Urban Art Projects coordinated the design of a new playscape targeted at under-7s for Redfern Park in Sydney Australia, centered around sculptural play pieces by indigenous artist Fiona Foley.  Her components are proof that playground ‘equipment’ can be beautiful…

“Fiona gathered her reference material from walks throughout the local area, theming the play elements around native flora. The intention is to stimulate the imagination and senses as much as provide tangible cues to structured play activity.”

Most splash pads feature garishly brash plastic tubing; in this one the kids get drenched amongst cast stainless steel and bronze lotus flowers.  Their playhouses and bouncers are inspired by seed pods; and the aboriginal word for ‘creator’ in bright red letters is striking against the natural components and also acts as an additional climber.

All photos via Urban Art Projects.

See also a review of Redfern Park by some nomadic parents here, and also note their links to other great Australian play spaces.


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

The Netherlands have Aldo van Eyck, but other countries have their playground heroes as well:  Lady Allen Hurtwood in England,Theodor Sorenson in Denmark, Empress Frederick in Germany…and Switzerland has Alfred Trachsel, champion of the ‘Robi’ or Robinson Crusoe playground.

I’ve been hoping  to bring his 1959 book “Creative Playgrounds and Recreation Centers”  to you but have been unable to locate his heirs; if you know who they are please do get in touch!  For  now, there are still some copies available on amazon and etc., and you should get one while you can.

[I also want to take the opportunity to point you to an amazing site devoted to the history of children’s playgrounds: architekturfuerkinder by Gabriela Burkhalter.  Playscapes brings you as much history as I can, but Gaby’s site is devoted solely to the topic, and is comprehensive and well-informed.  Don’t miss it! ]

Trachsel’s approach to the playground is unique for being so utterly inclusive…he called his Robi sites “a playground for all age groups” and he meant it:  from babes in arms to the elderly, all gathered together in one play space.    Robinson Crusoe playgrounds are sometimes said to be synonymous with adventure playgrounds, but this isn’t historically accurate, according to  Trachsel and coauthor Alfred Ledermann’s own definitions.  They saw the classic self-built adventure playground concept as too limited, and wanted to add to it artistic, competitive, and team endeavors as well as social engagement for all ages.

Trachsel’s designs were of playground-as-community-centers, specifically embodying the idea of the ‘village tree of old’, and incorporating permanent buildings for communal activities.  This concept continued to influence public park design well into the 1970s, and community buildings alongside playgrounds are still often seen in Europe but less commonly here in the US.

Trachsel included ‘building areas’ ala the classic adventure playground, but also added hard surfaced areas for ball games, wading pools, villages of playhouses and swings for small children, and areas for theatrical and musical performances.  And check out those community chalkboards!

Alfred Trachsel was also the first person (near as I can tell anyway!) to make a play feature out of a natural tree trunk laying on its side in a sandpit, now a common element of the modern natural playscape.

Does your country have a playground hero?  I’d love to hear about them…leave me your ideas in the comments!


Posted in Play Heroes, Play History

The word ‘playscape’ was invented around 1959 to define a landscape type that was a completely designed space for play, not just the sets of equipment with which the word ‘playground’ had become definitively associated.  It was in keeping with that definition that I chose ‘playscapes’ as the title for this blog, though since 1959 the word has been used in a variety of ways, to apply to a variety of play spaces.

We’re now seeing the rise of a new word–‘naturescape’–that further seeks to distinguish spaces for play in which natural features are paramount.  Like ‘playscape’ the word will probably be used in many ways, and without a strict definition, but it is a useful linguistic device, I think, and shows how much exciting innovation is occurring in defining what used to be called the ‘playground’.    So much that we need new words.

Especially since the new play area at King’s Park in Perth Australia has specifically asked us *not* to call it a playground.

“This area is not a playground. It has been designed to retain as much of its natural bush setting as possible. The project brings back a level of challenge, adventure and connection to nature that has been missing from many urban childhoods.

Great care has been taken to provide children with a real ‘bush’ experience in the middle of our city. This is carefully balanced with providing inspiring design and high quality amenities to enhance the visitor experience.

Rio Tinto Naturescape Kings Park covers 60,000 square metres and incorporates a series of unique zones including hidden thickets, a creek, lookouts, a cubby building area, upside-down trees and a wetland. These areas are connected by meandering paths, boardwalks and bridges which offer a feeling of immersion in the bush.”

I particularly like the water features, including a massive stone block ‘spring’ (big enough to wade in!) with small water holes for mud play, and the sensible and humorous approach to playground safety evidenced by the safety signs:

Two Australian kid-focused bloggers visited the Naturescape (here and here), judging it the best play space in Perth! The photos in this post are from their insightful reviews, credit Alec Duncan and Niki Buchan.

I couldn’t find information on who the architects/designers for this project were; if you know please tell me so I can credit them.

Thanks to reader Jennifer for submitting this!


Posted in Natural Playgrounds

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

Learning through Landscapes also produced an insightful report on the Berlin schoolyards, with many great images, including those above.  There’s a wealth of inspiration in these schools’ tolerance for untidiness, their insistence on sand rather than mulch or safety surfacing,  and the ‘reprofiling’ of school yards to introduce slopes and dips….it’s a must-read document.

One aspect of the report is the use of drainage as a play feature.  When you do hear about playground drainage it’s usually as a problem! But these schoolyards consistently see it as opportunity,  channeling the flow with gentle swales and valleys, places kids naturally like to play.

The water course can take various forms, from an artistic mosaic to a boulder-strewn stream bed.  You can of course add piped-in water to these features, but I like the way using rainwater introduces a seasonality and changeability to the playscape.

The ever-helpful London Play have produced a document all about playing with rainwater and sustainable drainage strategies with loads of helpful tips and great site examples to inspire your own rainwater playscape.

The flip side of drainage-as-playfeature is that NOT realizing the attractiveness of rainwater channels can inadvertently cause a problem by drawing children into a space that wasn’t designed for them, and carries too much water to be safe.  The nice urban drainage scheme of Upton, Northamptonshire (below) is an irresistible playspace and has been adopted as such by children in the community, but this can’t be encouraged since it wasn’t a planned use.  (thanks to  reader Amy for this information)


Posted in Natural Playgrounds, Resources

Playscapes friend Jeff Cutler has opened a new playground in Vancouver, Canada with many of the same wonderful features as in his previously blogged Garden City playground…well done (again) space2place!

“Located in Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside, Oppenheimer Park has a storied past and has served numerous roles in the community throughout its history. This park has always been a place of personal and cultural expression – a place where marginalized communities looking to express their culture have found common ground to share with friends and neighbours.

In recent years, the facilities in Oppenheimer Park had fallen into disrepair, which was contributing to the social challenges of the park and surrounding neighbourhood. The challenge for the park redesign was to create a place that reflects the history, social significance, and recreation needs that are relevant to this underserved community.”

The playground is set amongst a grove of existing cherry trees providing well defined space and shade in the summer.  The design is focused on providing creative play opportunities, avoiding obvious themes, which allow the children to make the space their own.  Included in the design is a water pump, weir and water channel that ties the entire play area together.  The design also features a double swing set, climbing poles and a “wyldwood” climbing structure.  The playground is entirely accessible to children of all abilities.”

One of the things I really appreciate about space2place’s work is their thoughtful use of rugged planting materials to enhance the playscape.  Nothing fussy here, just a good selection of dramatic plants that would appeal to any child.  I’m baffled as to why more commercial playground providers don’t just plant some plants…it would add so much to even the most banal installation, and it’s not a difficult (or unsafe!) thing to do.

In these current photos of the Garden City playground, with the plants now well grown-in, you can see how much they enhance the space (notice how the red leaves echo the red poles!)…

P.S. I’ll be in Vancouver in a couple of weeks myself.  If you’re interested in having a playground chat and seeing Jeff’s work, let me know!
Posted in Contemporary Design, Natural Playgrounds

Given the enviable site of an old Victorian arboretum, it was natural that the story of this playscape be about trees… 

It is a dense structure, which plays with character of trees…sets up a relationship with adjacent  school building and vantage points (into park). There are light and open, small and cosy, fast and slow spaces of different timber materialities.”

Throughout the project, erectarchitecture ran workshops exploring the idea of  ‘what is adventure?’  ” During the first session the children where asked to state their idea of adventure on signs, which were permanently fixed in on site in the park, announcing the project to the wider community. Free-running workshops with Parkour Generations explored ‘Movement as Adventure’ and controlled risk taking. ‘Nature as Adventure’ introduced the children to playing with nature and natural materials but also to making spatial propositions. ‘Design as Adventure’ taught the children about structural principles, which they tested on simple large scale models afterwards making propositions for playground structures.”
I think this design is particularly brilliant at incorporating the sense of risk, and encouraging risk-taking (love that canted log rope-walk), within a ‘safe’ structure.  Notice also the use of doors as a motif (who doesn’t want to open a door into a secret land!)  and in the best tradition of repurposed materials on the adventure playground.
Posted in Natural Playgrounds

In the continuing saga of ‘things-I-wish-I-saw-on-the-playground’ is the the kinetic use of rainwater…like on this Rube Goldberg building facade in Dresden, Germany, which also plays music!  Plus I love funnels. If you know the designer of this, please enlighten me!

[photos by Gordon TarpleyRobert and Rainer Fritz]

UPDATE:  thanks to reader Bush for letting me know the designers are  Annette Paul, Christoph Roßner, and André Tempel. http://www.kunsthof-dresden.de/kunsthof-passage/hof-der-elemente/

Posted in Contemporary Design

I’m in Portland Oregon at the moment, blissfully enjoying being in temperatures with two digits instead of three, so if you have a playground in the area to recommend, get in touch!

Yesterday I went to the Saturday Street Market (also open of a Sunday) and ate lunch by the Salmon Street Springs fountain, which is basically an elliptical splash pad embraced by an amphitheatre.  The more I sat and watched, the more I realized how clever the design was: the form sets the splashing children at center stage and ensures that there are always being watched because all sight lines lead to the center.  The splash space has jets that cycle through a series of various spray patterns and is designed so that it slopes gently towards the seating, giving the the kids several inches of water to splash in at the apex of the inner curve, which is where they spent most of their time.  Too many splash pads focus just on the fountain, but neglect the puddle.  We must not neglect the puddle.

And right behind the amphitheatre was a patch of sand for digging; I couldn’t tell if it was intentionally placed or had been dug by the kids themselves into the fill behind the amphitheatre, which was losing its grass due to foot traffic.  There were several kids happily digging away and it reminded me of Nora Archibald Smith’s 1896 advocacy of urban sand heaps…still very good advice.

(Apologies for the poor quality cell-phone photos…when I set out for lunch I didn’t expect to see such a nice space!)

Posted in Contemporary Design
The Jane Addams Homes were a 1930s demonstration project of the Public Works Administration Act, drafted to alleviate the unemployment of the Great Depression. Designed by a team of architects headed by John Holabird, they offered child care, employment counseling and a variety of other pioneering social services in addition to housing.  AND they had the fantastic creatures of what became known as the Animal Court, a set of limestone carvings by Chicago artist Edgar Miller arrayed in an avenue grand enough for any palace and enlivened by what must be an early example of a splash park.  (For more on Miller, see the recently published book: Edgar Miller and the Hand-Made Home: Chicago’s Forgotten Renaissance Man)

By 2005, they were in an advanced state of deterioration, isolated in a razed landscape, no trace of the water playground.

By 2007 the community organized to save them, and there was fund-raising and splashy press releases and hoorays and congratulations and the sculptures were moved to a conservation studio for restoration.  Where they have sat for now three years, without the funding promised by developers Related Midwest.

But a better idea is afoot, to resite the statues at the only remaining building from the historic Jane Addams Homes, which has been preserved to become a National Public Housing Museum, and which I’m sure would be happy to receive your designated contribution towards their restoration, which is estimated to cost $100,000.  (Or about the same as two of the boringly similar, primary colory metal playgrounds installed every day of the week somewhere in America, so donate already!)  I hope they’ll be able to reinstall these beautiful creatures in their original playful context.

[images from Nancy Lorance’s site about Jane Addams and the WPA and the National Public Housing Museum.  Original reference found at the blog prairiemod]

Posted in 1900-1950

Reader and landscape architect Anna Komorowska is an advocate for better playgrounds in Poland, and from her blog comes news of the playgrounds constructed by architect Jacek Krenz on Polish housing estates in the 1970s.

Look at the contrast of the naturalistic, human-scaled playscape with the monolithic housing bloc looming soullessly behind it…

Posted in Mid-Century Modern


Also found at vulgare is the Trekroner School Playground by Stig L. Andersson architects, with a wading pool that looks like a giant mud puddle. I’m particularly intrigued by the way its shallow sides allow for running and unstructured play, as pictured. Do any of you landscape architect types know what this is made of? I assume a drain is provided for cleaning…

“The school playground is conceived as a ‘garden of knowledge’ framed by the school buildings which have no corridors, so to get from one block to another everyone has to go outside and feel the weather and the changes of nature.”


Posted in Contemporary Design, Natural Playgrounds


Located in an under-visited area of a large existing park, the Jester Park natural playscape is not only used 58 percent more than the traditional playground in the park, but 94 percent of the playscape’s users were in the park solely for the purpose of visiting it.
How’s that for the appeal of a new kind of playground?
And the cost was $204, 343 for 40,000 square feet; just over $5 per square foot.
According to Lewis Major, a naturalist with Polk County Conservation,“…the Playscape is not teaching children to play naturally, but is teaching parents to let their children play naturally. The kids know how to do it.”
Tall Grass Tangle: like a hedge maze but with grasses
Forest of the Dead: salvaged timber logs set into earth berms for climbing
Stone Henge: a circular monolith with viewfinders into the wider park
Wetland: wading pool, waterfall and bubbling stone
Grass Slide, Log Stairs and Boulder Scramble for climbing up and sliding/rolling back down
“Pathways constructed using limestone edging and red decomposed granite allow stormwater to sink into the ground while maintaining an accessible and visually contrasting path for those with mobility issues or visual impairments…. art elements visually engage visitors and invite them to explore the playscape further. The first component visitors encounter is a rustic 18-foot-tall entrance feature adorned with intricate carvings and a giant spider web. Three light bollards near the entrance look like old tree stumps, and mysterious petroglyph carvings are strategically hidden on rocks throughout the area. Originally designed art tiles and carvings can be found throughout Stone Henge, while the fossil plates buried in the Archeological Dig are handcrafted and painted to look like the real thing. “
Photos from the website of the Polk county conservation board, and recreationmanagement (from whom the playscape won a design award); review by a parent/visitor to the playscape is here
Posted in Natural Playgrounds
The perfect Valentine’s Day playground…another Helle Nebelong project, this time for a garden to celebrate the Millenium. A year 3 class from Valby School won a competition held to determine the garden’s design.
“They designed a garden, which is split into 2 different areas.
One part of the garden is full of shadows and has a jungle-type character.
The other is a garden full of light and flowers.
There is a heart-shaped path and small nooks with love seats.
Here you can meet your loved-one and be romantic.
A lake separates the two halves of the garden, but the two worlds are connected by – or linked together by – a bridge over the water. The bridge, and all the life-strengthening thoughts, which lie behind this suggested garden, symbolises a fine crossing to the new millennium.
The children’s model of the garden was transformed into architectural drawings and the construction work got under way…The realized garden is very close to the children’s ideas and design.

Grown-ups may have outgrown hearts and flowers as playground themes, but they are still beloved by children. I’m glad Helle Nebelong and Co. didn’t reject them as somehow unsophisticated.
Posted in Contemporary Design