Design for Play

Thanks for your thoughts On Adult Play, @littlehouseonthehill. And you’re right, play does not require any specific environment, because it is inherently spontaneous. There is some evidence, though, that play rarely happens in oppressive environments (one of many available corroborations) and can be stymied by careless design and management, among other things. As an aspiring playscape designer, I am trying to understand the forms play takes, what makes it special to each individual, and its common themes (if any), so that when it’s time to design a place for play there will be a solid theoretical foundation underpinning the shape we suggest our environments to take.

One theory I find myself ever more drawn to is that play is a creative process. I believe designers often take the play out of places by inadvertently hogging the act of play, creation, engaging too fully themselves. It’s wonderful to imagine things like giant mushrooms shooting up ten meters out of the ground with crawl spaces looping around inside, and a cushion on top for bouncing around on, but then a brave and imaginative person could have a nearly identical experience in the space of their mind with nothing but a cardboard box, a soft surface, and the memory of a mushroom. A designer might try to set out on a quest for creating that mushroom play apparatus, and it might be excellent, but they’ve spilled a certain aesthetic glaze over all the play that happens there. It becomes too specific – too distinct and controlling. A playful mind will surely come up with many other imaginings on an apparatus like that, but I believe designers ought to reflect more on what it is they do when they design. They play. They imagine new worlds out of a creative aether. Care must be taken not to use it all up before the users get a say.

Where do we go from here?

What’s important in designing a place for play, I think, is to create a world which encourages other designers, the users, to give it shape. And I’m quite sure that’s no futile exercise, because the more I learn about creativity the more I am convinced that it is most electric in places that inspire thought, that shock and surprise, that are full and not empty, with loose and living components aplenty. Designing such a place takes a great deal of thought and consideration. And not to downplay the value of the now-conventional apparatus-oriented playground, or the thoughtful design behind it, but it offers only a fraction of its intended values with tremendous cost. I suspect that a reason for this is that more-and-more playgrounds have been carefully designed to suit litigious stakeholders, government officials, safety inspectors, parks departments and so on, and less-and-less the people they ought to be for – those who play in them. Navigating to that middle-ground between safety and risk is an important step in the design process, but when that’s our singular, primary agenda all we’ll ever see is the blandness of bureaucracy – identical, predictable and repetitive. Designs for everyone that serve no one. Who ever had an adventure without trials? The small scrapes and bruises in life are what give us confidence and remind us of our perseverances. A blatant hazard is something to be avoided, but small risks should be accepted with open arms.

To offer an anecdote, I had the fortune of falling out of a tree – when I could still count my years on a pinky plus a hand – and on the way down I embraced the broken end of a branch while trying to halt my plummet, hugging myself to the trunk. When I hit the ground I was shocked, excited, even proud of what had happened. I had fallen! I looked down at the slash across my belly through the free ends of my newly tattered T-shirt. Blood! A fascinating development – my mother’s nightmare. It stung, and I was fine. The one somber memory I have from that day is being wrapped up like a mummy, tighter than would allow easy breathing, as if my guts might just fall out, and told to take a nap, NOW! No ‘buts.’ …but how could I sleep with a heart full of adrenaline and endorphins? I was completely alive and had a new scar to prove it. I couldn’t wait to show my friends. For me, the challenge, that fall, and the cascade of reactions to it, were natural and fulfilling. I wear that scar proudly, still some twenty years later. I eye its faded form with longing for the perils of my adventurous youth, when I still had the courage to climb and was oblivious to the judgments of others. Some of my favorite memories are of those experiences which caused me pain, that were uncomfortable, that reminded me I was alive. I believe in the agency of others to paint their own scars, to climb what wasn’t meant to be climbed, to fall and submit to the consequences. I learned something about climbing that day, about physics and torsion, about where branches want to break, about contingency planning and the fiery concern of mothers. These were all perfectly beautiful things and it was I who brought them to life. My superpowers on a backyard playscape. My kryptonite the padded bed, the safe isolation and sedentary repose afforded by a nap.

What I suggest is that we ask ourselves this question often and sincerely: Are we designing how we play, or are we designing for play?

Design for play.

Also, check this out: Paradoxes and Consequences


“A ship is safe in harbor, but that’s not what ships are for.”

–William G.T. Shedd


One thought on “Design for Play

  1. littlehouseonthehill says:

    I think the attitude towards playgrounds is changing again, the pendulum starting to swing away from the safe, plastic and boring, or at least I hope so. I wish you all the best with your playscape designing and revamping. Children need you!

    I read this article sometime last year and it really blew me away. http://www.theatlantic.com/features/archive/2014/03/hey-parents-leave-those-kids-alone/358631/ I was particularly struck by the emphasis on the value of risky play, and of kids needing to shape their own environments. My kids play outdoors a lot and this article hit me because the things that have tended to frustrate me the most about their play are those two things, which I had viewed as dangerous and destructive, but this insight gave me a completely different way to understand it and the option to rethink it, (and sometimes better ideas to redirect it in ways that weren’t so frustrating, like shifting their digging locations to places that weren’t right in the middle of our already too bumpy driveway for e.g.)

    I only have a sample of 3, but I strongly agree about play being a creative process. We joke about raising 3 young cavemen. Their favourite sorts of play are things like digging elaborate tunnel systems for vehicles/machines/characters with roadways, bridges, tunnels and multilevel dwellings and so on, generally out of dirt/sand/rocks/bricks/whatever happens to be laying around. This can easily take half a day, and they will return to it the next morning to further evolve it. When they play inside games, one of their favourites is cubbies, which involved dismantling the lounge room and putting it back together in a different way, using all the couch cushions, their quilts and pillows, and any bits of clothing left around, shaped into little dwellings, usually with several rooms. Sometimes they are animals, other times they are friends, siblings, enemies, blue cat fairies, or wooden dinosaur monkey knights. It’s a totally creative process and a lot of the time their ‘toys’ are household objects or cardboard boxes. (The only downside is getting them to pack it all away afterwards..)

    Sorry for being so long winded here. I think my point was that sometimes all you need for a great playscape is dirt. Or a dry riverbed full of rocks. Or a stack of leftover bricks. Some cardboard boxes.. How to carry that over into a playground that has enough instant appeal to engage people and give them time for that creative spark to flare up is an interesting challenge. To invite without directing.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *