Throwback Thursday…amongst all the great imagery of vintage Singapore playgrounds I’d never seen this unique space celebrating ‘high tea’, photographed by Horst Kiechle.   It has since been demolished.

Wavewalk, Adam Kuby, Pier Park Skate Park, Portland, 2006

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Environmental artist Adam Kuby was part of the design team for Portland’s Westmoreland Nature Play Area, and he has also made this lovely Wavewalk as a skateable entry into Pier Park Skate Park.

Skateboarders originally took their cues from surfing and began skating the urban landscape like surfers carving ocean swells. Here a walk transforms into a wave and a wave into a walk. You can walk it or ride it.  Half of the walkway’s concrete is colored with an aqua pigment.”

Play-as-Path, and Path-as-Play.  Why make a boring sidewalk when you can make a playable one?


Westmoreland Nature Play Area, Portland Oregon, 2014

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One of the great things about natural play features like jumping stones and timber scrambles is that they can be added to existing parks and playgrounds at both large and small scales.  This is a large scale project, but the goal of the Nature-based Play Initiative of the Portland Parks and Rec Department is to do just that; to add nature play to existing sites around the city.  Westmoreland is an exciting beginning, with a 60 foot long creek whose waters can be pumped up to the top of a creek mound, then dammed and sluiced into the sand play area.  There is a hill slide, and a huge timber scramble, and quiet space around the margins for free play fort-building.

I particularly like the massiveness of the timber ‘log jam’.  In my experience kids are attracted to overscaled objects, and they readily form part of an imaginative narrative that lets them feel like they are being risky even though their play is safe;  that they’re traversing a log jam across a rushing river for example.  Feel risky, play safe.  The ropes added to the log slice towers and the boulder mountain are also great…they allow a greater variety of children–those less skilled or less strong or simply less bold–to interact with these features in a greater variety of ways.

This is an excellent start to the Portland Nature-based Play Initiative, and I look forward to more.  Does your city have a play initiative?  Let me know about it!

[Images from Learning Landscapes and Greenworks SPC, who collaborated on the project].

See another temporary play installation by LIKEArchitects:  they continue their motif of everyday objects as modular construction elements in their design for the PlayLAND pavilions in Paredes de Coura, Portugal, which use beach floats to make a stage, a tunnel, and a tower!  I’m glad to see they also left lots of extra floats scattered around for free play.

[via designboom, thanks Zana!]

Swing Time, Höweler + Yoon Architecture, Boston, 2014

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Continuing the trend for swing installations, the work of Höweler + Yoon Architecture on the lawn at D Street in Boston has been “wildly successful”, according to the Atlantic’s CityLab.  As they point out, the space is remarkable for NOT being a master-planned, highly architectural project with built-in elements that tell the public what it must do there.  Instead, it’s a temporary installation in an in-between space, just the sort of spot that is perfect for play in the post-playground era.

This “outdoor experimental event landscape” is a testing ground–soon to be a construction site for the convention center’s expansion–of ideas “somewhere between traditional planning and the chair-bombings and overnight parklets of guerilla urbanism” that might be included in a permanent park to be built later,

It was also designed to reflect the tech-geeky side of Boston’s culture, so the 20 interactive swings contain accelerometers that measure the force of swinging and adjust the swing’s glow from white to blue to purpley pink.

Swing Time successfully frees the swing from the playground and its traditional form, and makes swinging in Boston, at least temporarily,  a communal and visually rich experience.   It’s in place until October 31, so hurry!

[Thanks to Tali for the tip!]

Carkeek Park Playground, Barker Landscape Architects, Seattle Washington,

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Barker Landscape Architecture is also responsible for the Carkeek Park Playground in Seattle, which references the nearby Piper’s Creek and its Chum salmon with a design that includes rune-carved grottos,  tide pools, and a 19 foot long salmon slide!

I also like the firms integration of a small sandpit into the Port Edmonds Plaza, next to sloping grass lawns that are perfect for either kids or tired adults, and their simple playscape of rocks, sand and a moose in Gleneden Park, Spokane County.   

Reader Justin also sent me the link to this Seattle tractor play feature ( a year and a half ago,  which is about the current length of my email queue, for which I am endlessly apologizing).  At first glance, it’s a pretty simple themed object.  But a few thoughtful additions–a platform on the back of the tractor, ropes extending back to a tree trunk, and a chassis tilted by mounting one wheel on a tree stump-make it much more playable.  Even the simplest of play features deserve our thoughtful design attention. (UPDATE: Bradner Gardens, and the tractor installation, are the work of Barker Landscape Architects.)

Vintage Playgrounds of Seattle, Washington

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Many thanks to Justin for alerting me to the great flickr set from the City of Seattle’s Municipal Archives, “Seattle at Play“. Many of them are of the Broadway Playfield, which is now Cal Anderson Park.  The 1969 photo is particularly interesting…it’s an early natural playscape!  Note the hill slide, and the tree trunk visible behind the swing set, whose thick block forms are reminiscent of Paul Friedberg’s work on the East coast. (See this post for his gone-but-not-forgotten Timberforms at the East 110th St. playground in Central Park, and of course remember that you can download Friedberg’s midcentury playground books from the blog’s sidebar).

If your city has a play archive, send me the info!

Glamis Adventure Playground, Shadwell London, with Helen Mirren

“All children should have a place like this”  Dame Helen Mirren

It is always a joy to be at Glamis Adventure Playground, as I was again this year for Open House London.  I generally take my own video while I’m there, but you’ll like this one with Helen Mirren better!  She planned a short visit to the playground but ended up staying a long time, as does most everyone who visits Glamis.

It’s not just watching the kids play on giant swings, and wacky self-built and self-painted playhouses.  It’s not just seeing them fix bikes, and cook over a fire.  Whenever I’m at Glamis,  I’m impressed by seeing the children navigate their relationships with one another–learning to cooperate, to apologize, to handle conflict peacefully, to test ideas–via the playground.

Glamis Adventure Playground depends on donations for its survival.  It has been a part of the Shadwell community since the 1960s, but in 2011, lack of funding forced them to reduce their open days from six to four, in spite of the fact that Tower Hamlets has one of the highest population densities in the UK, with over 60% of the children in relative poverty.

“Please support this project!”  Dame Helen Mirren

I second that.    Donate to Glamis at their website.

Sooner Play Tower, Bruce Goff, Bartlesville, Oklahoma, 1963

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In news from my home state, I’m pleased that the  Sooner Play Tower, designed by Bruce Goff  in 1963, has been restored and reinstalled! The tower and sandpit were commissioned by Mary Lou Price, whose family were also architectural clients of Frank Lloyd Wright.  

Bartlesville’s Parks and Rec Department provides a great history of the space age-y construction: “Goff’s design for the Sooner Park Play Tower was based upon mathematic principles:  line, sphere, circle, cylinder, spiral and mobius strip.  The tower is a spiraling staircase with a metallic mesh sphere that reaches 50 feet in height to the tip of its spire.  Constructed of steel components (mesh fencing, perforated plate, textured tread plate, and steel rods), the tower was painted in primary colors red, yellow, and green.    The tower was placed within a circular concrete barrier (16” high and 16” deep) filled with sand that spanned 50 feet in diameter which served as a sand play pit.    Also included within the circular frame was a 6-foot high mobius strip constructed of continuous steel fencing with welded rods and raised on 12 piers, designed as a climbing and crawling feature. The mobius strip had only one side and one edge, so that by crawling continuously around for 360 degrees, the entire surface of the strip is traversed without crossing any boundaries.  Within the circle, the tower was positioned off-center, and tethered to the ground outside the perimeter of the concrete barrier with 12 cables, each adorned with metal beads in the same color scheme as the tower.   Once visitors progressed up the cylinder’s spiral staircase, they reached a metallic mesh sphere with a circular seat that gave a spectacular view of the city.”

Constructed in 1963 by Scott and Hill, a local structural steel fabrication company, the whole project came in at around $7,000 and took approximately three weeks to construct.    The play tower was closed in the early 1990’s due to deterioration….in the early morning hours of May 9, 2008, a vandal ran a vehicle into the tower cutting one of the remaining cables and damaging the fencing which encloses the spiral staircase. ”  Congratulations to Bartlesville residents for  raising $144,000 to restore and preserve this unique piece of midcentury play.   The unique aluminum ‘floats’ that decorate its cables are coming soon.  [thanks to Anne for the tip!]

Also in London, Yayoi Kusama was exhibited at the Victoria Miro.  While I would characterize Kusama’s work (including her viral polka dotted rooms) as more playFUL than playABLE, she has done at least one version of her iconic spotted pumpkin as a playhouse, in Naoshima, Japan.

The Playground Art of Maggie Hargreaves

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Also in Sheffield, I was introduced to the work of Maggie Hargreaves, who had just won the 2014 Ruskin Prize for drawing.  Her work Changing Spaces II, depicting a play platform in decay, was hanging at the Millennium Gallery, which I thought was brilliant for using the architectural language of a mall to draw the public into the space of an art gallery.  Changing Spaces II is a large (150×220 cm)  intensely detailed charcoal drawing, which you can own for just £1200!  (I was sorely tempted, but alas, the scientific start-up must come first for now).

Maggie’s other works, particularly a series entitled “Let Them Play”,  relate well to the natural play movement in their commentary on the place of children in nature.


Cypress Hills Playground, Charles Forberg, Brooklyn NY, 1967

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The very last playspace I talked about at Sheffield was the Cypress Hills Playground, by architect Charles Forberg.  It’s notable for being one of the playgrounds driven by the Museum of Modern Art’s ongoing advocacy for better design in play, which continued well beyond its famous 1954 competition and remains the best example of how the overlap between art and play can help drive innovation.  All those obscure  artists who did one or two playgrounds in places like Arkansas or Wisconsin in the 60s and 70s?  That was the result of MoMA’s involvement in the playground conversation, of using their cultural influence to legitimize and promote the role of artists in play.  But Cypress Hills, installed in Brooklyn in 1967, is also notable for being a failure.

The neighborhood was gritty, and it is hard to separate the playground’s failings from the general failings of life, and architecture, in late 1960s East New York, where Forberg’s constructs were sited in an empty no-man’s land surrounded by fifteen seven-story buildings housing over 1400 low income families.

But Forberg was hopeful that he could use indestructible materials to create a resilient, low-maintenance space where 3-8 year olds could play…without supervision.  In place of equipment that moved he would create varied spaces that children moved through, and an abstract setting that allowed them to make their own choices.

Cypress Hills was designed to be a playground for children by day and a sculpture for adults by night, with the integration of strong central light that turned its stark concrete forms into a chiaroscuro landscape.  But that wasn’t enough to deter the dealers and neighborhood thugs who sheltered within the playgrounds most striking feature–vertical cast concrete panels 7 foot tall set at varying widths to form a maze around the perimeter of the playscape’s 72 foot diameter circular form.   Ultimately Forberg’s forms–including a banked water feature, and stacked half-pipes that Simon and Tom Bloor have recreated as gilded miniatures–were aesthetically pure in plan but harsh and unforgiving on the ground.  And in seeking to give the residents an aesthetic experience, he forgot to give them a safe one.

MoMA was hopeful, too; they retained the concrete forms so they could be reused to make more playgrounds.  But Cypress Hills was torn out and replaced with standard equipment within a few years (I haven’t been able to ascertain exactly when);  a playground-example of the failures of mid-century architecture.  And that’s okay.

If you’re a regular reader, you know my ‘real’ job is as a scientist.  Being a research scientist requires weathering constant failure.  Every day I must attempt half a dozen impossible things before breakfast; and most of them won’t work.

As artistic play objects become increasingly important in the ‘spectrum of play’ (and they will!), some of them won’t work out.   But that’s what it takes to move the conversation forward toward real innovation.  Even standard, boring, pedestrian playgrounds fail.  And when they go they leave no trace.   Cypress Hills failed, but at least it did so in reaching for something new and better.  Its aspiration still inspires.

[Apologies to those who received a draft of this post prematurely in their inboxes!  The historical background for this post comes from Susan Solomon's American Playgrounds: Revitalizing Community Space,which is essential reading for anyone interested in play history.  Susan has a new book coming out in November, The Science of Play:  How to Build Playgrounds that Enhance Children's Development, and she'll soon be joining me here at Playscapes as a recurring columnist!]

Play Sculpture and the Spectrum of Play in Sheffield

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It was a privilege to be at Site Gallery in Sheffield in conversation with my friends Simon and Tom Bloor and some of my dear readers (hello!) to discuss play sculpture, its historical context, and its place in modern play design.  Site Gallery is a unique space in that it has been in Sheffield for three decades; a time in which other contemporary art galleries have come and gone.  And because contemporary art is designed to challenge and provoke, I intentionally broached some controversial ideas, like “Should we take the ‘ground’ out of ‘playground?” and  “Have we defined play too much by real estate?”   What do you think?

Play sculpture is simultaneously one of the most popular things I talk about here at Playscapes, and the most controversial.  I get mail saying I shouldn’t feature it at all, since it’s not a playground.  But I remain fascinated by its potential to extend the idea of play throughout the city, and to go where playgrounds cannot. Sculpture taps a different audience, a different funding stream, and a different set of safety considerations than those that have come to limit what even the most innovative playground can be.  Sculpture scales, to small spaces or big ones, and easily occupies neglected spaces.  For good or ill, we have attached a higher value, culturally, to ‘art’ than to ‘play’, and play sculpture can tap that differential.

The conversation we’ve been having here at Playscapes  for the last six years about the need for great design on the playground–which I strive to perpetuate mostly by inspiration rather than criticism–has really mattered and play design is changing for the better.  But I also want to see what I call the ‘spectrum’ for play expand, so that kids have play opportunities throughout the space they move through.  Opportunities that range from the temporary to the permanent, from small to large, and from adventurous to artistic with everything in between.  Sculpture isn’t the only way to achieve that but it’s one tool we can use.  Take a look at a few excerpts from the slides, and discuss!  I’d love to have your comments.   More from Sheffield tomorrow.


I am in London for a bit longer but my heart is in New York City today, with the friends and family of Jane Clark Chermayeff.    I count myself as one of them, though I think that everyone who met Jane felt that she was immediately their friend.   She was a force:  for good and for children and for play and for playgrounds and for whatever made them better.   Jane was one of the first people to believe that what I was doing and saying at Playscapes was important.  After enduring years of slights and criticisms from playground ‘insiders’ as a mere blogger, her acceptance and encouragement of my ‘outsiders’ voice nearly brought me to tears, and helped me continue on at a critical point in the blog’s life.  Jane invited me to MoMA and included me in her round-table discussions and we had made more exciting plans for new play initiatives when she was suddenly stricken, and ultimately taken from those who knew and loved her far better than I.  They gather in her city today to remember, and I add my own small but grateful commemoration to their memorial.  I’ll remember Jane today, and whenever I see a swing, in honor of her life and her favorite saying. “Life without a swing is a misunderstanding.”  Jane Clark Chermayeff 1950-2014