Somewhat related to my last post is this extensive guidelines document written by Robin C. Moore. It’s worth poking around in here for advice from a widely respected natural play advocate. I haven’t read through it all myself, yet, but it’s on my to-do list. Read along with me if you like!
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.
Apologies for the extended hiatus on publishing anything in this blog. I’ve been pooling an ever-mounting mountain of resources which I intend to dole out in heavy doses. I have not been idle while this blog was asleep. Recently, I have been making my rounds, meeting play advocates local to the US Mid Atlantic, New England and Canada. Each new connection sparks many more, which propel me further along this whimsical web of ideas, inspiration and insight.
Today I would like to direct your attention to an article published in Playground Magazine. You can find the PDF here. The inspiration to post this article comes from my long-standing advocacy for “immersion” in video games. However, any act of play can be immersive so long as players engage their imaginations – this doesn’t require much. That said, there is something uniquely charming about a theme park, derived largely, I believe, from its immersivity and spectacle. This is a very hard thing to achieve, and Disney definitely demonstrated a mastery of it, but it doesn’t come cheap and takes a lot of smart and creative people working together to get it right. If you’re on a budget and working from scratch, designed immersion is probably not the way you want to go. There are many cheaper, less heavy-handed options one could employ that children would dive right into. Children are clever inventors, with imaginations many of us bigfolk envy, and if we let them run the reel, they’ll inevitably surprise us with how lost in play they can become. If you’re going for designed immersion, though, make it massive or move on.
Our kids throw around the word ‘epic’ like they are in Mythology class. To them the word describes an essential quality so awe-inspiring one is lost for words. That’s what you have to be to design for immersion. Museum exhibits sometimes approach this quality, though suspension of disbelief for me is easily shattered by informational signage. You have to try really hard to sell your world to an audience, because a robot-shaped jungle gym isn’t fooling anyone. That robot needs context – where was it made? – what was its purpose? – does it still function? – is it missing parts? – can you fix it? – what was it doing before it stopped moving? – does it have any friends? – why can you go inside it? … I would discourage anyone from explicitly answering these questions in the design, but the environmental context must complement the world you’re trying to immerse someone in. This term is not literal; immersion is a metaphor. Immersion requires surrounding someone in an idea, as if immersing them deeply in water to see what’s in it, and blurring out anything ‘outside.’ For homework, I recommend you go watch the movie ‘Spirited Away‘ by Hayao Miyazaki. You’ll be fully immersed in the spirit world for the better part of two hours. Be compelling and sell us your story. Sell us your world by enveloping us in something rich and breathing, hopelessly inextricable from its surroundings, of utmost purpose and sincerity. Build that, and we will come.
“If you watch young children play, you will notice that they create games, characters, situations, whole worlds in which they immerse themselves with intense concentration.”
I stumbled on this today and thought it was worth archiving and sharing.
The Community Design Collaborative, in partnership with the Delaware Valley Association for the Education of Young Children, is hosting How We Play, an exhibition of international best practices in the design of outdoor play spaces for children.
Architecture, landscape architecture, engineering, and urban planning firms as well as public agencies, nonprofit organizations, students, and artists are encouraged to submit entries. The exhibition will feature a wide variety of play spaces—temporary and permanent, large and small, built and unbuilt.
How We Play will be on display at the Center for Architecture, 1216 Arch Street on August 3 through September 11, 2015.The exhibition will kick off Infill Philadelphia: Play Space, a new Collaborative initiative exploring how we can design outdoor play spaces to enhance early childhood education.
Submit your play space project and share our Call for Entries with a friend! Entries are due on Wednesday, June 24, 2015. Go here to learn more and submit an entry.