When I was in NYC last month, I was honored to be part of a round-table discussion on the topic of “Balancing Creativity and Risk In Playground Design”, courtesy of Jane-Clark Chermayeff and Architectural Playground Equipment. I’m preparing a series of posts on the topic, but one of the questions I have is when and how and why playground risk took on such an outsized importance in the public mind. As I pointed out in the meeting, no one makes a fuss if their child breaks their arm on the soccer field but on the monkey bars, well, a lawsuit is inevitable. Why is ‘play’ risk so different than ‘sport’ risk?
And did it all begin (at least in the US) with Kramer vs. Kramer? I can’t take credit for this cheeky but brilliant idea…my NYC friend Mike suggested it in a follow-up discussion of the meeting. Watch the 1979 clip, and leave your comments about playground risk; I’ll incorporate them into the posts I’m writing. (And do note the vintage playground equipment in the clip: classic Robert Moses jungle gym mixed with new modernist climbers.)
Just in time for what remains of cyber Monday, I’m pleased to introduce what I hope will be a new holiday tradition here at Playscapes: a set of handcrafted wooden blocks honoring a significant part of playground history. The inaugural year begins of course with our-hero-Aldo-van-Eyck. Artist and designer Jen Bulthius of Fidoodle has done a beautiful job of capturing the iconic elements of his post-WWII Amsterdam playgrounds on hand-screened maple blocks for playground lovers ages 1 to 101!
They’re joined in the storefront (access it from the menu in the header) by a silkscreen print from the wondertwins of play, Simon and Tom Bloor. Many of you have asked about their previous posters, which are now out of print, so I commissioned one just for Playscapes. The Illusion makes a characteristically bold statement about play, atop a fierce rainbow background.
Both the print and the blocks are limited editions; please order early to make your holidays merry and bright!
The story of this playground begins with a description of what could be a city park most anywhere: 14 acres, a soccer field, quite a few trees, and a set of wood-and-metal playground equipment that didn’t get much use from anyone past the age of four.
What happens next is a wonderful story of a how a non-traditional (i.e. not focused on equipment) playground space grew gradually and organically out of what the park users themselves wanted to do and build, not what someone designed on their behalf, until eventually even the underused wood-and-metal equipment became a vital play area once again. And for all of $11,600!
Central to the space is the 20×40 sandpit in which a simple $64 water tap facilitates endless water play. Don’t miss the comparisons to elaborate, engineered water play solutions in the latter half of the presentation…proof, if you readers needed any, that playgrounds don’t need to be expensive for good play to occur.
I’m intrigued, too, to see the role of sympathetic park personnel in this story: they built the sandpit and donated leftover supplies and installed new fencing in response to users’ needs. Wherever I go I hear alot of grousing about the maintenance people at parks and schools. They’re often blamed for the playgrounds not being what they could be, but I’m not convinced that’s more than a convenient excuse for the designers, at least most of the time.
Seeing great play happen builds commitment and a desire to help, in the park workers, in the neighbors, in the parents, and even in those icy-hearted city planners, whose command to tear down the swingset was resisted, and reversed.
Thanks to Jutta Mason for sharing her and Nayssam Shujauddin’s inspiring prezi on Dufferin Grove!
The nice people at PopUp Adventure Play–responsible for instant, scrap-based playscapes at sites like MoMA and Governor’s Island–are hitting the road, and you can be one of their stops!
“Our tour will start on the East coast and zip very quickly across to the West. After that, we hope to meander our way back home with the total length of our trip lasting about 8 weeks starting 19th February 2014. At each location, we hope to provide a Pop-Up Adventure Playground – a free-to-attend event where the entire community, old and young, can play together using loose parts. To cover the costs of that event, we’d love to then run a workshop or seminar about play in a topic of your choice.”
Artist Constantino Nivola sand-cast enormous sculptures for the likes of Olivetti and Yale. And, he made a playground…
“The sculptural face of a modern city playground rarely gets more monumental than a jungle gym. Its rectilinear ziggurat of steel lattice is a joy toy for kids, and a spatial bore. But then, who considers a playground worthy of a sculptor’s talents? At least, New York city’s housing authority did, and let Costantino Nivola, 53, see how he could improve on the blight of monkey bars, slides, and swings that make play grounds across the nation look like a titanic display of naked plumbing.
A sinewy Sardinian immigrant, Nivola loves outdoor public sculpture. He has sand-cast a 100-ton bas-relief for a Hartford, Conn., insurance company, carved out abstract fountains and reliefs in raw concrete for the late Eero Saarinen’s brace of new colleges at Yale.
The playground, he felt, “was more challenging.” Wandering recently through the results of his commission, on a 100-ft. by 200-ft. lot between Manhattan’s West 90th and 91st Streets, bordered by a new, mediocre low-income housing project and a high-income boys’ school, Nivola said, “There is a desolation and barrenness to these buildings. I wanted to relieve that, to introduce a friendly atmosphere in plastic form.”
Nivola cut costs to $30,000 by using cast concrete, sometimes in a giant sandbox. A huge slab relief dominates the playground entrance. Two 8-ft.-tall diamond-shaped fountains gurgle water through faceted gutters, and an 80-ft.-long stucco mural wall borders the childrens’ plaza. The principal delight is a circus of 18 cast-stone horsies, mixed with marble dust to sparkle in three colors. They are indestructible mounts for the most tantrumy tot. A final touch is a hulking, 7-ft.-high abstract human figure, a sort of guardian nanny to children romping there.
Nivola’s playground has been open long enough to gauge its success. Grownups are negative. A neighborhood priest deplores the possibility of a child tumbling off a fountain. A nearby housewife thinks it may all be obscene. A local clergyman says frankly: “This art escapes me.” The kids? They all seem to love it. “Swings are for babies,” says one seven-year-old lad. “I’m not a baby any more.” (Sculpture: The Horsy Set – TIME , February 12, 1965)
You can still visit his fat, lovely sand cast horses (I love that they originate from the sandbox!). Enter on 90th or 91st St. between Amsterdam and Columbus Avenues. They remind me of the Bulgarian playground animals I posted long ago, which I’ve never been able to attribute..get in touch if you can help.
Also see images of Nivola’s own house at mondoblogo; the round, somewhat fruit like forms in his garden were intended to be in a playground (where?) but never made it (reference). They seem a more organic form of van Eyck’s jumping stones.
[Thanks to Mike for the tip on Nivola! Images are from the American Craft Council (also here) where you can download their original 1959 feature on Nivola's work. The vintage photo is by Pete Mikoleski/New York City Housing Authority]
So when I visited the new ‘Natural Exploration’ Area at Prospect Park in Brooklyn I kept thinking about my first posts on this idea of a ‘natural playground’. It was 2008 and I’d only just come across the term, and to be honest, I wasn’t too keen. I’d started the blog because it seemed like so many playgrounds were poorly designed and not much fun, but the play space in that old post–pretty much just a log lying in a bed of sand–also didn’t seem well designed or much fun. As the natural playground concept began to grow dramatically over the next few years, conversations with friends in the industry confirmed that that the fad for the natural was leading to makers who would drop a few rocks like pellets or add some logs for edging and call it natural; just one more box to check in their list of kit.
But as the idea has matured, we’ve come to see some really great examples of natural playscape design, and the Prospect Park Natural Exploration area embodies many of the potentials and delights of this type of playground. Here’s why it’s great, and why it’s different from that ‘natural playground’ I posted five years ago.
1. Undefined boundaries. Except for the sandpit, which obviously needs some confinement, the elements of the playscape simply diffuse out into the surrounding, lightly tended woods. A child feels that they are ‘discovering’ a landscape, not ‘visiting’ a playground. Just how attractive this was to the kids was revealed by the fact that there are two similar sets of wood features in this installation; one in an open sunny space, and one tucked in the trees. 80% of the play was in the trees. And it was a chilly day.
2. Creative use of topography. When will we stop looking for (or worse, making!) the flattest place in the park and putting the playground there? Arrgh! At Prospect Park the sand pit occupies the front of the space next the paved path, where the ground is flat and it can draw the children in by signifying to both they and their parents ‘this is a playground’. But the best features are placed on an inclined bank down a wide clearing. Not only does the incline make the space ‘feel-risky-play-safe’, it’s also more challenging physically. One of the criticisms of natural playgrounds is that there is no provision for upper body development. But put an enormous felled tree on an incline and the upper body work the kids will do to clamber over it is just as good as the monkey bars any day.
3. Really interesting loose parts. Happily there’s plenty of that playground essential, sand. But the Prospect Park Alliance went for more than just the ubiquitous tree cookies in their loose parts. A y-shaped log with some fabric ties for handles was being happily dragged through the sand the whole time I was there. It was a good substantial size, challenging for a bigger kid, but also enticing smaller kids to work in pairs or groups in order to manipulate it. The prismatic angles on the wooden blocks scattered around for seating made for a nice hard-edged contrast to all the organic forms, but they were also rollable, though with difficulty, requiring lots of upper body work from the 9-year old turning one through the sandpit. There were also bits of turf mats left around. The younger kids in particular LOVED these, and kept picking them up and waving them around (look for the little girl in the purple coat) Loose parts that decompose when carried off and dropped elsewhere in the park…great concept! But the most interesting thing was how the extensive use of wood in the playscape seemed to encourage the kids to create their own wooden playpieces. Everywhere I looked they were picking up treefalls–from twigs up to small limbs–and using them for their own imaginative games.
4. Thoughtful use and placement of the timbers. Not just in the woods and up the slope, but growing out of the sandpit like dinosaur bones, with nice flat surfaces for chalk drawings. Circling the playscape as a woodland ‘track’ of log steps that kept two little girls going round for an hour: through the wood, up the hill, past the fire circle (no fire but you could feel it) and back down to the open glade. Den spaces cut into one of the largest tree trunks. Providing places to sit, on carefully sited logs where parents are close but not too close. The big felled beech (the features were formed from Hurricane Sandy’s destruction) turned so that its old arborglyphs were visible like secret writings from long-ago. And clumps of slender upright branches with primitive markings gently defining the woodland/Neverland.
Very not-your-typical-New-York-playground. And brilliant. Take your kids, and tell the Prospect Park Alliance how much you love it! New York could use some more of these playscapes.
I’m in New York City today (Monday) for some playground meetings; very short notice indeed but I’ll be taking in the new Natural Playground at Prospect Park at 3 pm…if you’re in the area feel free to stop by and explore it with me!
Reader Sarah has also gotten in touch, hoping someone can help her with the history of her vintage wooden slide. She acquired it from an antiques dealer in Venice, CA, and it took up residence first in the lobby of her marketing office and then in her home. It’s by the Hill-Standard Company of Anderson, IN, “Recreation Engineers” who were makers of the Fun-ful slides previously featured on the blog. Sarah’s slide was most likely made around the turn of the century, since it is wood with wrought iron hand guides and by 1915-1920 Hill-Standard’s trade ads show only metal slides. They seem to have gone under as a result of the Great Depression, though their gorgeous and long-lasting slides still stand at some playgrounds today (witness the Riverside Park playground in Independence Kansas).
So leave a comment if you can provide any information about Sarah’s slide, or Hill-Standard, OR if you know of a vintage Fun-ful slide that we need to record in order to help preserve it. I’ve heard of one of these being torn out just recently, for *safety* considerations of course. That’s just dumb. And historically ignorant.
Sarah is also looking for a museum who might give her wooden slide a new home! Leave a comment if you’re a candidate, and I’ll put you in touch.
Ukrainian reader Andrey has assembled a delightful collection of playground stamps from across the world; it’s interesting to see how the games, equipment and children are portrayed in dates from 1948 to 2000. Note that the stamp from Korea depicts the same jumping board seen in this image from 1931. See all the stamps on his blog (in Ukrainian, but google translate did a good job). Do you know of others? Send them to Andrey!
And not the painted-on-the-asphalt kind. Real ones made with light. It’s such a cool thing to know about light and color and more kids should see and have the chance to interact with such a beautiful expression of our world. Peter Erskine creates ‘solar spectrum environmental art’ that would be perfect for the playground….his integration of prism into shade structures is a great way to add fund and educational content to a utilitarian playground item.