I’ve long admired this small-town playground by German landscape architect Stefan Laport for the lessons it holds for small playgrounds (backyards, schools, churches) everywhere.  It’s a simple arrangement of elements that can be adapted to a variety of sites, styles, and budgets.

1.  Start with a hill!   Playgrounds-should-not-be-flat, remember, and when in doubt start with a hill as the organizing feature of any playscape.  Make it as big as your site and budget allows; a bigger hill is also great for bikes and winter sports.

2.  Add different ways to go up and down the hill.  The Hornbach playground has an enticing set of large and small boulders that allow different routes, and also conveniently serve as benches on the lower part of the hill.  A child can also just scramble/bike/sled up and down the grassy sides, or creep up through the shrubberies.  Other options could be a stump scramble, or a rope-banister to pull up on hand-over-hand, or  a flying fox with which to descend.    The slide descent could also be varied according to the size and slope of the hill;  this same sort of arrangement would work wonderfully with a wide multi-user slide, for example.

3.  Make a feature on top of the hill.  To a small child, the hill is a big challenge and there should be something at the top worthy of the climb.  The house on the top of the Hornbach hill appropriately references the historic shapes and stoneworks of the monastery town.  But you can easily see how it could be replaced by a house with a completely different local reference  (like a log house, in certain American contexts), or by a far more contemporary design (an avant-garde playhouse that doesn’t necessarily even look like a house, or a playable sculpture), and could be more  or less expensive as budget dictates.

4.  Spill sand at the bottom of the hill.    The playground started in the sandpit, and sand both honors this history and the fact that sand and loose parts play are still essential on the playground.  The sandpit could also have boulders and stumps, or a water feature, or a small balance beam,  or any number of other features, and can be larger or smaller as necessary, but should always have loose parts available!

This mini-formula for a playspace can be carried out at less expense and difficulty than a set of standardized equipment, but note that this design by no means excludes them completely; it integrates easily with the addition of things like swings for dynamic motion or a net climber for upper body development, or adventure and natural playground elements like a den-building area or a felled tree.    I”d love to see more small schools, day-care centers, and churches use this ‘house on a hill’  playscape as a model, adapting it for their needs and local context,  instead of defaulting to a catalogue purchase.

Posted in Natural Playgrounds, Play DIY

“The site of the PREVI international architecture competition was located some kilometres north of the built border of Lima in the 1960s…The competition brief of 1968 was to design a high-density housing scheme comprising 1,500 family units, each enabling the possibility of further growth….Today, 40 years later, the …The original architecture has almost disappeared…The conception of the voids by Peter Land’s master plan has survived the growth of the development…

A large recreation area is situated in one corner of the PREVI, next to the abandoned factory complex of Montagne. A sandy area accommodates a football pitch and a basketball court. Beyond the football pitch is the playground, framed by prefabricated benches.

The playground consists mainly of a family of different objects installed on a flat plot. Slim steel arches held together by slight bridges suggest a fragile tunnel that invites children to climb, hang on or slip through it. Another climbing frame beside it is a hybrid grid of vertical and horizontal steel bars, frames of cubes stacked one on top of another. Contrasting with these lightweight constructions is a large concrete base, a sloping sunken semi-circle overlooking the pitch. In the middle of it stands a slide, its chute fixed by ties…

This assembly of highly static, geometric abstract objects, their gravity-defying impression of lightness and the sculptured border all recall the playgrounds of post-war Amsterdam designed by Aldo van Eyck for Amsterdam’s Department of Public Works. Van Eyck addressed the issue of interstitial voids and defined space and place, producing interventions that were both numerous and ephemeral. His ambition of creating a space for children that was “more durable than snow” was realized in the desert of Lima.”

excerpted from WALKWAYS, OASES AND PLAYGROUNDS – COLLECTIVE SPACES IN THE PREVI by Marianne Baumgartner at digital architectural papers.

[Photo 1 via domus. Photo 2 by nicolas hunkeler, via digitalarchitecturalpapers]

See also a domus article on the Previ project


Posted in Mid-Century Modern, Play Heroes

Another playscape I’m thinking about going into the New Year is the Beetsplein playground by NL Architects in conjunction with DS Landschapsarchitecten.  (NL Architects also designed the WOS 8 building, another of the most popular posts on Playscapes).

When I was in New York at the MoMA event, I had this weird conversation with someone from the playground world who asserted that nothing interesting, or innovative, or new was happening in playgrounds.  I countered that playgrounds are finally being seen as landscapes, not collections of equipment, and that in particular the creation of three-dimensional ground planes (known here at Playscapes as playgrounds-should-not-be-flat)  was really changing how playgrounds look and play.   He remained belligerently unconvinced that this mattered, probably because he installs collections of equipment.

But I love how the Beetsplein playground demonstrates that change, and its importance and possibilities.  In placement (a small unfenced neighborhood square) and geometry  (a circle with a thick ring-edge) it feels reminiscent of Aldo van Eyck’s nearby constructs from the mid-century.

But pulling up the edge of the ring, rather than leaving it flat, allows the space around the circle to form grassy hills instead of flat plains.

And warping the ring so that it is taller in some areas and shorter in others allows for the creation of unique playspaces while preserving the ability of the edge to be used as an undulating walking/riding track (way more fun than a flat track).

There needs to be a way to reach the top of the taller portions of the ring of course, and this provides for a range of interesting play ideas.  Simply making stairs bigger forms a grandstand (sited to catch the afternoon sun) that allows for parents sitting, for performances, and extra fun for riders.

In another tall part of the circle a sheer edge becomes a space dedicated to smaller children, with a slide and climbing wall and caves.

The spots where the edge descends become a natural for scrambles to the top, and long low benches also enjoyed by bike riders and skateboarders.

All this play potential, and still plenty of space in the center court for ball play, for which NL’s design is also multipurpose; basketball goals attached to standard lightpoles, and somersault bars (another reference to our Aldo) that also function as football goals.

NL Architects say it’s three playgrounds in one, but I think it’s even more than three, and it’s one of the most brilliant playscapes I know.  All enabled by shaping the ground plane, so that it is Not Flat.


Posted in Contemporary Design

Given a generous 4 hectare footprint within a country park, London based FoRM Associates,  in collaboration with the artists Olivia Fink and Stephen Shiell, created a series of linked natural play experiences that appear like playful glades in the surrounding vegetation.   They’re nicely localized through both materials and allusions:  the ‘ant hills’ utilize excess excavation material and refer to a yellow ant species in the area.

The shapes of series of permanent play/climbing dens loosely reflect Fairlop Waters’ history as a boating lake, and they complement opportunities for self-built dens that exist on the site as well.  I like that a child could take inspiration for their own self-built den from the way the permanent structures are put together.

Brightly painted cuts on the felled wood are an interesting visual addition to the typical natural playground ‘stumpscape’, as are a series of tuned bells in towers whose sound carries between the play zones.  And it’s refreshing to see this playscape with only grass and dirt on the ground plane..no rubber safety surfacing in sight!

[all images via FoRM Associates.  I was pleased to see that this playground was featured in a Chinese Landscape Architecture magazine–pdf here–because play provision in China is generally quite poor.  As far as I know the playscapes blog (like all blogger blogs) is still blocked in China.]


Posted in Natural Playgrounds

Natural playground makers will also enjoy this time-lapse video of the construction of the playscape at Turtle Rock preschool in Orange County California.

Natural Playground Construction Timelapse from Turtle Rock Preschool on Vimeo.

I love construction videos!  And do you notice how the most important piece of this project is the creation of the topography…a large central hill and some additional slopes and gullies on a small–and previously flat–site?  All the other play features are enabled by the topography.

All together now:  Playgrounds-should-not-be-flat.  Playgrounds-should-not-be-flat.  Playgrounds. Should. Not. Be. Flat.

Or, as I said in my talk on playground trends at last week’s London Open for Play event:  “hills are the new swings!”

Posted in Natural Playgrounds

From the Sehwan Oh playground to puckelball, morphing familiar forms is definitely a playground trend. The puckelball pitch was installed in 2009, but it was preceded in morphotasticness by the 3-D basketball court public art collective Inges Idee installed in 2006 at a technical school in Munich Germany.

“A regulation-sized basketball court was erected on the grove-like forecourt of the school building of the occupational school. The court consists of a soft orange-red tartan covering and two normal baskets and seems to be forced over the grid of the lamps that have been set up. The playable court has been “morphed” as in a 3D program on a computer and looks like the grounds of a rollercoaster, with heights and depths and calm and dynamic zones. The resulting paradox, which moves between a normative set of rules and pleasurable, anarchic change, requires creative engagement for its use.”

It does seem to be used more for lounging than playing, but then that’s what the young adult age group for whom it was designed likes to do!   Teens like a hang-out space that has the potential for active play and showing off, but doesn’t necessarily require it, and this is a fascinating way of creating that sort of space.

[all photos from inges idee; found at neotorama]


Posted in Contemporary Design, Design

As Playscapes approaches 500 posts, I know that the amount of information here is getting unwieldy, especially for new visitors to the blog.  So I’m working with a great creative agency in my hometown to develop a better format, but I also plan to start writing some posts that consolidate past content around a theme, like this one on the topic of adding local context to playgrounds.  It was originally prepared for a guest post at ExternalWorks, and I thank editor Stephen Bird for suggesting the topic.

It is also the first in a series of articles that you may freely repost or republish, as long as you do so without changing the content in any way.  That means including the title and byline at the top of the article, and keeping all links intact. Please note that this is not true of the blog’s content in general, just of these specific posts that are so noted. Thanks in advance for respecting my work as well as that of the playground designers and content originators.  Here goes!


Play Local:  how to add local context to your playground
by Paige Johnson, author of  Playscapes

Playgrounds can be one of the worst offenders in the struggle to make public spaces locally relevant. Following a standard recipe of ‘kit, fence and carpet’ ensures that a play space could be in Milton Keynes or Madagascar, Sydney or South LA. Without context, who’s to tell?

Adding local context to a playground installation increases community commitment to the space, involves local providers, and is just plain more fun. Localised elements can form the basis for new playground installations, or be added to improve existing ones. Here, examples from my four years of writing about playgrounds at Playscapes illustrate strategies for localising the playground.


1.  Consider topography

Whenever possible, playgrounds should make the ground plane itself part of the play, preserving or reflecting local topographies.

Retaining an existing pile of rubble at a reclaimed industrial site in France allowed this playground by Agence TER to fit into a familiar local site AND be more exciting by hanging off its steep side.

Topographies can be simpler constructions as well: this spiral mound in London, made of turf by Mortar and Pestle Studio, recalls similar Elizabethan garden features.

The steep facets of a Parisian playground by BASE landscape architects were inspired by the topography in a photo of a local ‘found’ playscape by Will Ronis.


2.  Use local materials creatively

Everyone has heard about the use of stones and stumps to make a ‘natural playground’. But it takes some additional thoughtfulness to turn ‘natural’ into ‘local’. Robert Tully of Colorado used wood and stone to make a play sculpture modelled on Native American trade beads, and added subtle carving on a sandpit’s cluster of boulders to suggest local turtle species.

Australian artist Fiona Foley used native seed pods for a playground in Sydney designed by Urban Art Projects; not literally but as inspiration for the forms of playground features for the under-7 set.

Vintage playgrounds in Singapore once utilised small mosaic tiles as a unique surface treatment. New Singapore playgrounds should look for modern ways to continue this local tradition.


3.  Look around for history

The pentagonal shape of the continuous playground climber by Annabau reflects the shape of the medieval city of Wiesbaden. Its pole and net construction dips and swoops strategically to provide sightlines to city monuments so that the playscape joins the cityscape.

At the Tower Playground, Danish playground makers Monstrum took the incorporation of local monuments one step further by making a playground entirely composed of roofs from the city of Copenhagen; fulfilling any child’s fantasy of rooftop explorations.

Sometimes looking around for history means retaining beloved features within a new scheme. Spanish firm Urbanarbolismo inexpensively rehabbed an existing playground by painting all of the features from swings to streetlamps in eye-popping orange, coordinated with new safety surfacing.

And then they planted the site by engaging the local community in a ‘Green Battle’ in which 200 people threw seed-containing mud balls at each other until the battlefield/site (and themselves) were completely covered. The seeds included a grass to green the space quickly and native species such as thyme and heather to add permanent color and aroma to the playscape.

It doesn’t get more local than residents throwing mud on each other to make a great new playground!

No public space should be so generic that it can be duplicated half a world away. Combining topography, local materials, and a sense of history help make any playground a unique site for community pride; deeply attached to its local context and sure of its place.


Posted in Contemporary Design, Resources

I especially love Helen and Hard’s use of geologic strata as an organizing feature because it resurrects the Victorian-era ideal of using park elements as teaching opportunities.

Those energetic Victorians, who basically invented the modern public park (previously parks were mostly private and invariably royal) thought that education and recreation should go hand in hand; both were necessary for improving the lot of the unwashed urban masses.  Labeling the trees and plants, a tradition still seen in public parks today, was particularly popular.

But they had even more ambitious plans for the Crystal Palace, to which the world had come in 1851 for the Great Exhibition.  Its post-exhibition home was in a public park with grounds designed by Joseph Paxton (whose landscapes inspired Central Park’s Olmsted) to be an ‘illustrated encyclopedia’, and they featured artificial geologic strata in the form of cutaway cliffs, shown above.

Also similarly to the Stavanger park, there was a display of industry:   a model of a lead-mine, with “pipe veins, rake veins, and stalactites and with life-size models of Irish Elks above the entrance” [source] 

These ideas find modern playground reflections in the crawl-inside bellies of Monstrum’s monsters, and the ever popular motifs of dinosaurs and dinosaur bones, which just goes to show, I think, that the things which delight us remain rather consistent a hundred and fifty so years later.The artificial cliff and mine displays appeared in concert with the world’s first dinosaur sculptures.  Sculptor Benjamin Waterhouse Hawkin’s ‘Dinosaur Court’  included an ‘Iguanadon’ large enough that he held a New Year’s Eve party inside its belly!

And you can still see the strata and the restored sculptures of the Dinosaur Court, at Crystal Palace Park in South London.


Posted in Natural Playgrounds, Playable Sculpture, Pre-1900

Real Stuff’ like gears, planes, and fire trucks were once common on the playground, but have regrettably fallen into disuse.  However, there is no more complete example of a ‘Real Stuff’ playscape than the quite recent Geopark in Stavanger Norway by Helen and Hard.

“Utilising a vacant forecourt adjacent to the Oil Museum as the site for the new park, we drew from three different local resources in the design process: first, the geological and seismic expertise of the oil industry, second, technology and materials (including waste) related to the production of oil, and third, the ideas of local youth groups for the programming of the new park.”

The layout of the park is based upon the geologic layers of the Troll field, Norway’s most valuable oil and gas reservoir, making visible at 1:500 scale the geologic strata hidden 2000 – 3000 metres below the seabed. The topography of the park is based on the geological layers, the “strata”, of the Troll field, reconstructed in a scale of 1:500, with layers partially peeled away to create the park’s slopes.  The strata are cleverly delineated by the different colors of the surfacing in the park with black representing the oil basin.

Workshops conducted with youth groups defined the functions of each sedimentary layer:  biking, climbing, exhibition, concerts, jumping, ball play and chilling-out. The oil basin became a skating park complete with drilling wells, and geologic folds were expressed as graffiti-allowed walls.

The final phase of the park was to create its surfaces and features using recycled and reshaped elements from petroleum installations, the abandoned Frigg oil platform, offshore bases, equipment suppliers and scrap heaps.

The Geopark has turned a formerly abandoned site into an active social space, and is so popular that its originally planned year-long presence has turned into an ongoing (and hopefully permanent!) one…truly an amazing space made of ‘real stuff’.

[All photos via Helen and Hard.  Submitted by Norwegian reader Magnus last fall…thanks Magnus!  For those of you who submit please remember that I love hearing from you but it can take a while for things to appear on the blog!]


Posted in Contemporary Design, Design

When France’s Agence TER transformed an old industrial site in Ivry-sur-Seine, they preserved a pile of rubble as the site’s ‘beauty spot’ and cleverly added a chic playground to its heavily sloping side.

Like the snail mounts of Elizabethan England the hill includes a winding spiral pathway to get to the top, where an elevated belevedere provides ‘high chairs’ for playful viewing.  Other parts of the park include a “graffiti-allowed” wall and canals with the classic French toy sailing boats.

Thanks to reader Eloise, who lives nearby, for submitting this playground, which is yet another example of how playgrounds-should-not-be-flat whenever possible.  Agence TER’s decision to preserve topography makes for an exciting,vertiginous play experience that a flat site just can’t provide.  It’s also interesting for all ages…older kids love the steep climbing wall but younger kids can be seen crawling up the more gently sloping areas, too.


Posted in Contemporary Design

If you only have the time or budget to do one thing for play, make a hill.

A simple pile of dirt can become a bike ramp, a fort, a stage, a hiding place, a slide, a launchpad for the imagination.  When I was growing up my amazing mother asked the dump truck drivers working on our street to leave a load of dirt in our yard.  It was hands down the best play feature ever, enjoyed by not just my brothers and sisters and me but everyone in the neighborhood.  There were four swingsets, two slides, and three playhouses on our street too, but the hill was the best.

Sometimes when I recommend hills, though, people are worried about the technical details of the slopes and I never had those answers, but landscape architect Jeff Cutler of space2place in Vancouver, Canada, whose great playgrounds have featured on the blog before does!

Jeff’s work is characterized by innovative shaping of the ground to create unique spaces for play accompanied by carefully chosen plantings that enliven the landscape and are themselves full of fun.  It’s a mystery to me why so many traditional playgrounds look like play deserts….scraped flat and raw and utterly barren.  Plants are safe!  Don’t make a play desert!

space2place is generously providing Playscapes readers with guidelines and suggestions for both play hills and great playground plantings.  It’s our first DIY playground feature in honor of Aldo’s birthday and it’s free for you to download, print, and share under a Creative Commons Attribution Non-commercial license, which just means you must credit the source if you share it and you can’t sell it.

But you can use it to make your own awesome play features all you want!  All I ask is that you send me photos of what you do so I can eventually post a mash-up of reader projects, and that you leave nice thank-yous to space2place in the comments.


Watch for DIY play feature #2 on Monday.

Go make a playscape!


Posted in Natural Playgrounds, Play DIY, Resources

Two lengthy, but excellent videos from SchoolGrounds UK, a part of UK charity Learning through Landscapes, which promotes outdoor learning and play. The first highlights natural play spaces at primary schools in Scotland, and is one of the best overall presentations of natural play principals I’ve seen anywhere.

The sites feature many classic natural play elements with stumps and stones and landforms, but note particularly the fun the kids are having with the pile of straw mulch…an easy addition to any play space, and the simple barrel and pipe features for water and sand play seen at 1:57 and 4:49 and 12:20. And of course that all-important sandpit, the original playground feature, and still one of the best.

The second is an overview of the amazing playgrounds at schools in Berlin…soak in their innovation, their tolerance for fall heights, hidden spaces, and appropriate risk in general.  Note particularly the use of natural drainage for water play (2:37) so that the playground is actually MORE fun in the rain, instead of being rained out! More about Berlin playscapes later this week.

Posted in Natural Playgrounds, Resources

I get tired of the default to poured-in-place safety surfacing, but this playscape by MAD architects puts it to creative use–making two monster-sized footprints in the middle of Shenzhen’s Citizen’s Square.

Their careful topography allows for a surprising range of play within a single feature, from solitary musings at the edge of the space to raucous, unpredictable ball games on the puckelball-like ‘pitch’ of the monstrous prints.

This was a temporary installation for the 2009 Shenzhen & Hong Kong Biennale of Architecture and Urbanism…I wish it could have stayed!

[via archdaily]


Posted in Contemporary Design

Like all biennale installations, Crater Lake by 24° STUDIO for the Kobe, Japan event is only temporary.  And though meant mostly for grown-up art fair attendees, it incorporates space for climbing, sliding, hiding, performance, quiet play, and even flexibility (the seating stools are movable) in a compelling visual form that can be enjoyed by all ages.  Very, very well done.

Quick, somebody, hire these guys to make a permanent playscape!

[via the contemporist]

Posted in Contemporary Design, Playable Sculpture

One of many good thoughts currently percolating around the idea of playable urban space has to do with the role of public art, which judging by my email alot of you are thinking about.   A shift in thinking of public art as something to be interacted with rather than gazed upon could play a significant role in moving the discussion of playable space away from demarcation (this area is a playground, this area is not) towards gradient :  a variety of playable spaces along a spectrum that extends from no-play (obviously say, railroad tracks) to devoted-to-play spaces (playgrounds) , but with all conceivable points in between.

Reader and London playground chat attendee Lianne sent me the work of Robert Tully with which I’m quite impressed, not least because it so beautifully expresses the history and genius loci of Colorado, but also because it has so many creative, playable ideas from which to learn.

“Tradebeads” (Fort Collins, Colorado, cobblestones strung on stainless steel rods)
“Ripple Effects” (also Fort Collins, playable earthforms reclaiming a former dump site)
“Listening Stones” (Longmont, Colorado, parabolic seat carved into a river boulder to listen to the sound of the water)

“Gather Enough People” (cooperative play also in Longmont, instructions in the form of a riddle lead participants to open the scupture at the top by gathering three or more on the platform)

“Prairie Underground” along the same trail in Longmont lets visitors discover carved grounddwellers…the half-hidden nature of these carvings would delight children.  There need to be more ‘hidden’ things on playgrounds that can be discovered, over and over again.
“Kestrel’s Way”, same Longmont trail (I really must visit)–simply bending a standard trail out over a small incline provides a vertiginous experience that children love…the feeling of risk in a still-safe setting.
“Waterline”, same trail, reminds that ‘natural playgrounds’ must do more than plop down a boulder in some grass and call it good.  Adding a carving provides scope for endless crayon tracings!
“Visions born by this River”, Gates Crescent Park by Children’s Museum, Denver, uses river boulders with minimal carvings to represent native animals, inviting the children to use their imagination to complete the scene.
Visions” is one of several dedicated playgrounds by Tully; another is the “Miner’s Dream” in Breckenridge, Colorado.   Keeping on this idea of a gradient, I think it is significant that the dedicated playground space is only a part of a collection of eight pieces that form “a landscape based on history of the mining town, nature and imagination. Five pieces are in a playground while three are outside the playground on the plaza and in the river, breaking the usual playground boundary to become an overall sculpture about creating one’s future from past materials.”  They include “Human Scale,” an interactive sculpture,with platforms that people can stand on like a giant miner’s balance. Old iron wheels can be turned to move stone animals as counterweights and balance with an adult, and there is also a small “Three-Way Scale,” designed for more complex balancing with sand.  “Slide and Steps,” is a polished glacial boulder for sliding, and historic narrow guage rails are used as balance beams.  The stone and wood “History House” is sunken so kids can play in the attic, and the “Rock Person” provides the negative space of the human figure.

This has been a long post, but I wanted to include so many of Tully’s amazing ideas…inspirational for playscapes everywhere.  All photos and text from Robert Tully’s website