Target Article: Making Nature Play Areas That Work
After reading the above article, I am feeling fairly critical about the state of playground design in the profession of landscape architecture in the US. A landscape architect so often specifies playgrounds, and so often does so inadequately. There’s more to a natural playground than painting it brown and green literally or metaphorically. The pictures from the 4th Avenue Playground in Minneapolis left a slightly bitter taste in my mouth. Why, if we’re trying to effect a shift in the paradigm of playgrounds in the US, are we still defaulting to the same generic stuff we see at every park? This kind of thing shuts me down. Landscape architects are designers, so why do we rely on the industrial model of generic assemblies to do our work for us? (Short answer to that is probably “fear of litigation and maintenance requirements”). The article suggests there exists an essential continuum of “nature play” that consists of loose parts on one end and traditional manufactured structures on the other. Nature, of course, is an incredibly problematic term, but this is the first I’ve heard it ever conflated with being manufactured. The Venn Diagram they show about halfway down the article doesn’t make much of anything any clearer to me (a Venn Diagram can only ever show one type of relationship, it’s not that useful a tool). We’re shown, on the left, a “play equipment” bubble floating outside a “gardens” bubble; in the middle, “play equipment” merges with “plant, water and other features” – where the heck did gardens go?; and then on the right, “wild places with natural materials” sits on its own as a “nature space.”
Look, I’m going to be honest; most manufactured playgrounds I’ve been to are pretty bad. That’s my opinion, and you’re welcome to disagree with me, but I’ve seen a lot of them. I’ve grown up in an era characterized by cookie-cutter equipment, and it’s really little wonder to me that video games have been winning out. A trip to the woods was infinitely more stimulating than a day on the playground. And yes, one could argue that many manufactured playgrounds are heavily used – a sure sign of success and good design, right? – could also be the sign of a captive audience. When there is no alternative, you make do with what you have. I did it when I was younger, but I’ll tell you I had a lot more fun wandering off than I did climbing that ubiquitous staircase, going down that same old slide, swinging back and forth, over and over and over and over in the same darn place. My interactions with other kids were what made those repetitive motions worth doing. Otherwise, I wasn’t getting much out of it. One can’t expect that going through the same motions of picking out a jungle gym to plop into the middle of a landscape is going to change anything, no matter how much we finagle that landscape. We’re still relying on the equipment to direct our play – and that’s our BIG mistake. We need to bend manufactured equipment to the will of play, not let it determine what we’re free to do.
But hey, people are working hard for the greater good, with good intentions. I am actually incredibly happy that people care and work hard to make these places happen. What bothers me, though, is the lack of both research and vision. To have plants and water alongside play equipment is like throwing a bunch of random chemicals into a beaker and hoping for a positive reaction without understanding how each component comes together in the process. All the while, hard-working researchers, designers, and playworkers have been exploring these reactions for decades. There’s tons of literature out there about playgrounds, and plenty of examples for how they can be done well. Yet, a profession built upon understanding, designing and orchestrating outdoor environments is stumbling around in the dark, trying to reinvent “nature” and “play.”
The article ends with a quote: “We have yet to replace a manufactured play area with only natural materials play, but that may happen someday as smaller nature play nodes are being embraced and requested by families and neighborhood groups.”
Rest assured, these places exist and are very successful. It’s time we rip off the bandage that is our dependency on manufactured play equipment. Here are just a few places that have already taken this leap:
That is all.