And in other news of spools, this delightful construction by the Mmofra Foundation‘s Playtime in Africa project.  I love overlaps between play and literacy.

Watch for more from the Mmofra Foundation here soon, as they join our cast of worldwide correspondents.  But for now, go like their Facebook page!

And while you’re there, also check out the new Playscapes facebook page, ably edited by your correspondent Sarah Carrier of Boston, LArch from Harvard School of Design and playground afficionado.  She’s covering Playscapes on Pinterest, too. Go say hello!



Posted in Contemporary Design


First, meet Julie Klear, co-founder of Zid Zid kids and your Playscapes correspondent for the MENA region (Middle East North Africa)!  This is an area whose play provision I know very little about and I’m thrilled to have Julie posting from there.  You can see her first post here, and she’s also provided us with a wonderful set of DIY instructions for a slide made from recycled cable spools and road signs, based on one she and husband Moulay Essakalli created for the neighborhood children of the Bahraini Art Gallery, Al Riwaq located in Manama, Bahrain.

Before the build, ZidZid conducted a design workshop that included walking the children through their neighborhood to notice the elements of their suroundings, and collecting found materials to make landscape collages.    No wonder then, that a two-story climbing slide–made from discarded cable spools and road signs–was born, inspired by a vintage photograph.  The “Oasis Playscape” for Al Riwaq also included  a tree house, a recycled tire swing, large chalkboard walls for drawing, sand, climbing stumps made from recycled telephone poles, giant silicon pipes used as tunnels and a recycled tire climbing wall.

I’m thrilled to be able to bring you instructions for making the delightful road sign slide!  But it’s not just a slide; clever construction adds a tunnel in the slide’s base and cozy play spaces inside the spool.  You can download full details (with lots more pictures) from this link.

Julie and Moulay are interested in hearing from any other play designers in the MENA region…if you are one, leave a message in the comments!


Posted in Contemporary Design, Play DIY

We’ve talked before about ‘real stuff on the playground‘–repurposing items like train cars and jet planes–that was once a common playground practice but has fallen out of favor, at least in the West.  But repurposing is still a common theme of play spaces in developing countries, and charmingly so in this playground for a children’s hospital in Malawi, which repurposed an an old Land Cruiser as an ambulance!

Made wheelchair accessible with the using of appropriate concrete pavements and ramps, the ambulance becomes a clubhouse/swingset/climber all in one. The installation is by Peter Meijer, director of Sakaramenta–a social enterprise which employs Malawians to produce bicycle carts and other items–along with designers Luc van Hoeckel and Pim van Baarsen.

[photos by sakaramenta, via designboom]


Posted in Contemporary Design

This compact playscape in San Francisco’s historic Presidio manages to tick alot of boxes in a small space:  rolling topography with circuitous paths, a circular meeting space for outdoor class, an inspiring play house, natural elements, appropriate plantings and loose parts play via the creative use of cardboard tubing!  Plus an appropriate use of equipment.  And all within a strong design framework for the space, which so many school playgrounds lack.  Admirably done by surface design. 

“…the landscape architect designed play features to support the Reggio Emilia approach and to recall bay area landscapes: the “beach” sand pit; the play “forest;” a grassy “Headland” mound; and a giant “telephone,” constructed from a large remnant drainage pipe. Carved out from the center of the Headlands, the designers created a room of rammed earth, recalling the forms of historic defense bunkers found at the water’s edge of the Presidio. Tree cookie pavers, cut from fallen Eucalyptus trees in the Presidio provide students to create their own games and to create paths through the school yard.  Material selection and planting for the project was informed by the educational objectives of the playground and by the planting and preservation guidelines of the Presidio Trust. Plants are drought-tolerant and native and materials are natural, biodegradable or reclaimed.”

[found at architypesource:   photos from surface design.]

Posted in Natural Playgrounds, Play DIY

There is more than one way to build a den, and I love the tents constructed by Noa Meir and Tali Buchler, whose playful design work has been featured here at Playscapes before.

The idea behind this art installation was to bring back craft and the love of making to the local community. By gathering and knitting the tent, a community based on the love of handcraft was formed. 

Every Wednesday for 3 months kids, parents and grandparents got together at the local community center to finger knit ropes from left over lycra scraps brought from a local factory. The ropes were tied to 3 nesting rings made of watering pipes, forming circus-like shaped tents. The tents were hung from a large ficus tree located in a public garden in the center of town, adjacent to a synagogue called Jacob’s Tent (we found that out after installing the tent). We hung a total of 3 tents, all independent of one another but close enough that spinning one would start the movement of  another.

The hovering tents formed a space that encouraged passersby to stop, engage with the tents and play. A public garden that was hardly ever occupied now became a desirable place to be.”

A beautiful project, like a playhouse that swings!  Tali is going to provide some detailed instructions for us, so watch this space.

[photography by Nirit-Gur Karby]


Posted in Contemporary Design, Play DIY, Playable Sculpture

I’ve talked before on the blog about making provisions for den-building, which can be as simple as providing a three-point frame or a pole that the kids can lean branches against and attach tent materials to.

I also like the slightly more complex approach of Copper Beech Landscaping in the UK, who suspend forked branches between uprights to make a structure that can be climbed on or bounded with sticks for long tunnel-like dens.

Oftentimes natural playscape builders are looking for a large felled tree to lay in a sandpit; this is a great way to utilize smaller treeforms in a structure that is just as visually appealing and has, I think, even more play value.

Posted in Natural Playgrounds, Play DIY

I really like the simplicity of this stacked stone feature at the Cinco Ranch Natural Playground in Katy, Texas.  It provides well for climbing, hiding, jumping and even performance play.  The formal look that the cut stone provides is better suited to some settings than the boulders more commonly found on natural playgrounds.  Simple…as long as you have some heavy equipment!  By Austin-based Studio TBG.

Posted in Natural Playgrounds

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

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 you’re designing your playscape, don’t neglect the hardscape that can make the space feel comfortable, permanent,  and settled into its site.  Always question whether a fence is truly necessary (often it isn’t), or whether another way of providing ‘boundary’ is more useful and more functional as well…one way of handling the perimeter of your site is to make it a bench.

I really like the constructions of ‘Bankinzicht’ from the Netherlands (their site is in Dutch, see an English translation via google translate) by two gardeners who make, among other things, ‘natural nurseries’ and have a particular predilection for constructing benches from discarded building rubble.

“The seats are for the most part made ​​with materials that were released during the construction of a garden. The foundation usually consists of several layers of gravel tiles. Subsequent layers are stacked in a mosaic structure and supplemented with specific details of pottery, glass, or “found objects”. In the pile and brickwork much room is left for planting. Kenilworth Ivy, Thyme and Yellow Corydalis species are fun and add color and scent. It is also possible to integrate the bench with a pool of water or a wooden seat.”

I love the way their benches incorporate things like marbles and old pieces of pottery and have plenty of niches for hiding treasures or parking a toy car.

And note how the circular patterns of the benches at one of their ‘natural nurseries’ provide for the ‘retreat spaces’ previously discussed on the blog as a design feature to prevent playground bullying. Hooray for Bankinzicht!


Posted in Natural Playgrounds

I’m just one of many architecture lovers who admire the work of Alabama-based Rural Studio (see a good overview in a recent WSJ piece).   It gives students hands-on design and construction experience by building innovative structures made of inexpensive, accessible materials.  They devote themselves to  Alabama’s Hale County, which I first came to know from reading James Agee’s Great Depression manifesto Let us Now Praise Famous Men. 

A 1996 Rural Studio playground construction has been previously featured on the blog, and I’m pleased to see that they are calling their new space a ‘playscape’.

It’s located in Greensboro’s Lion’s Park, which they’ve been renovating since about 2004, already redesigning the ball fields, adding eye-catching entrance gates, and re-landscaping with concrete and rock pathways that both guide visitors and cover buried utilities. They added toilet facilities powered by collected rainwater and a mobile concession stand, and “designed and constructed an elaborate skateboarding park, complete with half-pipes,  jumps, and other obstacles.  Funding was donated by the Tony Hawk Foundation, and the end result is probably the most amazing skatepark that has ever been constructed for $25,000.”

And now there is the new playscape!  It has come in for some criticism for its galvanized steel drum elements (they’re recycled mint oil barrels) but Rural Studio did have the good sense to construct a complete shade canopy, unlike the designers of NYC’s Brooklyn Bridge playground, where several children were burned on the metal play domes after they were installed in 2010.

2,000 of the donated 55-gallon drums are arranged in a maze that allows kids to chase both in between and on top of the walls.  In some places of the canopy, the top and bottom of drums have been removed so that the sky and clouds are visible, and so that the ground plane remains well lit.

I particularly like the ‘shouting tubes’, and the sensitive berms for groundplay (hooray for playgrounds that aren’t completely flat!) both inside and outside the maze.

Look closely at the kids looking down on the shouting tubes: that reminds me so much of being up on top of the haybales, close to the roof of my grandfather’s barn.  It’s a spatial reference that resonates beautifully in this rural landscape.

[see more on the playscape at Architectural Record.  Thanks to Cynthia Gentry of the Atlanta Taskforce on Play and the International Play Association, for the tip!]



Posted in Contemporary Design

Sometimes I get asked where the best playgrounds in the world are.  Hands down they’re in the countries of northern Europe, where long-standing cultural values for being outside and a realistic approach to risk have led to play installations that are truly child-focused.

Frode Svane, teacher and playground expert,  hails from Norway and he’s documented many of the best European playgrounds in his extensive albums, available on facebook.  His photographic chronicles are a huge trove of inspiration for the playscape-maker, of which the ones featured in this post are a small, small selection; I’m particularly inspired at the moment by his idea set for secondary schools (selections above), since play environments for teens continue to be a missed opportunity in play design.

You’ll also find loads of ideas for natural playgrounds elements:  Frode has been promoting nature play and natural playscapes since way before the current children and nature movement and before I had even heard those terms myself.  Sometimes when larger forces take over we lose track of who the real trailblazers were; I consider Frode to be one of them, and his playground chronicles (I don’t know anyone else with soo many playground pictures!) are endlessly inspiring.

Frode also hosts study trips of European playgrounds:  one each year in Berlin and sometimes also in Scandinavia as well.  This year’s Berlin trip is June 27-30 (and I’ve just noticed that the registration deadline was April 12…contact Frode asap for remaining availability)

I dream of taking one of these myself, but alas my uni doesn’t consider this a legitimate use of laboratory travel funds….even if you can’t take the trip, visit vicariously through Frode Svane’s photo chronicles.

Posted in Natural Playgrounds, Play Heroes, Resources

This idea of social sculpture–works of art that take place in the social realm and require social engagement for their realization–originated with artist and sculptor Josef Beuys in the 1960s and 1970s and has real relevance for how playgrounds were conceived in that time period.   The revitalization of his ideas in the virtual realm of social media means they are also trending to influence the physical environment of the playground again.

Beuys’ definition of social sculpture was more philosophical than, say, Superblue’s Giant Knitting Nancy (below), which is nonetheless its intellectual descendent.  Beuys was thinking grandly, about society itself as a giant work of art in which any one person’s action changes–‘sculpts’–the whole.  He famously insisted that “everyone is an artist” (I often wonder whether those who incessantly refer to themselves as ‘creatives’ were asleep the day they covered Beuys in design school or if they just don’t agree!) and social media has now made his concept self-evident beyond his wildest dreams.

I thought of Beuys this week, during my first experience with jury duty, when a fellow panelist was removed from the courtroom for trying to surreptitiously use her cellphone to photograph herself.  In the jury box.  So she could post it on Facebook.

It reminded me of Beuys because his ideas have taken on a new relevance within social media, with those who ponder how individuals craft their virtual space:  the ‘museum of me’, if you will, to which my fellow juror was apparently trying to contribute.  Beuys did create tangible, physical works of art, but in spite of the utopianism of his ideals it was deeply introverted; as insulating and insular as the felt he often used as a medium.  And not at all playful.

But around the same time period artist Allan Kaprow tied the idea of social art creation explicitly to play. His Happenings of the late 1950s to early 1970s, though inherently temporary, were defined as “A game, an adventure, a number of activities engaged in by participants for the sake of playing”  and some of these, in vintage photos, can still be read as playgrounds or something like. 

You may be wondering where I’m going with this.  But I don’t think it’s a coincidence that the adventure playground–the fullest realization before or since of social sculpture in space for play–had its heyday at the same time that these ideas did.

Historians are tempted to make too much of the linear transmission of ideas, to seek to draw orderly lines from one thought-leader to the next, to show ideas building neatly one on another like blocks.

But it is always messier than that, and what is more difficult to trace (and therefore write scholarly articles about) is the effect of concepts that are percolating in the wider culture in a variety of places and with a variety of people; part of the bloodstream, the zeitgeist, the idea ecosystem, but no less powerful for being less definable.

So I went back through my old posts and my personal archives of play spaces looking for elements of social sculpting, and they were nearly always from the 1960s and 1970s….or from today. I think today’s playground environment, in keeping with wider cultural trends, is going to move once again towards social, but this time as well towards self-construction.

So, you proponents of adventure playgrounds fondly reminiscing about the seventies (hello, Greenwich conference attendees!) have reason to hope.

Do you know of more examples of social sculpture on the playground, readers?  I’m interested in how you think the playgrounds of the future could be socially, or self-constructed in new ways.

[photos from the Children’s Play Information service archive]

Purchase Planning for Play (1968) digital download for $6 USD via Paypal

Posted in Mid-Century Modern, Playable Sculpture

(images removed by request of copyright holder)

I really love that I don’t have to credit anyone but the 3-6 year old children and staff of the Thurton Church of England Primary School on this post!

Because while I adore custom playgrounds by thoughtful Arch/LArch practices, the notion that a playspace must be designed by a professional (or more often, an equipment company) is one of the worst things that has happened to play.

Looking at Thurton school’s playground-creation process, as detailed in a newspaper article showcasing their commendation by both the Campaign to Protect Rural England (CPRE) and the South Norfolk Design Awards, is revealing.

1.  They were inspired by an idea;  in this case the picture book “Window” by Jeanne Baker.  “The children explored what they wanted to see out of their own window and what they wanted to adapt in the local environment.”

This is completely different from what usually passes for a child-focused design process, in which children are simplistically asked to draw their ideal playground.  The problem with that is most kids only *know* slides and swings and platforms so that’s what they draw.   People (adults, too) only choose from what they know, which is why this blog continually focuses on expanding the ‘circle of know’ about what a playground is and can be.

2.   Experts were utilized, but were not the primary drivers of the design.  “…the children then wrote their own questionnaires for parents, so they could further narrow down the ideas they had. They then met with landscape architects from Norfolk County Council (NCC) and landscapers to find out if some of their ideas were possible. Finally the children presented their ideas in an extraordinary school assembly to children, parents, governors, staff and the local community. The designs were shown to David Yates at NCC and he took something from each design to make the final plan.”

3.  The installed design, though executed by the experts, reflected a genuine commitment to the children’s goals rather than limited choices from an equipment list.

The Thurton playscape, constructed by local firm MEO landscapes, now includes a labyrinth and story-telling area, a tiny hobbit-like house next to an amphitheatre and stage, a ‘reflective’ space, a secret path, a mound for rolling, tire swings, a playhouse and den-making area, and a ‘really deep’ sandpit.  (’tis true that most sandpits aren’t deep enough for serious digging!).

Such an amazing place to play!

[All Thurton photos by Natasha Lyster]

And for comparison-purposes-only, a ‘typical’ primary school playground.  Make up your own mind which is good for the kids.


Posted in Natural Playgrounds

In researching the previous post, I came across the mention that the ‘yellow submarine’ had been repainted with paint provided by the Children’s Scrap Project in Hackney, London, which collects waste from businesses (including paint) for free, performs a health and safety check, then displays materials in a warehouse for members to use for education and play alike…a boon to the adventure playground or the DIY playscape.

The Children’s Scrap Store in Bristol is a similar organization which goes an exciting step further by providing The Scrapstore PlayPod™:  a container full of repurposed materials and equipment (loose parts) for play.  See it in action:

There is also a more detailed video of the playpods here. There are currently 28 schools that have a Scrapstore PlayPod™ in their play ground; it’s a fast-growing concept that I’d love to see spread to other countries, especially my own USA.  Of course, here you can pay $7k to $25k (near as I can tell; prices are notably absent from their publicity) for some blue polyethylene foam pieces Designed By David Rockwell and heavily promoted by Kaboom. Make up your own mind.

There is a nationwide Scrapstores charity in the UK, which maintains a directory of all scrapstores there.    I’m wondering about scrapstores in other countries…I know of a few here in the USA but no comprehensive directory.  So, dear readers, tell me what you know about scrapstores!  Is there one in your area?  Do you use it?   If you know of a scrapstore, add it to the list I’ve started in the forum.

Posted in Play DIY, Resources