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

I don’t talk much about the Edible Schoolyard movement on the blog, thought it has obvious and strong overlaps with the Natural Playground movement (yes, there is definitely enough momentum in North America to declare it a movement, even while acknowledging that it is old news to most of Europe).  Many schools who reshape their play areas to include natural elements also include an area for cultivation of food,  similarly to these 1935 schoolyard photos from the Polytechnic Elementary School in Pasadena, California, via the online collections of the Huntington Library.  Are they working or playing?

The Elementary School also had a dedicated play space…note particularly the large wooden boxes (some appear to be hollow?)  the children are playing with in the foreground.  Large blocks are still one of the best solutions for loose parts play (see also this previous post on loose parts).


Posted in 1900-1950, Natural Playgrounds

Playscapes correspondent applicant Sarah Carrier sent this project to me amongst the things she is interested in corresponding about, and I just couldn’t wait to share it!

Stockholm-based VisionDivision was commissioned to build a concessions stand by the Indianapolis Museum of Art for the 100 Acres: The Virginia B. Fairbanks Art & Nature Park, a project that was realized in a beautiful and playful way–and almost entirely from a single tree. They called it Chop Stick.

Basing their design on “the universal notion that you need to sacrifice something in order to make something new. Every product is a compound of different pieces of nature…” they selected a 100-foot yellow poplar tree, the state tree of Indiana.  “Our goal was to make the best out of this specific poplar tree, from taking it down and through the whole process of transforming it into a useful building that is now part of one of the finest art parks in the United States. As the project proceeded, we continued to be surprised by all of the marvelous features that where revealed in refining a tree into a building; both in the level of craftsmanship and knowledge of woodworkers and arborists, and also of the tree itself.”

The first step was simply to suspend the tree as a great horizontal beam for the new structure.  Bark was removed and fashioned into shingles, and also into lanterns for illuminating the structure at night.  Pieces of wood were carefully extracted from the suspended tree and used for each of the design components:  the stand itself, the structural supports, pillars and studs, the swings, the chairs and the tables.  Pressed leaves and flowers were used to ornament the front glass of the kiosk, and yellow poplar syrup was even made from the bark, “thus meaning that you could
actually eat a part of the building.”

This project should remind us that making innovative play spaces requires a commitment far greater than a one-day installation of pre-fabricated components.  Listen to what VisionDivision says about the process, which sounds itself like a piece of performance art:

“The delicate balance act of the risk of weakening the hovering tree with taking cuts from it versus having to have a certain amount of wood to stabilize and construct the kiosk and carrying the load from the tree itself was very challenging.  Many days was spent with the structural engineer trying different types of cuts in a computer model to optimize the structure. To be able to fit all pieces that needed to be taken from the tree into the actual cuts we needed to make drawings for every single piece taken from the tree.

We also needed to optimize the kiosk both in size and in its constructions since it would take a lot of weight from the hovering trunk. The kiosk got a truss frame construction with two larger pieces of wood that are right under the tree. Using the schematics from our engineers force diagram program, we concluded that the wall closer to the end of the tree was taking more load, thus we sized up the two larger pieces of wood in that specific wall. All these alterations really just made the project more beautiful since the design became more refined in terms of more balanced proportions.”

Some might say that such attention is a waste of time and money, but if this was going up in my community I’d stop by every day to see the hovering tree and the careful extraction of its wood.  Imagine the community commitment to the space that could be developed through the performativity of the build.  Similarly, realizing  the Woods of Net by Toshiko Horiuchi MacAdam (the most popular ever post here at Playscapes and now receiving well-deserved and overdue worldwide acclaim)  required a devotion to the invisible structural engineering that make her pieces possible…architectural (Tezuka Architects) and engineering (TIS and Partners) collaborators are an integral part of that design’s success, which was three years in the making.

Chop Stick fortunately wasn’t quite so long to completion, but I do wish they had credited their structural engineers…I couldn’t find them listed at VisionDivision, which is the source of the photos and quotes in this post.


Posted in Natural Playgrounds

Sculptor Bridget Beck makes public artwork embedded with collaboration and narration–pieces that don’t just derive from playgrounds but actually are playgrounds. She created two large-scale pieces for the Franconia Sculpture Park in Franconia Minnesota, the first simply as a delightful ‘Playstation’ but the second as a ‘Poetry Studio’, a place for play and poetry together complete with a writing desk and a balcony for readings.

I’m incredibly inspired by her most recent work, “Locomotive”, which brings the same collaborative and playful art experience to elders of the community.  Working off her own love of locomotives, she discovered that many of the seniors at area nursing homes had strong memories of trains.  They decorated steel panels, which she incorporated into a traveling, wheel-chair accessible play-art piece.

The playground of the future will be multi-generational, rather than child-specific, and ideas like Bridget’s are helping shape it…well-done!

More about each of these projects in the video below from Minnesota Original...all photos are by Bridget, via Bridget Beck’s website.



Posted in Contemporary Design, Playable Sculpture

As some of you know from my other, infrequent, blog about garden history, I am also a historian of landscape (having taken a sabbatical from nanotechnology to get a master’s degree in the subject from the UK.  I highly recommend interdisciplinary studies, btw!).   So I have a preservationist bent, and that is what this post is about, inspired by my visit last weekend to some ten  play areas of Central Park.

Central Park, of course, occupies a unique place in the history of the American landscape, but its place in the history of the playground landscape is just as unique.  Because the park is so big, there has been–is–space to try out all sorts of play constructs, and over the years it has assembled a set of play spaces that seem like a museum-worthy collection of urban play thoughts dating from Olmsted’s day until now, though some are only historic shadows of past use.

And that’s what I was thinking about as I was going around the playgrounds of Central Park: about preserving, learning from, such a long history of play.  An ongoing issue in garden history is that public understanding of the need to preserve landscapes lags far behind feelings about the preservation of buildings, and even farther behind the generally accepted idea that other forms of art–objects like paintings, say–are worth taking care of and hanging onto.

And since the notion that playgrounds are in fact designed landscapes–an idea I try to champion here as much as possible–is also pretty new,  it stands to reason that the preservation of worthy playground sites is really just coming into broader discussion (see Playscapes past coverage of the La Laguna playground and the Edgar Miller Animal Court).  Playgrounds typically are built, allowed to deteriorate for 10-30 years, and then rebuilt according to current fashion.   So what does it mean to ‘preserve’ a playground?  Is it even appropriate?

Central Park is a key space for this conversation, about which playgrounds should be preserved, and how, and by what means we adapt them to changing ideas about risk, safety, child development and social goals while keeping them great places for play.

I won’t have time or space in this post to go all the way back to Olmsted (!), though I’m hoping to do some scholarly writing in that vein.  The main focus of my day out in Central Park was the mid-century playgrounds by Richard Dattner and Paul Friedberg, which I’ve pored over in books.

In person, they’re brilliant, with play value as strong as their forms.  Like a lot of people who love design, I fall hard for how a space looks….but playgrounds are for play, and its possible for the most visually compelling of designs to fail miserably if the child is not kept first and foremost.   So I’m pleased to report that on the play-o-meter (which is my proprietary internal rubric for evaluating how kids are playing!) these were places with both great design appeal and great play appeal.

I can only capture a limited sampling of my thoughts without completely boring you, so I’ll focus on just three of the sites our happy little group of playground geeks visited; the three that scored the best on the play-o-meter.  The  first was Richard Dattner’s ‘Adventure Playground’ at  West 67th.  If you’ve downloaded the Dattner book Design for Play (see the sidebar), then you know this well:  short, curving concrete walls, ‘volcanoes’ with brick scramble walls, a stepped wooden ziggurat, a modernist water rill for wading.  In the 1990s the playground was saved from potential destruction but nevertheless elements of the design (the ziggurat, the climbing frames, the treehouse) were made significantly shorter, and tunnels were blocked, to address safety concerns.  I’d like to think that if it was being renovated now maybe the changes wouldn’t be so severe, because there’s a much more sensible conversation happening about risk/benefit on the playground than there was just five years ago.

These alterations are probably why this playground was pulling a much younger audience than the one for which it was originally intended.  But I was pleasantly surprised to find that for those younger children the best imaginative play–children quietly going about creating their own world–I saw all day was here at the ‘Adventure’ Playground.

The beauty of the shaded site certainly contributes, but it’s key to notice that these imaginative moments, of a child utterly lost in play, were occurring as the child engaged not with the large iconic active pieces, but with very subtle elements of Dattner’s design:  short tunnels, a lowered block that invites a child to clamber over a wall, a stepped boundary that becomes a climber, a round platform that becomes a stage.  Dattner wisely puts these ‘play moments’ out of the main flow of traffic, often protecting them within the short walls, which are perfect for a child to feel ‘hidden’ even though they are still visible to an adult.

And they were mostly happening in the sand.  Dattner’s original design was for the base of all of his playgrounds to be pretty much filled with sand, converting the entire surface into playable space.  There’s nothing like sand for play-per-unit-area.  Though it is the original playground material,  sand is increasingly disappearing from playgrounds because of (1) concern over contamination with animal feces, needles, etc.  and (2)  ADA issues…sand is not wheelchair friendly.  But it’s such a loss for play so I’m interested to hear from my readers how you are addressing these issues… do leave a comment with your thoughts on sand.

The monumental forms of another Richard Dattner design, the Ancient Playground, reference the Met’s Egyptian temples housed just behind the glass across the street.  I really felt the lack of the concrete finish techniques seen at other Dattner sites:  strong edges, exposed aggregate finish, and visible form marks (see the Adventure Playground photos).   Without them, the renovated site looks more ‘adobe’ than ‘ancient’.  That’s admittedly a playground geek thing, but it’s a serious issue for design preservationists in other fields.  So is it an appropriate question for the playground, too?   Playground preservation uniquely has to balance original design intent with ongoing playability.

Regardless, there was great play going on here…the Ancient Playground tied for the top in in “best active play”.   Dattner is great at the scramble.  Everywhere you looked there were kids pulling themselves up, and lowering themselves down, tilted surfaces.  The key here is TILTED.  It is important for a child to experience and test the limits of their balance, and the Ancient Playground provides plenty of slanted brick abutments for scrambling:  the rough ones you climb on, and the smooth ones you jump and slide on.   An underestimated loveliness of Dattner’s design is the restful area that grown-ups gather in under a grove of golden locusts–that favorite tree of mid-century modernists–that were glowing in the fall sun.  It is one of too few occurrences of planting inside the playground fence that I saw in NYC.  There were beautiful plantings…but generally on the other side of the fence, and this is an issue the Central Park Conservancy is addressing in their ongoing commitment to making great play spaces in the park.

The last playground I want to focus on (though I’ll do at least one other posting on Central Park with some additional thoughts) is the East 110th Street Playground, on the northern boundary of the park, by M. Paul Friedberg, whose Handcrafted Playgrounds book you can also download here. 

His 1979 Timberform playground surprised me by achieving the highest score for the day on the play-o-meter.  Now it’s an admittedly quirky index, but one that has been honed over years of play observation, and I do normalize for number of kids, differences in social context, etc.  The 110th Street playground had the widest range of ages actively engaged with the play space–it was the only playground that reached into the 11-12 year old range–and the play was very active.  It was also the only site where the players talked to me about their playground and how much they loved it.

So I spent quite a bit of time trying to absorb what made this playground space so successful (other than just the tire swings, which they all adored, and told me so).  But there were things they didn’t know to tell me but that I could see:  like how much they liked the feel of the massive timbers, or how far they could scramble along the horizontal beams between the uprights, or how even a small child could climb the timber ‘mountains’ because there are more-challenging and less-challenging routes up and down and there’s always a handhold nearby (so no need for an intrusive safety railing).
The East 110th Street playground is slated for destruction, to be replaced by a new playground design.

Do I wish this playground had some plantings, and some topography and a better connection to the wider landscape?  Sure.  But should this playground be preserved?  I tend to think so, and I’m interested in your thoughts.

I’m generalizing here, but preservation is basically about significance and uniqueness.  There are things that are significant but not unique and things that are unique but not significant, and things that are both.   The massive timbers of the East 110th Street playground do mark a significant design point in play history, and near as I can tell from my research it is one of few Timberform playgrounds left. Central Park has appropriately retained a classic Robert Moses era-type playground–metal jungle gym and all–in its open-air museum of play, and I’d like to think there is room for a Timberform playground too; room for children to experience a unique type of playground that will soon disappear completely from the urban landscape.

That is not to neglect material issues…wood of course has different preservation considerations than metal or plastic.  But they’re not insurmountable.

And this may win an award for my longest post ever on Playscapes!  From time to time I feel bad when well-meaning people advise me that any truly successful blogger posts multiple times a day.  But  I like to think we’re having a conversation here, and conversations don’t happen that fast.  So I’m going to leave this post sit for a few days, and I hope you’ll add your thoughts on playground preservation, and specifically on the East 110th Street Playground; I really want to hear them.

[image of adventure playground (then) via dwell and adventure playground (now) via the Central Park Conservancy]


Posted in Mid-Century Modern, Play Heroes

Kulturinsel Einsiedel says that “we build worlds as fantastic as the ones on the computer…that you can experience with ALL your senses!”  And I think that’s important.  Because in all the finger-waggling about childhood obesity it’s time that we acknowledged that the places we’ve been making for outdoor play actually aren’t all that compelling.  Downright boring, in the main.  And yet they’re up against the intense visual landscapes of television and video games.  Why are we surprised when the virtual reality wins?

One of the central ideas here at Playscapes is that play is better when the space for play is better.  And the grown-ups need to take responsibility for making better space.

Kulturinsel Einsiendel has no trouble competing with virtual reality. It’s an adventure playground/treehouse hotel in Neißeaue near Görlitz, Germany and the singular vision of Jürgen Bergmann, who is also the proprieter of “Artistic Wood Design Jürgen Bergmann”.  They make wooden play structures and sculptures for other locations as well, all of which seem to have leapt from the pages of a fantasy storybook.  They refer to themselves as ‘sculptors’ rather than playground makers. “Big, unusual things made of wood“, that is what we reply when people ask what we are doing. Our products are based on our own ideas and designs. Every piece is manufactured only once. Fantasy creature, tree-house, climbing frame castle, bench suite, playable sculpture, landscape art or complex play-areas: Every object is unique.”

And importantly, everything *seems* a bit dangerous, a bit risky, even though they comply with all European safety standards.

Look particularly at how rich in texture–both visual and tactile–their playscapes are.  Most of today’s playgrounds, on the other hand, have basically three textures:  slick metal, slightly rough plastic, slightly more rough solid surfacing/gravel/mulch.  Dull, dull, dull.

P.S.  It’s impossible to show as many pictures of Kulturinsel Einsiedel as it deserves…spend some time on google images and you’ll find many more!  I’ll show some more work from Jürgen Bergmann later in the week.

[photo 2 via wikimedia commons. photo 3 via wikimedia commons. photo 4: via spiegelonlinephoto 6 source. photos 1, 7 & 8 via dd4kids; see also their reviews of other German playgrounds]

Posted in Natural Playgrounds, Playable Sculpture

One more, one more swing…if you watched the William Whyte Social Life of Small Urban Spaces video below you’ll have noted the pop art, big red swing of Theodore Ceraldi, installed in 1971.  It sways on its cables just enough to be a swing, but not enough to keep it from being a bench, which is brilliant.

Still swinging at 777 Third Avenue, between E. 48th and 49th streets in NYC. [source]


Posted in Mid-Century Modern

And before we leave the subject of swings…I like this construction from the ideo headquarters in Santa Cruz California which is supported by leaning against a wall and combines the swings with ladders and a loft.  This is intended for grown-ups, so it would may (according to play risk expert Tim Gill!) need some modifications (like a railing and checking the swing arc) for kids, but it’s a great idea;  particularly useful for a small space where there isn’t enough room for a traditional A-frame swing set.  Very DIYable…if you make something similar be sure to let me know!  [source]

Posted in Play DIY

“Swing Hall, Swing All” joins a series of temporary urban swing interventions like Caroline Woolard’s Subway Swing (2006), Bruno Taylor’s busstop swing (2008), Didier Faustino’s billboard swing (2009) Jerome Demuth’s Paris swings (2010)  and of course Andrew Too-humble-to-give-his-last-name’s Red Swing Project, whose DIY go-anywhere instructions have been swinging since 2007.

But the real fathers of the urban swing–and here we mean a swing that is inserted randomly within the urban space, not just on a playground, and available for use simply by passersby, not particularly children–were Akay and Peter, also known as the Barsky Brothers, who after a stint as graffiti artists turned to a different sort of street art project in which they thought of Stockholm as their playground and their intervention as ‘an act of re-creation through recreation’, according to the excellent book on their work Urban Recreation (here’s a link to Urban Recreationon Amazon if you wish to use it…essential reading for all urban interventionists).

Their projects included the installation of a holiday cottage and later a communal picnic table on a traffic island,  a silhouette ‘zoo’ in a vacant highway lot, and a tiny wooden trailer for kids used to set up camp in an scary urban corner.  And for several months in 2004, they installed swings, sixty-five of them, around Stockholm.  They made them of found materials:  a milk crate, a bench plank from McDonalds.

“There is something simply charming and disarming about swings.  It’s hard to describe the feeling of watching crowds of people hurrying along the sidewalks, then suddenly seeing someone break away, take a seat, and start swinging.  It’s like love.  There’s a feeling of instant affection for any individual who would stop everything and just take advantage of the moment, allowing herself to get swept away.”

the city is a playground.
set down your shopping bags,
swing from bridges, swing from busstops.
swing after you crossed the street at a crosswalk.
backwards.  forwards.  look around.
barsky has been to your part of town.
they take a bit of rope, plastic crates,
anything they can find.
carpet scraps, abandoned tires,
wooden boards people leave behind.
they hang the junk from bridges.
tie it tight to traffic signs.
so you can swing into oncoming traffic
and wave to people passing by.
the city is your playground.
do you need to ask them why?
in Urban Recreation

[photo 1: Didier Faustino, via dvice.  photo 2: Bruno Taylor via dvice. photo 3: Caroline Woolard via her website.  photo 4: Red Swing Project, Austin 2012, E. Seventh overpass at Tillery Street © Alberto Martinez/Austin American-Statesman. photo 5: Jerome Demuth via urban prankster]

Posted in Contemporary Design, Play History

Artist Keetra Dean Dixon created a hall of swings in a Minneapolis skywalk for the city’s overnight arts festival, Northern Spark.

“For a full, even swing, all swingers must be in sync. Out of pace swinging results in playful collision.”

a tilt of light from ENESS on Vimeo.

And art & design studio ENESS created a seesaw with 33 rows of lights that respond, not just to the motion of the seesaw, but to a physics stimulator that lets you choose an object (balloon, ping-pong ball) and an atmosphere (air, water, yogurt even?) through which the object is ‘moving’.

It’s available for play at Federation Square in Melbourne just until July 1….hurry!

[found at core77]


Posted in Contemporary Design

The post about the crochet playground constructions of Toshiko Horiuchi MacAdam is one of the most popular ever here at Playscapes (second only to the Puckelball Pitch in page views).

It has been a bit difficult to find information on Toshiko’s work, as most of the locations are in Japan.  But the MacAdams have recently launched their own site with more information about their unique playscapes, which they call NetPlayWorks…you can now see a comprehensive list of locations, as well as previously unavailable photos of each, a small selection of which are seen below.   Oh, the eye candy…don’t you feel happy just looking at these!

UPDATE:  For now, as of July 5, the above link to the MacAdam’s site isn’t working…it may have been too much traffic.  I’ll keep you posted.

UPDATED UPDATE:  The MacAdam’s are now back online, see your crochet playgrounds here!


Posted in Contemporary Design, Play Heroes

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

So some people from the firm of Michael van Valkenburgh have been in my city this week, having been retained to make a new park that will include (though the community meeting was exceedingly vague) some sort of playscape.

MVVA is particularly good, I think, at articulating the space within a playscape’s outlines.   They  divide a large space into a series of smaller play areas–defining them with lush plantings so that they seem like glades in a forest–as well as into valleys and mountains that allow for climbing stairs and sloping pathways.    This technique is particularly evident in the overhead shot of New York’s Pier 6 playground which opened in 2010.

Notice how all of the playground features are enabled and made better by the shaping of the ground plane and the islands of greenery.  They, not the equipment, define the playscape.

[All photos via MVVA]


Posted in Natural Playgrounds

From the Latrobe photographic collection in the archives of the National Trust of Tasmania (Australia), a giant self-constructed seesaw and a ‘boat swing’ c. 1900.


Posted in 1900-1950

Toshiko Horiuchi MacAdam, who orders yarn by the ton for her creations, is the textile artist behind the oft photographed net constructions at the Hakone sculpture park in Sapporo Japan.

I love the story of how she came to be engaged with children’s play:  “It all happened quite by accident. Two children had entered the gallery where she was exhibiting ‘Multiple Hammock No. 1’ and, blissfully unaware of the usual polite protocols that govern the display of fine art, asked to use it. She watched nervously as they climbed into the structure, but then was thrilled to find that the work suddenly came alive in ways she had never really anticipated. She noticed that the fabric took on new life – swinging and stretching with the weight of the small bodies, forming pouches and other unexpected transformations, and above all there were the sounds of the undisguised delight of children exploring a new play space.”

From that point, her work shifted out of the gallery and a subdued, monochromatic palette into a riotous rainbowof colors for children’s playscapes.

Rainbow Net was produced in close collaboration with structural engineers TIS & Partners and landscape architects Takano Landscape Planning and opened in July of 2000 after three years of planning, testing, and building.

Note that the project began with a brief not for a playground, but simply for ‘public art’.   Wouldn’t it be great if when we heard ‘public art’ we automatically thought ‘play’?

But innovative playscapes require an enormous commitment:

“…endless cycles of discussion and approval, with meticulous attention to detail…[including] an actual scale wooden replica of the space in Horiuchi’s studio and accurately scaled crocheted nets using fine cotton thread. Even then, it was difficult to assess many things. What difference, for instance, would the weight of the real yarn make when everything increased in scale? All of these factors had to be calculated in order to arrive at a scientific methodology that could eradicate any risk of unacceptable danger.”

During final assembly, Toshiko crocheted ten hours a day, often on her knees, until the installation was complete.

With the current revival of the textile arts and yarn bombings everywhere, I’d love to see more crochet on the playground!

UPDATE:  see a new post on Toshiko’s Horiuchi MacAdam’s work with additional information and photos

Posted in Contemporary Design, Playgrounds by Artists