essentially feel that children are only safe playing on surfaces equivalent to bubble wrap.   If they now pass a ballot requiring even more stringent (and highly expensive!) safety surfacing on playgrounds, they will be doing so against the recommendations of academic injury researchers.  Why might they flout the advice of such experts?   Quite coincidentally, there is alot of money to be made in safety surfacing.  Feel free to voice your views to Joe Koury ([email protected]) who is the staff contact, and George Sushinsky ([email protected]) who is the chair of the committee.  

Leading child injury prevention researchers at the British Columbia Injury Research and Prevention Unit have today called on ASTM to put on hold its proposal to tighten playground surfacing standards.

The call is in an article written by Associate Profs Mariana Brussoni and Ian Pike of the Unit, along with Associate Prof Alison Macpherson of the School of Kinesiology & Health Science at York University. Between them, the authors have decades of research experience in child injury prevention.

In the piece, posted on the Unit’s website, the authors state that they have “become increasingly concerned that some of our efforts to keep children safe may be doing unintended harm – particularly as it relates to children’s play.” They also argue that “changing the standards will not reflect the best decision for children.”

The authors conclude by urging ASTM to “put the proposal on hold, and to engage in a wider debate about how standards can help us get the balance right.”

In making their case, the authors make five key points, informed by their position as independent and impartial experts in injury prevention:

  1. Head injuries on the playground are extremely rare and there is no evidence that they are increasing on playgrounds.
  2. The head injury criterion (HIC) is measured by dropping a head form straight down, but children do not fall that way.
  3. Ripping out and replacing surfacing is a very expensive proposition.
  4. Kids want and need to take risks and experience uncertainty. So reducing risks has major ramifications.
  5. We are doing a miserable job of providing stimulating play opportunities for children.

The article, which has numerous links to peer reviewed academic papers, echoes the case made recently in a paper by Prof David Ball, Professor of Risk Management at Middlesex University’s Centre for Decision Analysis and Risk Management, and by me here in January, with an update in March. It is also a model of brevity and clarity.

We know from ASTM that there will a month-long ballot of members of the committee, which will begin in the next day or two. The authors have asked ASTM to distribute their paper along with the ballot notice. Let’s hope it does.

Let’s hope too that committee members consider carefully the paper’s arguments.

Surely when even injury prevention experts who have devoted decades to reducing child accidents imply that playground safety has gone too far, it is time to stop.

“Shifting Sand Land” Super Mario Brothers Playscape, Bobby Zokaites, Scottsdale Arizona, 2015


Thanks to Arizona based artist Bobby Zokaites for submitting his “Shifting Sand Land”, a playground game system based upon the desert level in Super Mario Brothers.   I love a well-designed overlap between virtual and physical play space for its ability to encourage video game lovers to venture into the playground.  In effect, “Shifting Sand Land” is an all-ages, outdoor version of “Can’t Touch the Ground”, a classic playground game.

“Many Artists pursue work as a challenge to or a critique of culture, in order throw the viewer “off balance,” Shifting Sand Land does just that…the game is designed as a series of small platforms with hemispherical foundations;  “islands” that will constantly change a person’s center of gravity and  keep the participants on their toes.  Each module is constructed with a hemispherical steel shell, filled with water. This water acts as a counterweight slowing down the movement of the “island”. Attached to the shell is a wooden deck and an upholstered bumper, this bumper makes sure no one scrapes a shin or bumps a knee; combining the weight of the water and the geometry of the bumper make these “islands” stable so that they cannot be unintentionally flipped over. The overall composition includes 25 modules ranging in scale from eighteen inches to six feet. These larger “islands” will allow several people to interact with each other, sort of like those old 4 person seesaws, creating a more dynamic form of play.”

Bobby says that his work, which combines childhood adventure with construction and assembly methods inspired by industrial processes, is inspired by this great quote from one of our play heroes, Richard Dattner (download his book from the sidebar!), who says that playgrounds exist  “Between the world of fantasy and the world of reality, between the world of intuition and the world of logical things, and between the world of solitary play and the world of social cooperation and mutual understanding.”


Self-built Adventure Play, Phoenix Arizona, Public Workshop, 2015

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Since the “The Land” documentary and Hannah Rosin’s piece in the Atlantic on the overprotected child, alot of people are talking about adventure playgrounds in the United States.  We’ll see where all that leads, but someone who is actually DOING adventure play, and has been for years, is Alex Gilliam, whose Public Workshop organization  enables disadvantaged teens to design and construct their own adventurous playscapes.  Public Workshop’s latest project at the Western School of Science and Technology in Phoenix Arizona uniquely connects play design to the STEM curriculum:  at a non-wealthy, public charter school.  In the context of 45 minute class periods.    So don’t tell me it can’t be done.  The playground was placed in a transition area between the lower and upper schools to build community between the age groups, and constructed with parental involvement.  Adventurous on so many levels!

P.S.  You can support Public Workshop by making a purchase from the Building Hero Product Store:  beautifully designed objects made by members of a young adult community design leadership and entrepreneurship program in Philadelphia.

Nils Norman’s Online Playscape Archives

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If you’ve enjoyed perusing Architecture of Play you should also head over to Nils’ website, dismalgarden, where he has made years of photographic archives of playscapes freely available to all.  It’s a treasure trove of ideas and sites; many of adventure playgrounds around the world, “pockets of disorder” in the urban space.  I picked a few favorites for today’s post but will be returning to some of the sites for examination in more detailed posts.   Nils also has assembled a unique photographic collection of defensive architecture–unplayful interventions like anti-skate features–that should make us question how ‘public’ ‘public space’ really is, and what it means when play is forbidden and confined.   Nils’ body of work, which includes refreshing simple play installations as well as art and commentary on  what playgrounds can mean (adventure playscape and edible garden as a monument to civil disobedience?  Yes, I say) will make you think differently about the significance of spaces for play.

I’m a bit late to the party on this one, but there is still time to help build Parasite Skate Park in New Orleans.  As older children and teens have been pushed off the traditional playground by ever increasing regulation and ever dumber and less-adventurous designs, skateparks are their place to play.   I’m particularly excited to see the Parasite design including landscaping, community seating space, and even skateable sculpture.  Go support their Kickstarter...I am!

Happy Birthday Aldo! Happy Birthday blog!

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A bit belatedly because of my fiendish travel schedule, Happy Birthday to Aldo van Eyck (March 16) who would be 97 today, and to the blog (March 18), which is 7!  Longtime readers have heard the story before but I’ll repeat it for the newbies…I started this blog almost exactly on Aldo van Eyck’s birthday.  Only I didn’t know who he was then, or that he had built over 400 playgrounds in Amsterdam after World War II or that he had been the first architect to take playgrounds seriously as designed public space, and to see their potential for building community.  I just felt frustrated that the playgrounds I saw around me were so expensive, and so ugly, and so poorly designed as community spaces,  and that it was so hard to find information about any alternatives or about the history that had formed the playground.  I thought maybe if I posted the examples I had found online someone else might be looking for the same information.  It turned out many of you were.

I called the blog ‘Playscapes’ because I wanted playgrounds to be seen as fully designed landscapes for play.   Seven years ago, people often asked me what that meant.  Now, the word itself has come into wide use to simply signify a place for play that is somehow different that the equipment-based construction conjured up by the traditional word ‘playground’.  A ‘playscape’ may mean a natural space, or a avant-garde one, and could be indoors or out, but it is always a *place* that is thoughtfully, intentionally, and fully designed, not a collection of expensive equipment thoughtless plopped into the ground (which is now covered in safety surfacing).

Your birthday gift this year, dear readers, is the chance to download (for free!) a copy of Nils Norman’s wonderful book on London’s unique landscape of adventure playgrounds.  His compilation of their designs, history and architecture has been nearly unavailable since the small print run sold out years ago and many thanks to Nils (more on Nils’ play work tomorrow) and publishers Four Corners Books for generously making it freely available to inspire great play.  Aldo would be proud.    Hum happy birthday as you download your copy, either from the link below or from the sidebar, alongside gift downloads from past celebrations of Aldo’s and Playscapes‘ birthdays.

Architecture of Play by Nils Norman

Download "Architecture of Play"

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#TBT “Imagine Playground”, Fred Schumm, Colorado Springs, 1958

For belated #TBT (since I am once again traveling)  thanks to reader Mike for sending in his gorgeous family photo of Fred Schumm’s “Imagine Playground” in Colorado Springs c. 1958 (since destroyed).  I always welcome your additions to the playground history posts…they preserve a record of great play that will otherwise be lost.  If you have photos of historic playgrounds, do send them in!


Pleased to say that the ASTM did NOT increase the playground safety surfacing requirements this round…many thanks to those of you who got involved in the fight against unreasonable and burdensome playground regulations!  The ASTM say that they (ahem) welcome public attention to the issue.  But the battle is not yet over as the measure will be brought up again soon…watch this space for more news.


Vaulted Willow, Marc Fornes, Edmonton, Canada, 2014

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Marc Fornes is tops in my category of artists-I-would-like-to-see-on-the-playground and he’s definitely moving that direction with his new ‘Vaulted Willow‘: a pavilion designed for hide-and-seeking.  Note particularly the wonderful dappled shadows made by the metal scales of the construction; light and shadow is so often neglected as an element of play.

“Vaulted Willow” is a wonderful example of what I’ve begun to think of as “New Play”:  beautifully designed objects that serve another purpose in the public space (like shelter, or wayfinding, or sculpture) but also happen to be playable.  More playable, in fact, than many purpose built playgrounds.  They’re inherently multi-generational because they aren’t designed to target any specific demographic anyway.   “New Play” will make silly restrictions about safety surfacing extraneous, and that’s a good thing.

ASTM declares grass unsafe for children?

If you’ve visited a playground recently and thought “Whatever happened to the grass?”, you can thank the American Society for Testing and Materials (ASTM), for whom grass does not have appropriate “impact attenuation” to be a safe playground surface.

And the next playground installed in your community could be still more ugly, unnatural, and ridiculously expensive, thanks to the ASTM’s plans to further increase the impact standard for playground safety surfacing.  Doing so will

1) Increase the cost of protective surfacing under playground equipment
2) Reduce the height of already dumbed-down playground equipment
3) Require large-scale replacement of existing safety surfacing at playgrounds and
4) Further increase playground liability.

Few people who visit Playscapes to see images of great playground design are aware how much design choices, particularly in the US, are constrained–and made terribly expensive–by safety regulations.  Even fewer, I think, are aware of how those regulatory decisions can be influenced by people who may profit from them.  And this safety surfacing change is being pushed through by a “small group” within the ASTM committee.

Hmm…who might benefit from this change?  Safety surfacing manufacturers perhaps?  Suppliers of the device that tests playground safety surfaces?  I’m sure I don’t know…do you?

There is no clear science to support this burdensome regulatory change, and if the US makes the changes, other countries will be compelled to do so as well.   Everyone that builds a playground is already being forced to pour a huge portion of their budget into the ground (literally) for surfacing rather than into the playable landscape.  This is ridiculous.  I hope the ASTM will act as the independent and thoughtful body it is designed to be, and say “no”  to publishing a poorly considered new standard on safety surfacing.

See more commentary at Tim Gill’s blog rethinking childhood, and thanks to Tim for alerting me to this issue.

Reportedly, the ASTM is considering the new safety surfacing regs today, March 4.   Don’t be afraid to voice your opinion on the matter…the ASTM has a public mission.  Just send a quick message to the ASTM staff member assigned to the standards:   Joe Koury [email protected] .  Say that you’re opposed to the new Standard in respect of IAS (Impact Absorbing Surface) being proposed by the ASTM playground surfacing committee.

(And to the manufacturers who will send me hatemail over this…just don’t, okay?   It will make you look ridiculous if I print it, and the blog already loses money so threats just. don’t. matter.)

More about Playground Ruins

Kastryčnicki, Svietlahorsk, BelarusKastryčnicki, Svietlahorsk, BelarusCannon Hall fairyland, constructed c. 1870Strathcona's Folly playscapeWilson's Castle, Fayeteville Arkansasa too-faux ruin

In continuing to think about ruins on playgrounds I came across this delightful example in Kastryčnicki, Svietlahorsk, Belarus, as photographed by Arseny Khakhalin (no info on designer or date; help if you can!).  Ruins as imaginative playspaces for children date to the Victorian period…the ‘Fairyland’ at Cannon Hall in Barnesley, UK, for example, was constructed in the late 19th Century by Sir Walter Spencer-Stanhope,  using stone fragments from local churches.

Though the Victorians didn’t promote the active play that we now see as essential on the playground, we can learn from them to keep playful ruins imaginative in form, but authentic in materials.  Like Cannon Hall’s Fairyland, Ottawa’s Strathcona’s Folly playscape uses cast-off architectural material from local buildings, set in sand to form a locally-contextualized playground that has been voted the city’s best.   Fayetteville Arkansas’ Wilson Castle Park, my personal favorite folly playscape, is more climbable and has a fantastic form, but still uses real stone.  No faux-substitute feels the same.   The Belarus example is made of real brick, and rises up out of the ground as a true ruin would, enabling it to ‘feel’ real to a child engaged in imaginative play.   Ruins that are false in both their form and their material, using for example faux stone over safety surfacing (as in the final photo, which I will leave nameless) fail to inspire in the same way.