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.
I’m not sure what’s stranger, that I wound up attending school in a town with FOUR playground design firms, an adventure playground, and an annual play symposium, or that I discovered my obsession with designing for play independently of knowing that these resources existed. Regardless, here I am amongst stars and heroic play advocates. I’ll be attending (and volunteering at) the aforementioned Play Symposium tomorrow and Saturday, and will surely gain some new insights into the world of play as the bigfolk facilitate it.
I’ll be meeting with Rusty Keeler again, as well as Erin Davis, Morgan Leichter-Saxby, Suzanna Law, and others – So I am stoked! Any insights or breakthroughs I do intend to share.
The schedule goes something like this:
- 8:30 Coffee & Bagels, Check-in
- 9:00 Welcome / A Culture of Play at Ithaca Children’s Garden
Erin Marteal, Executive Director
- 9:45 Fits and Starts and Garbage Piles
Erica Larsen-Dockray & Jeremiah Dockray, Santa Clarita Valley Adv. Play
- 10:30 PlayCorps – Adventure Play in Providence Public Parks
Janice O’Donnell, Partnership for Providence Parks
- 11:10 Play Break
- 11:30 Pecha Kucha
Designing Anarchy – Alex Cote, Ithaca Children’s Garden
Our Playground – Jill Wood & the Kids of Adventure Playground,
The Parish School
Learning to Playwork – Suzanna Law, Pop-Up Adventure Play
Rebuilding the American Dream…Through Play – Tricia O’Conner,
Lake Erie Adventure Play (LEAP)
- 12:15 Lunch Break and Conversation
- 1:15 Playwork in Practice
Morgan Leichter-Saxby, Pop-Up Adventure Play
Suzanna Law, Pop-Up Adventure Play
- 2:15 Play Break
- 2:45 Let’s Talk – What are your burning questions?
Morgan and Suzanna, Pop-Up Adventure Play
- 3:45 Saturday Preview & Reminders
- 4:00 Off you go for exploring, relaxation, and dinner
- 7:00 The Land and Panel Discussion at Cinemapolis:
Erin Davis, Director
Joan Almon, Alliance for Childhood
Morgan Leichter-Saxby, Pop-Up Adventure Play
- 8:45 Coffee & Bagels, Check-in
- 9:00 Welcome to Day 2
Erin Marteal, Executive Director
- 9:10 Inspiring Places for Play (and Ruckus)
Rusty Keeler, Earthplay & Hands-on-Nature Anarchy Zone
- 10:00 Troubling the Spatial Politics of Adventure Playground Funding
Reilly Wilson, CUNY
- 10:40 Play Break
- 11:00 Pecha Kucha
Time to Move: Salutogenic Environments for All – Beth Myers, Cornell University
Little Creatures Seek & Find, Kristin Eno – Little Creatures Films
US Fish & Wildlife Service – Adventure Playground? – David Stillwell, USFWS
Embodiment, Ethnography & Reflective Playwork – Morgan Leichter-Saxby,
Pop-Up Adventure Play
- 11:45 Home Action Plan Workshop
- 12:15 Lunch and Conversation
- 1:15 Walk to Ithaca Children’s Garden
- 1:30 Visit, Explore, & Play
Ithaca Children’s Garden staff and partners
- 3:30 Closing Circle
- 4:00 Adjourn – Thank you for sharing your time with us!
“Every playscape built should be unique, depending on the philosophy of the school, the skills and talents of the community, and the landscape of the local area… It doesn’t matter how expensive or fancy your ingredients are. What is most important is that you provide children the opportunity to experience each ingredient.”
As I write this, I am in the process of assembling a bibliography from the mountains of text I’ve been surveying. As I mine these metaphorical ranges, I’ll be posting any veins of wisdom I think might be instructive. In the meantime, here’s a nice set of resources for your consideration, all available for free as PDFs. When you’re done there, here’s another set!
Publications Available at These Sites Include:
Design for Play; Managing Risk in Play Provision; Nature Play; Growing Adventure; Design Guidance for Play Spaces; Rope Swings, Dens, Treehouses and Fires; Making Sense: Playwork in Practice; Play as Culture; Play at School; Best Play: What Play Provision Should Do for Children; Places for Play
A ten-story, 600,000 square foot, abandoned shoe factory in St. Louis Missouri got itself a major makeover in 1997 when artist Bob Cassilly got the idea to convert it into a grand playscape now known as City Museum, offering adults (and children) an escape into youthful exuberance with massive slides, climbing structures, a full-service bar, an aquarium, ball pits, extensive caves and tunnels, spiral stairs, and miscellaneous doodads galore. It is encouraging to see play places being built at adult scales. City Museum, welcome to my bucket list.
I’ve wanted to be like him my whole life, to fill the shoes I’ve since grown out of, and though we’ve both changed a lot, I still compare myself to him. It is a privilege to have a father in my life, a privilege I have shamefully taken for granted. Privilege is weird that way – a concept as much guiltful as it is enviable. But growing up with a father around does not complete the package of privilege I was born with. This best of men in my life set out to ensure I’d feel loved, to encourage my curiosity, to listen to my inane ramblings, to trust me (vigilantly) with fire and sharp objects and to mend me when I lost control of them, to let me wander even when that took me on whirlwind river runs that would’ve made Huck cackle and Pan crow.Not only would my dad let me wander, he taught me to love it. A regular Sunday pastime of ours guaranteed soggy shoes, muddy knees, spiderweb masks, and fingers deeply buried in sand hunting for fossilized fortunes fallen from million-year-old mouths. We never did find the fabled Megalodon dentition we dreamed of, the holy grail for tooth trackers, but 1000 things as fun and a lifetime of love for the mysteries of nature – worth more than the most pristine jet fang. I owe him for cultivating the passions that drive me to explore farther and deeper, to reach for a dream and to appreciate those things I never expected to find. We are very much alike in our differences. My father loves and knows more about the cosmos than I could ever hope to, while my eyes are set firmly on the terra before me. Yet, whether we’re staring up-and-out or down-and-in, it was my dad who taught me how to see. He taught me that the growing things have names, and in learning them I would have access to their secrets and gifts. He taught me that when I had questions without answers I could still reason my way to good ones. No surprise that I clung to science and the natural world, to naming trees and learning landscapes. The real surprise is how we made play of some serious business. Science is meticulous, methodical, complex, and infamously unforgiving of belief or myth – which may run counter to what many of us understand play to be. Superficially cold and unfeeling, it’s not hard to see the dark side of science. Looking deeper I think you’ll find true science to be an utterly human discipline, driven by curiosity, passion, love and caring – it is an attempt to understand the universe on its own terms – a suppression of ego and expectation – it is marveling at the unimaginable – it is playful, repetitive tinkering – it is dreaming and storytelling – it is hands-on, dirty, messy fun. My father understood the essence of good science and called it by its right name: play. Our journey through history, mysteries, muddy earth, swollen creeks, mossy trees, craggy mountains and winding country roads – began with the promise of play. There was the world and we would wonder at it in our own way – as a companion in our playful indulgence. Some things we learned:
- Pine needles, thrown with practice, make aerodynamically excellent darts, and scalps tempting targets.
- Fire doesn’t keep mosquitoes away as well as we might wish, and its smoke hurts to breathe. It is awfully fun to scorch marshmallows in.
- A good walking stick is hard to find, but worth holding onto. Sand clean and coat in flaxseed oil to keep it around longer. Give it a name.
- Often, the best part of the trail is leaving it behind for a bit.
- The root of a Turk’s Cap Lily is edible. Barely.
- Some trees are better for climbing, others are for falling out of.
- Black bears can bite through “unbreakable” bottles – and are especially determined after rummaging through the pack of spices.
- Painful, frustrating, exhausting adventures are neither comfortable nor glamorous endeavors, though they make magnificent memories – which last an awful lot longer than their associated discomforts.
- A game is only as good as the storytellers playing it.
Here’s to you, dad! I love you, man. And cheers to all the other wonderful parents out there who are around to play with their kids. We need you.
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.