Paige’s Note:  In her latest “After the Deadline” column, play chronicler extraordinaire Susan Solomon talks about one of everyone’s favorite playmakers:  Toshiko Horiuchi MacAdam and the unique patronage that enabled the creation of her recent piece in Rome.   It provides a model that I hope we will see much more of:  significant corporate sponsorship of ambitious, innovative places and pieces for play!

After the Deadline:  An artist designed playground and its unique patron
Susan G. Solomon

Something magical can happen when artists -and here I include painters, sculptors, architects and landscape architects- design public space.  There is a good chance they know how to organize environments and how to make them both comfortable and stimulating for the people who will be using them: they understand the complexity of materials and know how to exploit those for a range of experiences; they frequently can do more with less money.  For public playgrounds, artists may have the insight and interest to listen to clients, especially children, and translate their unarticulated dreams into reality.

A daunting glitch is how to secure funding for these unusual designs or identify donors who seek extraordinary projects.

Recently, a committed institutional patron and a superb textile artist united forces to create an outstanding play piece in Rome.  It’s an interesting marriage that could have long-term ramifications for who designs play pieces; where these are sited; and who pays for them.  In this particular case, Enel is the forward thinking patron.  Their name is not widely recognized in America.  They are Italy’s largest public utility.  An energy company that is publically traded and whose stock is largely held by the government. Enel is effectively a public private venture.

Enel, which has been a long standing patron of the arts and even a primary sponsor of the art world’s Venice Biennale, began in 2007 to commission unique works for public areas.  Most have been in Rome.  These were site-specific pieces, meant to promote conversation about renewable and sustainable energy.  In 2010, Enel altered the donation program by establishing the Enel Contemporanea Award.   The award sponsors a yearly invited international competition and a distinguished jury selects the winner.  The resulting commissioned work is then displayed for at least a year before Enel retains or donates it.  Carsten Höller won in 2011; his Double Carousel with Zöllner Stripes was on display at the Museum of Contemporary Art of Rome (MACRO).  This dynamic piece- where visitors could hop on and off carousels that rotated in opposite directions- resided in an entry floor gallery where anyone could come without an admission charge. The 2012 winner was Mike and Doug Starn; their Big Bambu, a 75-foot high construction, invited visitors to climb it at MACRO’s auxiliary site in the former abattoir (now art space) of the city.  While Enel wants their prize theme to be the about the intersection of energy and contemporary art, the successful works have been especially whimsical and playful.

Toshiko Horiuchi MacAdam won the Enel honor in 2013 and continued the spirited interactive tradition. The work of this Japanese Canadian fiber artist is well known to readers of this blog. Her wining piece, Harmonic Motion, was displayed at the main MACRO in December 2013. It should have come down a year later but its huge popularity resulted in its stay being extended.  MacAdam’s piece (created with her husband Charles MacAdam and structural engineer Norihide Imagawa) was suspended from the walls of a partially covered courtyard.  It, too, was at street level and without charge.

MacAdam used brightly colored and hand dyed crocheted nets, which she calls  “air pocket”, in her eye-popping Harmonic Motion. It expands some of the inquiries that are found in the somewhat smaller piece she did at the Hakone Open Air Museum in Japan: how do we “wear” air that has been fashioned by manipulating linear strings into three dimensional volumes?  In order to let visitors fully explore her concerns, she devised small openings that participants can crawl into; they have choices and have to plan how to navigate their bodies through crocheted tubes; eventually they reach a wide flat crocheted plane where they can run, bounce, and decide whether they want to climb higher along the sides.

The Rome piece is set apart from the Hakone one because anybody can enter, climb, and eventually jump on it. In contrast, the piece in Hakone is for children under 12 years old.  The differing ages at the Rome installation means that older folks have to be careful of younger ones and vice versa.  It also gives teens, who are tough to attract to playgrounds, a venue where they can challenge themselves and each other.  Their delight is evident in the amount of shouting and squealing that ensues.  The courtyard actually amplifies the dim so that all visitors are surrounded by the gleeful howling of excited kids.

MacAdam’s creation is an ideal playground. It enhances its context and fits effortlessly with it.  It is accessible to any age; there is nearby seating for adults who want only to enjoy the piece or the beauty of a courtyard where one end reveals an opening to the sky.  Participants have to take cautious risks and plan carefully how to make their way through this art object.  There is a great deal of camaraderie and joy when they succeed.  Even more importantly, it shows that a legitimate patron, a well-respected museum, and a famous artist could work together for a unique piece that encourages everyone to participate in a challenging, variable (and fun) experience.

We, in America, have generous corporations who often support art projects. We have some fantastic foundations that have been kind and creative in how they approach playgrounds.   We lack, however, a consistent patron who sponsors a yearly event that increasingly defines where art and play can cooperate and then makes sure that the best example materializes.  Let’s hope that some entity- a corporate or private one- will not only pick up the slack but also do it in a way that is deferential to the creative processes of artists and the exploring capabilities of young and older children.



Posted in Playgrounds by Artists


Paige’s Note:  Tim Gill of rethinkingchildhood updates us, below, on the fight to bring sanity to the ASTM’s playground committee, who essentially feel that children are only safe playing on surfaces equivalent to bubble wrap.   If they now pass a ballot requiring even more stringent (and highly expensive!) safety surfacing on playgrounds, they will be doing so against the recommendations of academic injury researchers.  Why might they flout the advice of such experts?   Quite coincidentally, there is alot of money to be made in safety surfacing.  Feel free to voice your views to Joe Koury ( who is the staff contact, and George Sushinsky ( who is the chair of the committee.  

Leading child injury prevention researchers at the British Columbia Injury Research and Prevention Unit have today called on ASTM to put on hold its proposal to tighten playground surfacing standards.

The call is in an article written by Associate Profs Mariana Brussoni and Ian Pike of the Unit, along with Associate Prof Alison Macpherson of the School of Kinesiology & Health Science at York University. Between them, the authors have decades of research experience in child injury prevention.

In the piece, posted on the Unit’s website, the authors state that they have “become increasingly concerned that some of our efforts to keep children safe may be doing unintended harm – particularly as it relates to children’s play.” They also argue that “changing the standards will not reflect the best decision for children.”

The authors conclude by urging ASTM to “put the proposal on hold, and to engage in a wider debate about how standards can help us get the balance right.”

In making their case, the authors make five key points, informed by their position as independent and impartial experts in injury prevention:

  1. Head injuries on the playground are extremely rare and there is no evidence that they are increasing on playgrounds.
  2. The head injury criterion (HIC) is measured by dropping a head form straight down, but children do not fall that way.
  3. Ripping out and replacing surfacing is a very expensive proposition.
  4. Kids want and need to take risks and experience uncertainty. So reducing risks has major ramifications.
  5. We are doing a miserable job of providing stimulating play opportunities for children.

The article, which has numerous links to peer reviewed academic papers, echoes the case made recently in a paper by Prof David Ball, Professor of Risk Management at Middlesex University’s Centre for Decision Analysis and Risk Management, and by me here in January, with an update in March. It is also a model of brevity and clarity.

We know from ASTM that there will a month-long ballot of members of the committee, which will begin in the next day or two. The authors have asked ASTM to distribute their paper along with the ballot notice. Let’s hope it does.

Let’s hope too that committee members consider carefully the paper’s arguments.

Surely when even injury prevention experts who have devoted decades to reducing child accidents imply that playground safety has gone too far, it is time to stop.

Posted in Contemporary Design, Resources

Editors Note:  With this post, I’m pleased to welcome Tim Gill to Playscapes!  Tim is  one of the UK’s leading thinkers on childhood. For over 15 years his writing, research, consultancy projects and other work has focused on the changing nature of childhood, children’s play and free time, and their evolving relationships with the people and places around them.  He has been a uniquely effective advocate for a re-evaluation of how we consider risk in the lives of children, and thanks to the Calouste Gulbenkian Foundation his book “No Fear:  Growing up in a Risk Averse Society”  is available in its entirety for free…download it now from the blog sidebar!    Tim also takes me to great playgrounds whenever I’m in London, and organized 2012’s “Open for Play” event.   We’ll start with reposting some of his most popular writings from his own website, rethinkingchildhood, which my readers may not have seen.  


And now here’s Tim:


This post has a simple aim: to get you to rethink playground safety. Through a handful of images of playgrounds from around the world, I hope to encourage you to abandon any preconceived notions you may have about what a safe playground looks like.

I focus on unsupervised, public play spaces. The kind of spaces that are routinely built and rebuilt, in their hundreds of thousands, every year, for children around the world.

This focus is deliberate. Yes, some staffed adventure playgrounds truly challenge our notions about risk in play. But they are a different model, with their high fences, restricted opening hours and attentive, engaged staff. Their approach to safety is a subject for another time. Likewise, school play spaces raise different questions again, and are not included here.

To be absolutely clear: what follows is not a collection of great play spaces – indeed some are, in design terms, disappointing. It is a provocation: a set of images that challenges received wisdom. Read more…

Posted in Contemporary Design, Resources

Editor’s Note:  I’m pleased to welcome play historian and expert Susan Solomon’s second column here at Playscapes.  In it, she challenges our overblown ‘fear of strangers’, and the limitations that fear places on how we design and use places for play.  Key quote:  ” If we see the playground as a potentially vibrant public space, then we have to rethink what it looks like and who goes there”

Watch for a permanent place for all of Susan’s “After the Deadline” columns in the blog sidebar coming soon! For now, read on…


How Strange are our Dangers? How Dangerous are Strangers?
by Susan Solomon

I have vivid memories of the trip my husband (who is also my trusted photographer) and I made to the Princes Diana Playground in Hyde Park, London. The playground opened in 2000 and we made our way there in 2004.  It was a bleak, bitterly cold December morning, just after the opening hour.  There were no children anywhere.  We walked up to a high gate and heard from an anonymous voice (with hindsight, the camera and speaker system were stunningly advanced for a decade ago) that we could not enter without a child.


The faceless gate did not want to hear that I had a contract to write a book about playgrounds and that this was a professional visit.  No kids meant no access.  I was that told that somewhere- quite far away-I could appeal the judgment but we were actually headed to the airport.  We settled for walking around the perimeter; my spouse took copious photos by placing his close up lens through the bars of the fence.


There are so many levels of silliness in this type of “protective” activity.  There were no children present; I had credentials; my husband could have documented every inch of the site if he had some nefarious activity in mind.  Annoyed, not offended, I recall this non-visit almost every time that I go to an urban public American playground.  While British colleagues tell me that the Diana playground is an aberration for the UK because it is a Royal Park that has its own rules, American urban playgrounds often have at least one sign on a fence that tells me I can come in only if I have a child in tow. New York City, for example, has park rules that create playground zones, where a child under twelve yeas old must accompany an adult.


It seems almost diabolical to question policy that presumes to shield youngsters from kidnappers and predators.   And, yet, we should ask if isolating playgrounds from the rest of the world is really necessary. Is it productive to relegate playgrounds to just children and their caregivers/parents?  Fear of strangers surely exists but is  “stranger danger” justified? Read more…

Posted in Resources

 I‘m so pleased to welcome Susan Solomon to Playscapes! Susan is the author of American Playgrounds: Revitalizing Community Space, and is America’s preeminent historian of play.   In her latest book, The Science of Play, she tackles the issue of what kids actually need to thrive, and then looks at how playgrounds can provide that.  For too long there has been a disconnect between what playgrounds provide, and what serious research says that children need, particularly in the area of risk-taking.  Susan will post here every other month,  addressing risk and fear and neurology and the ‘serious’ beat of academic publications and policy papers.

The Science of Play is available (pre-ordering until November 4, 2014) atAmazon and Barnes & Noble, or independent booksellers:   The Doylestown (PA) BookshopMcNally Jackson (New York), Parnassus Books(Nashville) and Green Apple Books (San Francisco). 

Or check back here at Playscapes Monday morning to win a copy! 

 “After the Deadline”

 I am honored that Playscapes has asked me to write a column every other month. The title,“After the Deadline,” reflects the lag that exists between completion of a manuscript and its publication. With the Science of Play there was a 16-month hiatus, a time during which I learned more, read new interpretations, saw exciting fresh projects. I am delighted that I now have a forum in which I can share, and comment on, some of these recent findings.

Read more…

Posted in Resources