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.
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!
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.
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.}
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.
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.)
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.
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”.
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.
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.
“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
everything 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.]
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!
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.