One of the current issues in playground design is that even when a playground is available, kids often don’t play long enough–they don’t reach the 20 minutes of vigorous play best for health benefits and combating obesity.  Sometimes that means the playground simply isn’t well designed.  But there are other ways to think about encouraging longer play times, and Copenhagen based Play IT sound have developed an “interactive sound device that brings traditional swings into the digital age” whose music and applause  ‘reward’  longer and more active play.  “After a certain time on the swing and/or when the child reaches a certain height he or she is rewarded with a sound experience. When reaching the next level another sound will be triggered.”

I love that it’s solar powered,  and can be added onto existing equipment!  I’m sure there will be some discussion about whether more sounds/these sounds are desirable in the playscape.  But all kinds of creative thinking are needed to make the playgrounds of the future better than those of the past,  and to keep kids playing better longer…thanks to Jonas for sending this in!  Son-X has been nominated for a Design to improve Life award here.


Posted in Contemporary Design

Here’s one take on the 21st century carousel:

Ecosistema Urbano has designed this play structure with two particular focuses in mind. The first is to promote education through play. We believe that teaching children about alternative methods for generating electrical power with their own physical experiences, sends a subtle message about the potential for creative and a more sustainable approach to urbanism.

Second, is to use efficient materials that also serve to highlight the project’s unique design. The kinetic energy released by the children’s hanging and turning on the ropes is captured via carousel structure and stored in a battery underneath the play site. This energy is used to generate the lighting in the evenings. The mechanism of energy production and lightning is so simple as a bike dynamo. The color of the lights also changes according to how much energy has been generated by the children on any particular day.”

As I’ve mentioned before, I’m uncomfortable with the idea of energy-generating play features in developing areas, because of their potential to be used coercively.  But that’s unlikely to happen in such a public urban space, and this is an interesting and engaging proposal…currently under development.

[images and text from Ecosistema Urbano; found at archdaily]

Posted in Contemporary Design

Playground innovation in the 1960s and 1970s was driven in part by the availability of new materials that could be used to make new forms…the Lozziwurm, for example, being a play form that was simply impossible before the advent of plastics.

We’re in a similar era now, with a much greater array of new materials than in the mid-century, and I’m a bit disappointed to not see more playground applications for say, high tensile strength carbon fiber composites or thermochromic materials.

So I find Daniel Lymann’s ‘Sway’d’ installation inspirational. It’s a high-tech, urban representation of the way interaction with a field of grass causes a ripple of swaying motion to spread throughout the field ….only in this case the slender blades of a molybdenum-nylon blend are strong enough to support even an adult’s weight.

If you’re one of my many student readers, be thinking creatively about how to use new materials to create new ways of playing…and let me know what you’re working on!

[all photos via daniel lymann]

Posted in Contemporary Design, Playable Sculpture

To start off your playground dreams for 2013, a starry-eyed project by Matthew Springett Associates of London inspired by a quote from Gabriel Garcia Marquez’ ‘Light is like Water’:

“The boys, lords and masters of the house, closed the doors and windows and broke the glowing bulb in one of the living room lamps. A jet of golden light as cool as water began to pour out of the broken bulb, and they let it run to a depth of almost three feet. Then they turned off the electricity, took out the rowboat, and navigated at will among the islands in the house”.

In the story, two young boys who live in an arid city ask for a boat from their parents in return for good grades at school. Their parents buy them a small sail boat, and they imagine sailing on flowing light  rather than the water they lack.

In real life, Beam Camp campers aged 7-17 worked with Matthew Springett to create a land-based boat machine, hidden in a forest like an artifact of the future-past.  The physical act of rowing it sets into motion the constellations suspended in surrounding trees, comprised of individual ‘stars’ created by each of the 88 campers.

It’s difficult to convey how this project works in a series of still photographs.  And it strikes me that this is particularly appropriate for a playscape.  If a playscape can be easily represented as a static space, it probably doesn’t do its job of encouraging motion well enough!  So take the time to view the video below, even though it’s long, to see the kids constructing this precision project over the course of three weeks (I was particularly fascinated by the star-making process) and the dreamy oar-driven movement of the constellations.

I personally ended 2012 utterly exhausted (as evidenced by the lack of posting for the last couple of weeks…sorry!)  But contemplating this project energizes me for a new year of Playscapes, and I hope it inspires those of you that are thinking about and advocating for and making great playgrounds as well.  To greater imagination, to new thinking about motion and its reward, to greater engagement with the world of children and a navigation of their dreams in 2013.


Navigating Dreams from Jennifer Lauren Smith on Vimeo.


[All photos via Matthew Springett]

Posted in Contemporary Design

One of the greatest things about writing the blog is hearing from those of you who are making new playscapes, or improving the playgrounds where you’re at.  Just recently I contacted a school about their self-built natural playground and asked them why they made it and they said ‘well, your blog, actually’, which is a nice sort of circle.

One of my favorites of these sort of letters came from WhATA, an architectural group in Sofia, Bulgaria.  Tasked with organizing a leave-a-mark-in-the-city workshop with the Chicago architect Thomas Kong at Sofia Architecture Week 2011, they chose to focus on playgrounds and to use one of the Playscapes blog mottoes:  “Because a playground doesn’t have to cost a million bucks and come in a box. In fact, it’s better if it doesn’t” as inspiration.

Their Playground Workshop serves as a great model for anyone looking to jumpstart the play conversation in their own community.

WhATA started with a survey about area playgrounds, to which 384 parents responded.

There was one opinion in the survey: Why every newly-built children playground is just a square with a fence? This standard way to do everything is certainly not the best for our children and their education.”

Then they invited architects, designers and landscape architects, but also parents not “in the business” to a workshop.

We decided to set the following task: make a standard formal playground by using the informal, spontaneous play of children — e.g. stepping on shafts?, climbing on crooked tree branches, balancing on curbes, shoveling fallen leaves, jumping on tree logs, etc
We picked three children playgrounds (neglected) in Sofia which cover three main types:

  • small playground in the centre of the city (Doktorskata Garden)
  • playground in a park (Borisovata Garden)
  • playground in a panel residential complex (between the apartment blocks in Druzhba 2)

The task had two main points which can be summarized as follows:

  1. Make a list of plays you’ve seen children spontaneously do outside the playground (jumping in puddles, walking on curbes, etc)
  2. Following the list, try to create a play-scape (not just a play-ground) on one of the selected sites

Present your ideas by sketches and text.”

The designs they produced for three mundane, un-playful play areas in Sofia are innovative and inspiring, and WhATA hopes to realize at least one of the designs for Sofia Architecture Week 2012.

So how about it readers? Why not host your own playground workshop to start talking about better spaces for play wherever you are?  Right now, the conversation about play belongs mostly to local government officials and their few chosen providers. You can change that!  I’ll even come speak at your workshop if I can.  Get in touch with your ideas, or what you are already doing to improve the space for play in your community!


Posted in Contemporary Design, Resources

La ville molle (part III) from Raum Raum on Vimeo.

We take the ground plane for granted, assuming that it won’t shift beneath our feet.
But Raum Architecture‘s installation “questions the harshness of the city and the ground’s capacity to change”.

Their surprising, playful intervention was co-produced by the National School of Art de Bourges, the FRAC Centre and carried out with the collaboration of the city of Bourges and its downtown Council district.

Wondering about its secrets?  All is revealed in the construction video below…

La ville molle (part I & II) from Raum Raum on Vimeo.

[Musical accompaniment by the french band “Mansfield Tya” (]

Posted in Contemporary Design, Playable Sculpture

UPDATE: Due to differences over the design and development of Biba, Paige Johnson (author of Playscapes) is no longer associated with the project, effective April 7, 2012. 

It’s rare that ‘electronic games’ and ’outdoor play’ enter the same conversation, except as rhetorical enemies.  So I’m really excited to be part of a team working to make them playground friends.  Funding from the Canadian government has enabled us to fast-track a prototype, and these pictures are from our first live playground test, just last week!  So exciting.  (don’t worry, it will be tested with girls, too)
It’s the culmination, for me, of an early awareness that no matter how much I promoted great playgrounds, they would always only be available to relatively few kids.  And how do you improve the play experience of more children, more places?  If they have a poorly designed playground or a broken down slide, or a littered vacant lot and no prospect of changing that?  Virtual space…virtual playground space.  Social, heads-up play aided and abetted by mobile devices.  That’s the goal of what has been christened ‘Biba’…it re-imagines the admonition to ‘turn off that game, go outside and play’, to ‘take that game and go outside and play!’   We’re committed to deeply involving children in the design process, enabling physical activity, sociability and different play styles, and creating a heads-up game environment where the virtual world is secondary to the real one, not the other way around.
There will be lots more news as we move forward, but for now, if you have kids ages 6-14, please pop by this survey link and answer a few short questions about their use (or lack thereof) of mobile devices.  And how you might feel about them playing with your expensive smart phone…

UPDATE:  Due to differences over the design and development of Biba, Paige Johnson is no longer associated with the project, effective April 7, 2012.

Posted in Uncategorized

Were Archigram around today, they might be video game designers, whose speculation in virtual reality can lead to equally interesting real-world structures.  So kudos to Nottingham for giving a playground commission to Keita Takahashi, creator of Katamari Damacy and Noby Noby Boy.  (disclaimer: I’m not myself a gamer but am told on good authority that these are AMAZING.)

He’s just released (still speculative) sketches and preliminary designs on his blog, with the goal of creating  “something that anyone can play with, kids, adults, dogs. But the way 3 years old kids would play is very different from 5 years old. Besides that, who to play with is also a big element that changes the way they play. For example, they would play more safely with parents, while they would play more adventurously with other kids.”

I’ve included mostly Keita’s sketches here because they’re so appealing, but it is interesting to watch their transformation into more concrete design images on his blog…he frankly acknowledges that many of his initial ideas “may be too dangerous”!

While the focus on this blog is often on the landscape of playgrounds, it’s still nice to see fresh thinking about its components. [Thanks, Bryant!]

Posted in Contemporary Design

I’m late getting to this one, but WIRED magazine featured “The Future of Playgrounds” as a speculative scenario in its FOUND series last month.  The winning design team members were Anonymous, Ryan Flake, jgombarcik, and Scott. Aaron Rowe was the writer, Daniel Salo the photographer and Joel McKendry designed the blueprint.   They seem to see the future as a magnified version of today:  safety signage has morphed into a full legal disclamer, the playground is thoroughly ‘branded’, including at the required sterilization dip tank and the increasing sedentary grown-ups have consigned their strollers to an autonomous track.  A grim vision (though tongue-in-cheek, I know).  What’s yours?  Where will playgrounds be in 2024?

Posted in Contemporary Design


Designer Richard The’s ‘playful parasites’ are digital extensions to existing playgrounds, targeted to tech-savvy ‘tweens. Here’s what he says:
Everybody knows how to use the “interfaces” for example a swing, a seasaw or a slide. On the other hand the actual time spent with these playground props, even by kids, usually does not last very long, their functionality does not bear a lot to discover, once the sensomotoric sensation has been experienced. Also a playground in urban space is not used by night time, and usually they are not even illuminated. The only audience which might attend a playground at night are so called gap-kids (age 10-17, too old for playgrounds but too young for anything else.).The system is designed to occupy an existing playground and its props, and to create a new, temporary identity for this heterotopical space in the city [with]…the possibility of a multi-user interaction with different input devices.”
Basically, bluetooth equipped devices clip onto a swing, slide, or spring playground element, and recognize the presence and position of the user.
They would allow, for example, the creation of a musical playground in which “Each augmented playground device is connected to a specific track of a song. Each device can be played like a musical instrument, and each interaction would be different. Whenever there are more than two persons playing, the sound itself develops. New sounds appear, which are not controlled by the persons, or the sounds change during the time of playing together.”

Or by using a DMX light source, the movement of swings and rockers can be translated into roving spots of light: “Once a person swings higher the light still moves according to the swing but swings much further, and eventually even crosses the borders of the playground space and moves around on the street. Additional interactions with the other equipped devices could be possible, for example a rocking device could control the second axis of the light spot’s movement. So together one would would control a light spot moving around on the playground and its surrounding environment.”

In urban areas, with surrounding blank walls, this could lead to the projection of windows for shadow play: “Each playground device controls one window, and triggers other actions in the windows next to it, which cannot be controlled by the players.The different players on the playground can create micro-narratives happening in this Trompe-l’œil facade.”

Fascinating concepts that currently exist only in prototype form.

Posted in Contemporary Design
Plantware’s vision is to turn living trees into a new building material.
“By controlling the shape in which trees grow, Plantware creates products that are made of living trees.”
“Plantware has developed, and patented, a set of horticultural techniques to grow soft, flexible and shapeless (un-lignified ) trees. These trees are shaped by placing them on temporary templates (jigs) and induced to harden and thicken – whilst retaining the shape of the template on which they were placed. In effect, this allows the “casting” of living material into shapes that were formally impossible to achieve.”
Above, their proposal for the “Kinderforest” playground of the future.
Posted in Natural Playgrounds