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.

Banksy paints a Gaza Playscape, 2015

banksy warzone playground playscape gaza1banksy warzone playground playscape gaza2Blitz Swing

I did my garden history graduate studies in Bristol, hometown of Banksy, whose latest provocation in Gaza has just magically appeared:  the dream of a playscape in a warzone.  It reminded me of the image of a kid-constructed rope swing from a damaged lightpost in bombed-out London, c. 1943.  “Play is Freedom”.

#TBT Marilyn Monroe on the Playground, 1955

For #TBT my friend Chris sent me this amazing photo of Marilyn Monroe on a playground merry-go-round, reading Ulysses.   I think an entire novel could be written from just those three elements.  The question “Why Ulysses?” has been asked, but no one has queried “Why a playground?”  Maybe because it matched her romper.

Play Inspiration from MUF Architecture, London

MUF architecture loughborough park playground theatre stage1MUF architecture thurrock playground play blanketmuf architecture hackney playground fence teeter totterMUF architecture camden playground water fountainMUF architecture camden playground treehouseMUF architecture loughborough park playground theatre stage2MUF architecture thurrock playground bench fence

I’m always intrigued by the work of MUF Architecture/Art, a rare female-led studio in London..their work is subtle, but always inspires me to new thoughts about play.  Look at how their  ‘play blanket’ on the ground busts the traditional playground boundary fence, and how their benches and teeter-totters do, too.

While the narrative elements of MUF’s play design aren’t as overt as, say, Monstrum’s,  I particularly like their creation of relics, both historic and fictitious, to add imagination.   In Camden, they put a water feature with an ornate historic-style mask right at the child’s level, and surrounded a tree with scrolly ironwork borrowed from London’s Victorian past.

MUF’s use of  of ‘ruins’, remnants of walls, in the landscape, is particularly inspiring.  Another firm might have torn down the old brick walls that surrounded the trash bins… but MUF knew that adding a platform and some fenestrations would make it a theatre.   They call this building on ‘marginalized’ play opportunities, and I’m inspired by it! Look around at your playscape this winter morning and think about what ‘marginalized’  play opportunities you can bring to the fore.

#PlaySculptureSaturday Motu Viget Swing, Grand Rapids, MI, Mark di Suvero, 1977

motu viget play sculpture swing mark di suvero grand rapids1motu viget play sculpture swing mark di suvero grand rapids5motu viget play sculpture swing mark di suvero grand rapids4motu viget play sculpture swing mark di suvero grand rapids6motu viget play sculpture swing mark di suvero grand rapids3

All of us are children at heart—or were children and have forgotten it. The child in us can respond to the piece.” Mark di Suvero, Grand Rapids Press, 1977

Sculptor Mark di Suvero‘s bold, exploding abstract sculptures are in some 50 cities worldwide. Though massive, they move; some components can be set in motion by a firm hand or just the wind.  But for Grand Rapids, Michigan whose city motto means ‘strength through activity’, di Suvero designed one of his most playful works,  ‘Motu Viget’,  enlivened by the addition of a giant tire swing that has become a favorite of the community.

I like that the tire swing is big enough to hold a crowd (communal play!) and that it quite naturally allows increasing levels of risk-taking:  images of children on the swing typically show them seated in its interior, while teens and adults tend to stand either inside the swing or (even riskier!) on top of it.  One of di Suvero’s characteristic H-beams, set on a perfectly calibrated slant, is readily interpreted by children as a slide without shouting “playground!”…a subtle approach to playability that more public space  installations should adopt.  There is no safety surfacing underneath, which I hope never changes.  That dirt has been just fine since 1977, thankyouverymuch.

“i had a dream that i had to drive to madison
to deliver a painting for some silly reason
i took a wrong turn and ended up in michigan
paul baribeau took me to the giant tire swing
gave me a push and he started singing
i sang along while i was swinging
the sound of our voices made us forget
that had ever hurt our feelings”

Kimya Dawson, “Tire Swing” song, from the movie Juno.

[maquette image from the Smithsonian, other images via grandrapidpress.  See also the kerfuffle over a di Suvero swing sculpture on NYC’s Governor’s Island that was altered because children’s play on it was ‘too exuberant’.  Because what we all want is non-exuberant play, right?  Sheesh.]

Playscapes hits 3,000,000!

And while I was hard at work in the lab, at some point the blog quietly ticked over 3,000,000 page views.  Wow, thanks!  Really, I am humbled by the trust you’ve placed in me the last seven years to host this conversation about great design for play, and what that looks like and how we can achieve it.

This might be a good time to remind my  practitioner readers that if you’ve been featured on the blog already you can join the provider’s directory…so that people can find you once you’re no longer on the blog’s front page!  Even if you don’t need the publicity, if Playscapes matters to how you conduct your work, please consider supporting it in this way, since the growth of the blog means that it now costs me about $1000 a month to run, not including my own time writing and coordinating.

Thanks again, to everyone, for being here.  Let’s translate those three million page views into innovative, beautiful, and inclusive spaces for play!


Octagon Shelter/Playhouse, Laura Marotta, Ontario, 2014

laura morotta octagon shelter playhouse1laura morotta octagon shelter playhouse2laura morotta octagon shelter playhouse3laura morotta octagon shelter playhouse4laura morotta octagon scupture radiant orchid

Thanks to artist Laura Marotta for submitting her octagon shelter/playhouse,  “a simple wooden and steel structure that makes use of shifting panels and components to allow the viewer to activate its functionality and modify its shape. The wooden shell is detailed with handles, hinges, latches, door stoppers and wheels, where swinging, pulling, opening and closing the panels allows for a range of seating options, shapes and views.”

I’m always hoping playground installations will become more moveable and flexible, and I love how the octagon shelter invokes those ideas!  Laura’s more static octahedral installations are also quite climbable and playful; I’d love to see them on the playground.


guest post

“Playgrounds that rip up the safety rules” by Tim Gill

tim gill playground safety1Newington Green KFC playgroundHelle Nebelong's ValbyparkenTeardrop Park, NYC, Michael van ValkenburghDutch playground by waterSpa Fields playground, LondonElm Village natural playscape, Camden, LondonNo safety surfacing, just dirt, in Tokyo

Editors Note:  With this post, I’m pleased to welcome Tim Gill to Playscapes!  Tim is  one of the UK’s leading thinkers on childhood. For over 15 years his writing, research, consultancy projects and other work has focused on the changing nature of childhood, children’s play and free time, and their evolving relationships with the people and places around them.  He has been a uniquely effective advocate for a re-evaluation of how we consider risk in the lives of children, and thanks to the Calouste Gulbenkian Foundation his book “No Fear:  Growing up in a Risk Averse Society”  is available in its entirety for free…download it now from the blog sidebar!    Tim also takes me to great playgrounds whenever I’m in London, and organized 2012′s “Open for Play” event.   We’ll start with reposting some of his most popular writings from his own website, rethinkingchildhood, which my readers may not have seen.  


And now here’s Tim:


This post has a simple aim: to get you to rethink playground safety. Through a handful of images of playgrounds from around the world, I hope to encourage you to abandon any preconceived notions you may have about what a safe playground looks like.

I focus on unsupervised, public play spaces. The kind of spaces that are routinely built and rebuilt, in their hundreds of thousands, every year, for children around the world.

This focus is deliberate. Yes, some staffed adventure playgrounds truly challenge our notions about risk in play. But they are a different model, with their high fences, restricted opening hours and attentive, engaged staff. Their approach to safety is a subject for another time. Likewise, school play spaces raise different questions again, and are not included here.

To be absolutely clear: what follows is not a collection of great play spaces – indeed some are, in design terms, disappointing. It is a provocation: a set of images that challenges received wisdom. Read more…


Apologies for the slowdown in posting while I try to change the world with nanotechnology. Seriously great things in the lab at the moment, but I’ll be back with more playgrounds (and my backlog of your emails and submissions!) starting tomorrow. Thanks for your understanding!


#PlaySculptureSaturday: Stone Cars and Trucks

stone vw beetle play sculpture1stone truck play sculpture1

It’s quite common to see cars and trucks or even tractors carved out of wood on the playground, but it stopped me in my tracks to see these stacked stone constructions!  I think kids would really enjoy climbing on these.  And it’s a wonderful way to involve local craftspeople in designing for play.  [found at the stoneartblog]

Sculptor Nancy Rubins arranges discarded playground equipment into exploding forms.  She’s currently working in post-war metal pieces, like spring riders…I’d love to see this idea expanded into the decaying plastic forms of the 1980s.  [ ‘Our Friend Fluid Metal, Chunkus Majoris’, 2013. Aluminum and stainless steel. © Nancy Rubins. Photography by Robert McKeever.]

I always enjoy the work of London-based Superblue Design….here a very playful fence that morphs into seating and a gate for Deptford Park in London.

#PlaySculptureSaturday: Midcentury Concrete Slides, University of Phillipines

concrete vintage play sculpture slide university phillipinesconcrete vintage play sculpture slide university phillipines2concrete vintage play sculpture slide university phillipines3

Unattributed, mysterious sculpture at the University of the Phillipines in Diliman.  Beautiful photography by Dan Matutina, via flickr in the first photograph; the second, by city tales,  shows that the sculpture once had a sandpit alongside.   An additional photo by Chris Villarin shows a higher but complementary slide, and they are nearby the university’s College of Architecture, so perhaps a mid-century student experiment in play sculpture and concrete construction?  Inspired by Egon Moller-Nielsen?   If you have any additional information, do help solve the mystery.

guest post

How Strange are our Dangers? How Dangerous are Strangers?

New York City playground signWashington Square playground fenceMadrid's Rio Park - no fence!Norway's Geo Park - no fence!Princeton's Marquand Park - no fence!

Editor’s Note:  I’m pleased to welcome play historian and expert Susan Solomon’s second column here at Playscapes.  In it, she challenges our overblown ‘fear of strangers’, and the limitations that fear places on how we design and use places for play.  Key quote:  ” If we see the playground as a potentially vibrant public space, then we have to rethink what it looks like and who goes there”

Watch for a permanent place for all of Susan’s “After the Deadline” columns in the blog sidebar coming soon! For now, read on…


How Strange are our Dangers? How Dangerous are Strangers?
by Susan Solomon

I have vivid memories of the trip my husband (who is also my trusted photographer) and I made to the Princes Diana Playground in Hyde Park, London. The playground opened in 2000 and we made our way there in 2004.  It was a bleak, bitterly cold December morning, just after the opening hour.  There were no children anywhere.  We walked up to a high gate and heard from an anonymous voice (with hindsight, the camera and speaker system were stunningly advanced for a decade ago) that we could not enter without a child.


The faceless gate did not want to hear that I had a contract to write a book about playgrounds and that this was a professional visit.  No kids meant no access.  I was that told that somewhere- quite far away-I could appeal the judgment but we were actually headed to the airport.  We settled for walking around the perimeter; my spouse took copious photos by placing his close up lens through the bars of the fence.


There are so many levels of silliness in this type of “protective” activity.  There were no children present; I had credentials; my husband could have documented every inch of the site if he had some nefarious activity in mind.  Annoyed, not offended, I recall this non-visit almost every time that I go to an urban public American playground.  While British colleagues tell me that the Diana playground is an aberration for the UK because it is a Royal Park that has its own rules, American urban playgrounds often have at least one sign on a fence that tells me I can come in only if I have a child in tow. New York City, for example, has park rules that create playground zones, where a child under twelve yeas old must accompany an adult.


It seems almost diabolical to question policy that presumes to shield youngsters from kidnappers and predators.   And, yet, we should ask if isolating playgrounds from the rest of the world is really necessary. Is it productive to relegate playgrounds to just children and their caregivers/parents?  Fear of strangers surely exists but is  “stranger danger” justified? Read more…