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

chicago picasso slide play sculpture1chicago picasso slide play sculpture2image by picasso slide play sculpture4

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

jerome myers the playground 1907jerome myers playground pleasures 1926 smithsonianjerome myers city playground 1937Boston's first sand garden, North End c. 1922.  C.E. Rainwater's  "The Play Movement in the United States", p. 22jerome myers playground artist

[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

antique childrens games play jacob cats  kinderspel1antique childrens games play jacob cats  kinderspel2antique childrens games play jacob cats  kinderspel3

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.  

Girl on a Swing, Pitt St., New York City, Walter Rosenblum, 1938

Ahh, playground risk…look how high!  And she’s standing up!  For throwback Thursday,  Walter Rosenblum’s Girl on a Swing Pitt St., New York 1938[source]

What Playgrounds can Learn from Swings as Art Installations, Part 2

photo by James Ewingwaterfall swing art installationswing set drum kit dave fordswing art installation 21 balancoiresswing art installation particular heights paul theriault siebren versteegswing art installation amanda long bring to lightLight swing Phil reyneribird cage swing jacques rival londonswing art installation silence lea lim

4.  Make swinging a rich experience.    That’s really why so many people went to the Ann Hamilton Event of a Thread; not just to swing, but to swing in the middle of an art piece–illuminated in a patch of light, underneath a billowing cloud of fabric.  So think of how you might add a layer of additional experience to your playground swing:.

WATER—perhaps just a summertime mist rather than the deluge of the Waterfall Swing, but I’d like to see some more integration of water and swinging (I know, I can hear the safety police coming now).

SOUND: The  Swing-set-drum-kit by visual artist Dave Ford  might be too raucous for a permanent installation (though great for a festival), but the bell-like tones of 21 balancoires are melodious enough not to annoy the neighbors.   The bottom of the swings are also lit, forming beautiful arcs at night.  The original 21 balancoires installation in Montreal was wildly successful, so  daily tous les jours  created a more portable project; The Swings (video below), with a greater variety of tones and a greater emphasis on night-lighting.

MOTION:  Swinging can be easily transferred to other forms of motion (like the waving banners of Swing-it), or with a bit more difficulty translated to other forms of energy (like the electricity of Moradavaga’s Swing), or simply detected.  Particular Heights by Paul Theriault and Siebren Versteeg ‘counts’ each swing above a certain height.  The count is shown on a counter attached to the swing, but it also forms part of a gallery show in which a webcam captured snapshot of the swinger in flight becomes part of a looping stop motion visual.   See also the Laughing Swing previously featured on Playscapes, which generates sounds of laughter relative to the height of the swinger’s arc.

LIGHT: At Nuit Blanche NYC 2011, Amanda Long’s Bring to Light  generated multi-colored projections of swingers onto a wall in front of them.  And creative technologist Phil Reyneri proposes a combination of both motion and light effects, in which “Participants on the swings will look up to see massive columns of light sweeping through the night sky; each set of beams acting as a visual extension of an individual’s motion. Encoder data will drive game logic, encouraging users to “unlock” brightness and color patterns by swinging in sync. Participants are rewarded with more complex and spectacular light shows the more they work together.”  I really hope it gets built.

That brings us to 5.  Make swinging a communal experience.   Many of these installations are richly communal; bringing a variety of users together in a single space.  Playgrounds should learn from that.   Look at the faces on participants of the swings in series at Swing Hall Swing All, by keetra dean dixon.   Not the same if you’re alone.  The one swing art installation I didn’t like was Jacques Rival’s Bird Cage swing in London, where the swinger swings lonely in a cage.  I much prefer Silence, by Lea Lim.  I’m sure there is some safety regulation against hanging so many swings together, but noone can move very much, so really, where’s the harm?  Swings are best in community.

I started this blog with the thought that playgrounds should be better.  Swings should be better, too, so let’s get busy.   If you build an amazing, innovative swing, get in touch.



The Swings: An Exercise in Musical Cooperation from Daily tous les jours on Vimeo.

What Playgrounds can Learn from Swings as Art Installations, Part 1

swing art installation event of a thread_Ann_Hamilton_JamesEwingswing art installation 21 Balançoiresswing park dallasswings basuramaswing art installation mi casa su casa high museum atlantaswing art installation jillian mayer cloud swingmirred swing art installation Thilo Frank

I sometimes get mail criticizing the number of art installations I feature, as not being ‘true’ playgrounds.   But these temporary play spaces–by artists, designers, makers, and urban interventionists outside of the narrow field of play practitioners–are where the playgrounds of the future are being born.  They, not academics and not formulaic manufacturers, are the ones testing new forms, experimenting with innovative ideas, and particularly addressing the neglected interface of play and aesthetics; all necessary to engage children and parents with play spaces amid the visual saturation of the twenty-first century.

Thousands stood in long lines to visit Anne Hamilton’s Event of a Thread swings in New York last year.   Why aren’t playground swings that engaging?  What can playground makers learn from the swing-as-art-installation (which, like the slide-in-office, is having a moment)?

1.  Everybody loves a swing.   Children, but adults, too, and playground designers should picture grown-ups as participants, not just  ‘pushers’ in swinging.  The ’21 balancoires’ of award-winning design group Daily tous les jours accommodate both large and small swingers.  Your playground should too.

2.  Free the swings from the playground.  One of the key elements of the ‘Post-Playground Era’ (some of we playground people are considering hosting a conference on that, by the way…get in touch if you’re interested) is the distribution of smaller play elements throughout the cityscape in new places and unexpected ways.  Coming upon a swing in a playground is no surprise.  But at a bus station or in a market square or a parking space, like the temporary Swing Park in Dallas, it is sheer delight, and engages both children and adults in a whole new way (see also A Brief History of the Urban Swing).   Swings are particularly interesting in spaces of urban neglect, as seen so beautifully in the work of Basurama.

3.  Shake up the traditional visual of the swing.  Put them in cherry red houses, like at Mi Casa Your Casa, by Mexican designers Héctor Esrawe and Ignacio Cadena at the High Museum of Art in Atlanta.   Swinging lasts awhile, and the swinger’s eyes are free to look around.  So give them something to look at already.  Place a mural of clouds (ala Jillian Mayer’s Cloud Swing) or a mirror nearby, inspired by the ‘Swing to Infinity’ of Thilo Frank.  Most kids would indeed swing for.ever.  if they could watch themselves in a mirror while they did so.

4 and 5 tomorrow…stay tuned!