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

Breaker’s Yard, Sutton House, Hackney London, 2014

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Finally, finally—scientific breakthroughs sorted and lectures delivered—a day for playgrounds.  We’ve got some catching up to do.  First up is the lovely Breaker’s Yard, newly installed at Sutton House, one of the National Trust’s only properties in London.   What I love about it:

1.  It represents work at the boundaries—overlapping garden and play.  If you don’t get that reference, maybe watch the first part of my talk from London Open for Play 2012  The most interesting work in play happens at the boundaries; merging garden and playground, street and playground, gallery and playground (more on that later).

2.  It honors a neglected part of local history.   Play design is finally learning to respond to local context; even inexpensive playgrounds now attempt references to the history of their site.  That is serious progress from when I started writing six years ago.  But in a city like London, with many local history references from which to choose, how do you pick?  Any site there has been many things over time.  Our tendency is to pick the part of history that we like best; and that rarely includes the years of neglect or hardship that most long-occupied urban sites have experienced.

But instead of re-creating the tidy back garden of a 16th century Tudor courtier’s house (which is what Sutton House is), this play garden reflects its past as what we in the US would call a junk or scrap yard—a breaker’s yard.  That’s a part of history most historic sites would try to forget.  The Sutton House play garden engages it, with tires that serve as sand and plant boxes and seats, a welded steel gate–cleverly angled to control the views of passersby—that includes tiny toy cars, and yes, a discarded CARAVAN that functions as a play house, amped up with an elaborately carved fireplace mantel and a spindled staircase; a cheeky reference to the stately homes that are the National Trust’s usual stock in trade..  It’s brilliant, but according to London-based playground expert Tim Gill, it was the piece of the project that almost didn’t get approval.  Is it the only abandoned caravan on premises of the oh-so-proper National Trust?  I think it might be.  Huzzah!

3.  Community engagement AND access.  Credit goes to Christopher Cleeve of Sutton House for managing this innovative project–which hopefully will serve as a model for  play at other National Trust sites–including the selection of the scrap yard landscape (rather than say, a Tudor knot garden) because it was a reference within the recent memory of local residents.  Chris has also ensured that locals have free access, without needing to pass through the house, via a back gate, so that the space can truly be a part of the community.   Daniel Lobb  along with Deborah Curtis and Gavin Turk of  House of Fairy Tales designed the landscape, including the playground essentials of sand and water, which sit alongside edible garden beds, an ice cream van, and space for grown-ups to sit in the sun and enjoy the play.

Vintage playground equipment survives most often in out of the way places…this beauty of a globe climber with attached double slides is in Ayacucho, Peru.  [source]

Untitled (playground) by Picasso, Chicago, 1967

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The untitled Picasso sculpture on Richard Daley plaza in Chicago,above, is one of the examples of public sculpture  I’ll be using at my talk at Site Gallery in Sheffield, 5:30 pm on the 16th.  Chicago’s official response to its appropriation as a playground has moved from forbiddance to annoyance to tolerance to acceptance to finally reflectance of the public’s chosen use with the installation of playful letters forming the word ‘Picasso’ that invite interaction.

“Play Sculpture from the Pre-Playground to the Post-Playground Era”
As long as there has been public art, children have tried to play on it.  At various times their play has been forbidden, tolerated, accommodated, and honored.  In the mid-twentieth century, it was actively promoted by the creation of new sculpted forms purpose-designed for play.  As we enter a post-playground era, the resurgence of interest in play sculpture provides unique opportunities for artists, urbanists and child advocates to envision new ways of integrating play and art within the public realm.  A visual survey of sculpture as both unintentional and intentional playground over time–focused on the mid-twentieth century–will provide inspiration and historical context for a talk that will end with today’s digital landscapes.

Hope to see you there!

**Please note that I doubled-booked myself on September 20th; rather than being in Sheffield again I’ll be at Glamis Adventure Playground in London as part of London Open House.  I’d love to see my readers at either event.

Play Sculpture (and Paige) in Sheffield, September 16

The lab is up and functioning in our new and bigger space, thanks for being understanding.   Some day your cell phone batteries will last twice as long because of  nanotechnology and you can think back and be like, yeah, those times  when she couldn’t keep up with the blog, that’s when all that was happening.  I’m incredibly behind on emails, too; if you’ve sent something recently maybe just resend.

All my schedule needs is an international flight, so I’m pleased to announce that I’ll be giving a lecture in conjunction with the Planning for Play exhibition by my friends Simon and Tom Bloor, running at the Site Gallery in Sheffield UK until the 20th of September!

Simon & Tom are working on a series of play sculptures inspired by some of our favorite people:  Aldo van Eyck, Richard Dattner, and Lady Allen Hurtwood.  They’ve transformed the Site Gallery into a combination of studio, exhibition, and play space where they are publicly working up drawings and designs, and experimenting with new materials for  a series of sculptures based on their research into children’s playspaces and the postwar urban landscape.

My talk, Play Sculpture from the Pre-Playground to the Post-Playground Era  will be on Tuesday the 16th, at 5:30 pm.  Register online at Site Gallery.  Do come, and  don’t fail to introduce yourself!  I love to meet readers, and I want to hear your thoughts on what you find exciting and interesting in play.

If you can, also make time to hear Jumping Stones:  The Playspaces of Aldo van Eyckon Saturday the 20th at 12:30 pm, given by Anna van Lingen and Denisa Kollarova, who have been studying our hero’s work in Amsterdam. .  I’ll be there for that one too!  Hope to see you in Sheffield.

Compare Myers’ work to the tenement playground in a Boston alley, photographed by the great Lewis Hine, c. 1909.  Via wikimedia commons, but owned by the George Eastman House.   This is what the playfields, playgrounds, and sand gardens were were designed to address.

The Playground Paintings of Jerome Myers, 1907, 1926, 1937

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[Jumping right in to Throwback Thursday since I am in the middle of relocating my laboratory to a new place with room for scientific co-working! And art! So excited. Back to regular posting next week.]

The paintings of artist Jerome Myers provide an insightful view of changes in the American playground space in New York City in the early 20th century.  The first, simply entitled ‘The Playground‘ , c. 1907,  shows a grassy sports field to which some play equipment for smaller children has been added.  This was the common format for early play spaces, though the children’s play area was more often separated from the field by a hedge or a fence. The word ‘playground’ was at first nearly synonymous with ‘sports field’.   Note how young the children are, and the long (but orderly!) line awaiting a turn at the single piece of equipment. (“The Playground” sold at Christies for $30,550 in 2000)

“Playground Pleasures” is from 1926 and shows that the play and its equipment has separated from the sports field and moved into the fabric of the city.  The urban square has a maypole and a teeter-totter, and the sheer number of adults around indicate that they were intentionally sited in a place with a high density of mothers and children, likely on a shopping street…this is basically a ‘mall’ playground. (“Playground Pleasures” is in the collection of the Smithsonian American Art Museum).

City Playground” from 1937 immortalizes the sandbox, whose portability and low cost quickly made it an essential urban distraction, without the maintenance and indeed, risk of equipment with moving parts.  New York City was not the first in this regard; Boston was the great city of what were then called ‘sand gardens’, in which children in sun bonnets sprouted like so many flowers.  From Boston, the idea spread rapidly throughout the United States, often implemented by philanthropic women’s groups…another thesis topic waiting to happen.  (“City Playground” is in a private collection.)

Jerome Myers was born in Virginia but spent his adult life painting New York City.  Any Gotham history buffs who can pinpoint the location of these scenes?

“All my life I had lived, worked and played in the poorest streets of American cities. I knew them and their population and was one of them. Others saw ugliness and degradation there, I saw poetry and beauty, so I came back to them. I took a sporting chance of saying something out of my own experience and risking whether it was worthwhile or not. That is all any artist can do.”

Sometimes our grown-up design eyes look down at ‘themed’ playgrounds as too literal.  But I think most kids look at them with delight.  This giant red wagon is one element of Spokane Washington’s Riverfront Park, by artist Ken Spiering. [image source]

This is truly advanced DIY, but I’m glad to see this instructable for a concrete gecko!  The design steps could be adapted to other forms, and the artist’s sharing of his concrete recipe (3 parts sand, 1part Portland cement, 10% Magnesium Oxide, Fly ash, steel fibre reinforcing, glass fibre reinforcing, water reducing compound) is particularly useful.   [thanks, Oleg!]

A round-up of some miscellaneous playful ideas today…this sculpture, on the grounds of the Memphis college of art, is an interactive version of those flip-face books we loved as children.  I’d like to see this on a playground!  [via flickr, artist unknown.  If you have more info, please provide it!]

Play Before Playgrounds, Kinderspel, Jacob Cats, 1618

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Going waaay back for Throwback Thursday, to a pre-playground era and the emblem book of Jacob Cats, (1577-1660), a Dutch poet, lawyer, and statesman.  Children are at play in a city square (yay!  play in the city center!) at blindman’s buff and leap frog,  somersaults and bubble-blowing.  No “equipment”, but there are jumpropes, kites,  hoops, whirligigs, stilts, plus dolls and kitchen implements (for the girls) and lots of stick-swords and military band instruments for the boys.  In keeping with the values of the time period, gendered play was seen as preparing the children for their adult roles, and the imagery bears a hidden moral message (all emblem books do)…the stilts represent ‘ego’ because they are higher than others, the bubbles represent the brevity of life.

Play, even if it appears without sense,
Contains a whole world therein;
The world and its complete structure,
Is nothing but a children’s game;
Thus, after the frost thaws
When you look at all that foolish youth does,
You will understand on the street
How the whole world goes;
You will find there, I know it well
Your own folly in children’s games.

[via the Library of Congress.  See also Children's Games by Breughel, one of the very first posts on Playscapes way back in 2008.]

And don’t forget that most any wide and sturdy roof eave can accomodate a swing…this one is by Kimuramatsumoto Architects via designboom.

Or see full instructions for a skateboard swing made from a new deck at HandmadeModern!

Beautiful use for a well-loved board…a backyard skateboard swing captured by Latvian  artist / photographer Margarita Germane, entitled  Summer Stories.