How to Engage Kids and Community in Playground Design

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Paige’s Note:  Playground designers often have the goal of involving  the community and particularly its children into the design process.  But it can be difficult to move the conversation beyond swings and slides.   In this column, Susan Solomon provides a practical list of questions for kids and adults that that elicit memories and feelings about play instead of explicit play constructs.  She teams her list with with examples of designers who used community feedback creatively; including one of the best playgrounds in the world that was built to answer the expressed desire of a community for risk-taking!  

by Susan G. Solomon

How can we learn what children and adults want and need in playgrounds? And how can we make sure that those playgrounds are a vital public space?

These questions were front and center when I participated in a recent review for students in a graduate program for landscape architects.  The focus of the course was how to create playgrounds that would stimulate creative, harmonious, healthy urban living.

One of my fellow jurors chastised (rightfully) these young designers for failing to diligently observe how local folks – young and old- used the designated spaces during the course of the day.  How did participants and their activities change as the day progressed?  Who interacted with whom? What did they DO?

Those who read this column regularly know that I have no confidence in asking children ” what they want” inserted into their play space.  The results tend to be shallow and simplistic.  Noted psychologist Roger Hart has long maintained that kids will just “spit back” what they have seen elsewhere. Adults don’t fare any better.  In my November column I wrote about the Superkilen in Copenhagen and how the designers may have settled for too little information when they installed objects in the  from the homelands of immigrants who live in the housing nearby.

Perhaps we need guidelines, suggestions about the best questions to ask in order to gather the most significant information.  Surely there has to be stringent observation of what participants do, but there can be more. Taking a cue from Hart, I have some recommendations to make as to how to consider addressing kids or adults.  Here are some possible ” ice breakers” with each group, although I am sure you can come up with many more.

Ask kids:
What is the most dangerous, scary places you have ever gone?
Where would you like to go alone?
Where would you like to be right now?
What do you do that your parents tell you not to try?
What is the highest  you have ever climbed?
Where do you go to be alone? To be with friends?
What is the silliest thing you have ever done?
What games do you invent?

Ask adults
Where did you play as a child? As a teen?
Tell me about the neighborhood where you grew up.
What crazy things did you do when you were young?
Where do you spend free time now?
What is the best activity you and your kids share?
Do you have a favorite private space?
What value or sensation do you want your kids to experience: e.g.  risk, fear, failure, satisfaction, accomplishment, beauty, tranquility, action?

Asking the question is just half of this exercise.  What do you do with this data?  This is where the planner/designer has to think broadly.  For example, if a child says that climbing trees is scary and prohibited but he would like to continue to do it, then perhaps you have to think about access to high, dangerous looking (but not necessarily inappropriate) places where it is not known if every kid can get to the top on the first try. Another example would be to respond to a child who likes to talk with a few friends.  Think about how to create small intimate, even hidden spaces to support that kind of friendship and interaction.

There are already three remarkable projects that illustrate how different processes could work. In Paris, the city wanted to rip out a deteriorating multi level playground that nestled into a hillside.  In preparation to choosing a design team, the city hired a facilitator CODEJ (le Comité pour la Développement d’Espaces pour le Jeu) to conduct surveys and workshops with the parents.  The most critical phase was asking the adults (most of whom were recent émigrés to France) to rank intentions they hoped to see in the final product. They had to access values such as risk taking; imaginative play; being safe. They overwhelming chose risk taking, a concept they felt they had experienced as young people but was not necessarily available on French playgrounds.  The ingenious part is that CODEJ asked several teams of landscape architects to come up with a similar set of evaluations.  It was a no brainer to choose BASE landscape architects when they designated risk taking as their primary goal.

The finished piece, in Parc Belleville, displays the best type of healthy risk: open ended play where children have lots of choices and never know exactly how things will end.  There are several levels, including the folded concrete base on which kids can hoist themselves; the wood section that is filled with lots of odd angles and challenging surfaces; and a large orange tower for which the children also have to figure out how to make their way up and through it.

In Norway, the firm TYIN  Tegnestue Architects has come up with their own strategies.  Working in a poor area of Bangkok, they asked the children describe and draw their homes.  From the intense sunlight the children repeatedly drew, the architects learned that shade was an appreciated luxury and would be a meaningful addition to their design. The architects also asked the children to bring in a single item from their homes and to talk about it.  They were particularly taken by the glass that one child brought; it lead to discussion about light refracted through glass or prisms. it inspired them to make sure there are many hanging lights so that the children and the surrounding community can feel safe at night.  They  also interpreted “lantern” as another version of faceted glass, one that protects a flame.  They named their sheltered multi- use space the Klong Toey Community Lantern.  There are two  levels (also inspired by the kids’ drawing of how they can observe each other from up above); many opportunities to climb along the walls of the oblong structure; to perform on a stage; or to play  basketball or sit in cozy nooks.

Back in their own country, TYIN worked with Rintala Eggertsson Architects (2013) on a pilot project called Barnetraak for the Gran municipality and the State Department for Roads. The goal was come up with models for activity where children could pause and interact when they walk or bike to school. The completed design is outstanding: a cluster of free standing “huts” with vividly colored, unexpected interiors. If the children had been asked directly what they wanted, it is unlikely they would have thought about a staircase to nowhere or a series of broad shelves  Have a look at these handsome, yet inexpensive, paradigms (which may be replicated on other Norwegian roads) and see how fantastic design is possible on a limited budget.  I challenge you all to think of how many activities exist in the grouping of 4 (the number is totally variable). Just a few  could be: playing house; organizing a store; performing a dance or song; hiding under shelves or jumping from one to another; moving across an overhead beam; climbing through an open “window; ” or sitting as a small group on facing benches.

We can all learn from these three examples. Remember: there are no “right” questions; no predetermined answers; no single interpretations.

Hopefully, we can liberate ourselves to learn the most from children and this data will lead us to stimulating exciting conclusions for all families.

Photos of Paris courtesy of Robert S. Solomon; the ones from Bangkok and Norway are by Pasi Aalto, courtesy of TYIN Tegnestue Architects.


#TBT Constructive Play, c. 1917

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“The value of constructive play as a factor of development is an unworked educational mine”  Edgar James Swift, 1917

In Manual training — Play problems; constructive work for boys and girls based on the play interest, William S. Marten extols the virtues of constructive play (basically building stuff from tops to ‘roller coasters’).  In keeping with Victorian notions of play as an element of social control and reform, constructive play is said to counter ‘destructive play’ tendencies.

Our philosophy of play has changed since then, but the illustrations and how-tos in the book for playful items like kaleidoscopes, spinning tops, swings, stilts and slingshots are charming, and Marten’s recommendation of collecting scrap materials for constructive play prefigures the adventure playground as well as the modern idea of the Scrap Store (which I wish I saw on more playgrounds!).

See the whole book at the PublicDomainReview, original source the Library of Congress, and thanks to Chris for the tip!

Playgrounds and the Pritzker Prize

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Architecture’s top prize for 2016 has been awarded to Alejandro Aravena of Chile, executive director of Santiago-based ELEMENTAL, a “Do Tank,” (as opposed to a think tank…love that concept).  In the publicity heralding the prize, it has been heartening to see a playground prominently featured! I know of no other Pritzker prize winner whose body of work includes a playscape at all, much less a monumental children’s park with a hill of slides and a wall of play like ELEMENTAL designed for Santiago.  I previously featured the Bicentennial Children’s Park here on Playscapes in 2014, but here’s another look at it in honor of the prize; also don’t miss a video of it available on VIMEO (privacy settings won’t allow me to embed it).

As part of the adjudication process the Pritzker jury visits all the sites.   I hope that their visits, and the award itself, increase recognition within the architectural community that playgrounds are a significant part of the built environment and worthy of their best efforts.

Ibtasem Playground for Syrian Refugee Children, CatalyticAction, 2015

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“Within humanitarian responses, programmatically, children often become invisible” (Marc Sommers).  Sadly, this is true of many of society’s responses, not just  humanitarian ones.  But CatalyticAction, a non-profit design studio that works internationally, is “intervening with projects that catalyse change in society”.  I’m pleased that they recognize play–particularly children’s play–as one of the things that catalyses change!

Their “Ibtasem” playground in Bar Elias, Lebanon–a city that hosts about 150,000 Syrian refugees–was constructed after an extensive design consultation with the camp’s children.  Out of these sessions grew a plan for a modular playscape–easy to raise, easy to strike–whose spaces allow for both active and quiet play.  Locally sourced materials used for the construction can be recycled when the refugee camp is no longer necessary, and the children participated in some elements of the build.

I particularly like the way CatalyticAction’s design mingles sport and play; too often the sporting field and the playground seem to be spatial enemies, and this is unnecessary (see also the integration of basketball in this Bankok playscape by Tyin Tegnestue).    The modular spaces of the climbing frame provide easy spectator space for a game of basketball on the attached court; a perfect way to gather multiple generations in mutual enjoyment of the play space.

And there’s a roof made of vegetable crates that will soon grow over with jasmine. Because playgrounds-should-not-be-deserts, even when they are in one.

I love to see great design in difficult conditions!  CatalyticAction, who raised funds for the playground via indiegogo and partnered with Arup for the engineering,  plans to expand and perfect their ideas at other sites in Lebanon.

“Through rigorous design practices, community engagement and understanding the specificities of different contexts, we are working to better the lives of marginalised and disadvantaged groups in different global settings. We work with communities to deliver projects that they can go on to sustain themselves; integrating our design and architectural skills with our experience in participatory engagement to bring about positive transformations. We endeavour to challenge the status-quo, where marginalised groups can become dependent on long term aid, and instead work to produce self-sufficient and strong communities.

We do not use a ‘one-solution-fits-all’ approach; in order to bring about lasting change we believe that interventions should be designed for specific spaces, groups and times. “  -CatalyticAction

“Aldo van Eyck, Seventeen Playgrounds” by Anna van Lingen and Denisa Kollarová

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When I spoke at Sheffield’s Site Gallery in 2014, Anna van Lingen and Denisa Kollarová were also on the slate to discuss their project examining seventeen of Aldo van Eyck’s remaining playgrounds in Amsterdam.   Their talk, below, has unique contemporary footage and ind-depth discussion of the site’s elements, and their book entitled “Aldo Van Eyck, Seventeen Playgrounds”, is now available for pre-order at the reduced price of 15 euro!  Email [email protected] with your name, address, and number of copies by January 25 to take advantage of the offer.

“Aldo van Eyck, Seventeen Playgrounds is a pocket size tour guide that brings you to seventeen remaining playgrounds in the centre of Amsterdam. While you are moving from one playground to the next, you will get to know more about the city, Aldo van Eyck and his ideas about designing for children…An important aspect of his design is his strive to stimulate the imagination and ingenuity of the child, which is visible in the minimalistic shapes of the play equipment.

Throughout the years van Eyck developed a web of over seven hundred playgrounds scattered across the city, in order to give children their own recognizable domain. Of these hundreds of playgrounds you nowadays only find a few remaining play elements that have to share their space with colorful slides and swings, many have completely disappeared and only few playgrounds are still intact. ”

Play in Cuba: Past, Present, and Future

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I’ve posted a few photos of Cuban playgrounds before, and like other aspects of the island they are at once both past and present, trapped in time.  C. 1950s playgrounds have been the most likely future, too, but I’m excited that great new things are on the verge of happening in Cuba!  Playscapes friend Chris Wangro is producing an international music festival that will leave something beautiful behind when it packs up and goes home:   a contemporary playground for the community.  The photos in this post are his reconnaisance of the ‘as-is’ state of play in Cuba:  heavy metal swings and teeter-totters (also seen across Eastern Europe) are the playground version of repetitive Stalinist architecture, but some nameless designer was reaching for something greater in the lightning bolts of a constructivist-style concrete basketball stadium.   I’m intrigued that at least one of the sites Chris found aspired to be a true playscape:  a cohesive designed landscape with benches and lights and nice serpentine paths surround the play equipment.  Even in disrepair it seems like a pleasant place to be (and note the vintage car in the back of the photo)!

But most inspirational in thinking towards new places for play in Cuba is the beauty of play as it is found, as children make it themselves, seen against a backdrop of cloudy, ethereal decay.  The decay cannot be so beautiful to those who reside in it as it is to those of us who see it from our tidy lives afar, but the play crosses all boundaries of time, geography and even politics in its appeal.  It is play-as-hope, play-as-freedom.

[If you’re interested in being a part of the Cuba project drop me an email.  Potential funders/providers particularly welcome!]



Announcing the 2015 Play Hero Blocks honoring Isamu Noguchi!

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This is the third year for Playscapes’  series of blocks inspired by heroes of  play, and I’m pleased to announce the 2015 edition honoring the great sculptor Isamu Noguchi!  As early as 1933, Noguchi was designing sculpted landforms for children’s play when the rest of the world had only recently come to acknowledge the swing and the slide.  His grandest conceptions (like the surrealist playscape for the United Nations building) were never realized, though his smaller play sculptures and equipment were.  Nevertheless, Noguchi’s influence can be felt in virtually every site that can truly be termed a playscape.  He was the first–and for a long time the only–designer to understand that spaces for play should be fully realized and non-flat landscapes rather than simplistic sets of equipment.

Artist and artisan Jen Bulthuis of Fidoodle has designed the Noguchi blocks that you can arrange endless configurations of the Noguchi play works and children at play.  Perfect for kids from 3-99!

I’ll be saying much more about Noguchi and his play designs as the days count down to a new year, but from now until the end of the week (December 5), enter PLAYNOGUCHI during checkout at the Playscapes online store to get 25% off your set!   The 2013 (Aldo van Eyck) and 2014 (Theodor Sorenson) editions are available there as well.

Sensory Playscape, Gudgudee, Mumbai, India, 2015

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While I love to feature high-design projects like the Nova, there is always a special place in my heart for the small and inexpensive, and low-cost projects can (and should!) be just as visually appealing as any grand design.

The playscape designed by Indian design firm Gudgudee  for the Research Society – Jai Vakeel School for children in need of Special Care, Mumbai, India fits the bill:  it has been dubbed “Chiri Chiriyo”,  which means laughter of a child in Malayalam language.

In quite a small space, Gudgudee has installed a sensory landscape with great local texture: bamboo chimes from local Maharashtrian craftsmen (who usually carve out flutes) and copper bells in different sizes and resonances from Kutch region of Gujarat.  Setting both these items into colorful, geometric metal frames adds significantly to the visual character of the space.    Convex mirrors–like those used for store security–are readily available, inexpensive, and add that optical element I’m always looking for in playgrounds.   There are also foot-friendly tactile pavers, and an interactive wall organizes the space and provides a focal visual element.  I like the fact that its top surface is smooth for climbing and sliding.  The niches and cutouts make individual hide-outs as well as enabling simple games that improve fine motor skills like passing ropes through the holes.

Well done, Gudgudee!  I’m always excited to see new design firms get into play, and I look forward to more interesting work from you.

Nova Kaleidoscope Playhouse, SOFTlab, New York City, December 2015

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Things I’d like to see on the playground…in my ongoing quest to inspire more use of reflective and chromatic surfaces–optically active stuff–on the playground I’m inspired by the holiday commission for the Flatiron district in New York City:  a grown-up playhouse, really, that features kaleidoscopic facets and sound-responsive LEDs.   The color effects come from the use of 3M Dichroic film on the interior; a relatively inexpensive material that playscape designers should be using!   Another great feature of Nova is the apertures in the exterior that frame iconic landmarks of the neighborhood.  Playgrounds should always PLAY LOCAL by including unique aspects of their site’s history and surroundings, and adding intentional viewpoints to other urban features is a great way to do this.  The Nova installation is by SOFTLab, commissioned by the Van Alen Institute, and it’s temporary, so make sure you experience it before Christmas!



The deadline is approaching for teams to register to design an innovative play space for a public school, library, and recreational center in Philadelphia! Note that “Multidisciplinary, integrated teams must have at least one licensed landscape architect, architect, or civil engineer”, and it does cost $300 to enter.

DEADLINE:  November 30, 2015!


Seeking artists for a climbable, playable sculpture to be part of a new playscape in Miami, Florida!  Local or Florida artists preferred, but others are welcome to submit as well.  Send me (arcadyatcoxdotnet) some information about yourself and either images or links to your work, and a quick draft concept that would fit within a roughly $80,000 total commission!  DEADLINE: SUNDAY, DECEMBER 6, 2015.


PLAY[ground] for Vivid Sydney, 2015

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The international design firm HASSELL recently teamed up with non-profit Archikidz and Sydney Living Museums to create PLAY[ground], a three day destination event in the in the heart of Sydney.  A sell-out crowd visited over three days to swing, climb,  crawl, tunnel, jump and connect.  A free but ticketed event, PLAY[ground] reached capacity before the gates even opened. Six thousand people – including 4,000 children – attended over the course of the three-day installation that was part of the 2015 VIVID Sydney festival.”

“The Archikidz brief called for a single playground. But, after testing early plans with a group of children, HASSELL created a collection of interactive installations to inspire different types of outdoor play. Kids were diving into multi-coloured ball pools, shimmying up ropes, and running through the maze of plants and a forest of multi-coloured ribbons made from old parachutes. Retired sailing spinnakers and timber palettes were given new life as platforms for kids to swing on, climb through, crawl under and jump off.  At the end of it all, everything was repurposed, returned or recycled – accomplishing the ultimate low cost, low impact event at the heritage-listed barracks.”

Great design and great fun, of course, but I love that the goals of this project went beyond “just” play.  The team wanted to “make kids seen and heart in the city”, and in so doing inspire city makers to think creatively about the future of cities:  what makes them great, and what makes them playable.   Too many play advocates just wave their hands vaguely and cry “let the children play!”  But more rigorous and expansive thinking is required to build a playful future, to see play as both an end in itself AND a means that helps us understand and build community.

“The program for PLAY[ground] included a number of free workshops about city-making and the built environment. Kids, families and friends immersed themselves in green wall workshops with specialists, Junglefy, drew their visions for the future city, and experimented with new ways of travelling through the city with parkour lessons.

Kids shared their thoughts about how they would make cities more liveable and fun in the HASSELL ‘Little House: Big ideas’ – a wooden cubby house in the middle of PLAY[ground]. While there were plenty of references to jet packs and robots, many kids spoke about the importance of green space, how living in an apartment allows you to make the most of the city, and new types of environmentally-friendly transport they would like to see ‘when they grow up’.

“The legacy of PLAY[ground] lives on…the green wall created by Junglefy with hundreds of kids and their parents will be installed in its permanent location at Ultimo Community Centre very soon. The parkour equipment has a new home at Pyrmont Community Centre, and will soon become a new location for the boys from Jump Squad HQ to run parkour workshops.”

Collaborators: Archikidz, Sydney Living Museums, Junglefy, Andreasens Green, Design Landscape, Innov8 Access, JumpSquad, Imprint Acoustics
Photography: James Horan, Vin Rathod, HASSELL

Lessons from Superkilen, Copenhagen by Susan Solomon

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Paige’s Note:  As I try to again ease back into posting after an intensive focus on my other life in science (aka, the Alternate Universe), I’m pleased to present Susan Solomon’s latest After the Deadline column with thoughts on the Superkilen: a rebellious public space in best-city-for-play Copenhagen.  I’ve never featured it on the blog, not because I didn’t know about it, but because I doubted it.  It’s undeniably photogenic (and I was excited to see a Japanese play octopus, one of the first sculptural pieces I featured on Playscapes)  but I wondered whether the self-conscious settings translated to a good experience on the ground for either pedestrians or players.  I’ve never had the opportunity to visit, but Susan Solomon has, and her analysis confirms my concerns that this playful public space was designed more for visual effect than for visitor experience; a disservice to the residents it was supposed to serve.  And it is of historical interest to me that Superkilen’s heavy-handed, top-down design approach was implemented in a neighborhood that once fought a losing “playground war”  to retain a self-built, community constructed adventure playground.  Times have clearly changed.  

Lessons from Superkilen, Copenhagen, by Susan G. Solomon

I worry about public space that is captured in images that are “too good to be true.”  Such is the case with Superkilen, an urban linear park in Copenhagen.  And like the old adage, the on-the-ground experience is not as good as the photos.   When I saw it this past summer, I came away thinking that Superkilen is a wonderfully photogenic one-kilometer long stretch, one that sadly does not live up to its promise. It’s a pity the results are not more positive because millions of people are already familiar with it (they might not know its name) thanks to an iPhone ad that placed it on magazine covers and billboards this past spring. Readers might remember the dramatic images of white squiggly lines on an undulating black surface.  The cost of Superkilen- over $8 million-compounds my feeling of unease.

The results are all the more dispiriting because heartfelt intentions underlay the Superkilen concept.  It represents a potent belief that design can ameliorate social shortcomings and foster community.   Creating Superkilen was an attempt to improve the everyday life of newcomers who have arrived in Copenhagen over the past decade.  Many are poor and live jammed together in the roughest area of the city, Nørrebro  (although to American eyes this neighborhood appears much more benign than inner cities in the USA and there is at least one street, previously notorious for killings and crime, which now hosts upscale restaurants). Superkilen was introduced as a respite space, a series of outdoor hubs where local residents could gather. Read more…

Inflatable Playascape, PneuHaus, Burning Man 2015

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I’ve never been a fan of the “bouncy castle” genre of temporary play installations, so it’s exciting to see the new company PneuHaus (founded in 2013 by designers Matthew Muller and August Lehrecke) re-interpreting the playable inflatable by draping two types of nets– loosely woven for climbing and tightly woven for sitting–over giant air-filled columns.  It’s Burning Man, so grown-ups at play, but I’d love to see kids get a chance at this Playascape.

Also don’t miss their Pneumatic Masonry (last 2 photos), which is like a temporary, air-filled version of the bubble climbers of Peter Pearce from the 1970s and 1980s.   Very interesting ideas here…I’ll be watching, PneuHaus! (and thanks to Chris for the tip!)


Gatos Recycled Playground, Basurama, Rio de Janeiro, 2015

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Basurama Brasil’s latest playful resurrection of recyclables is open for play at the Casa Daros Museum Rio, “for children under 99 years old”!  Reminiscent of the Lions’ Park playscape by Rural Studio in Alabama,  it takes oil barrel-based construction a bit further by enlivening a selection of 200 of them with punchy colors and creative patterns, and adding tent-like roofs made from obsolete museum banners by Argentinian artist Fabian Marcaccio.   I love the addition of nets, too,  which are such an easy way to make any self-constructed playscape even more playable.  If you are so lucky as to be in Rio, you can visit and play until November 15th.