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
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.”
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 stumbled on this today and thought it was worth archiving and sharing.
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.
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
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.
Of significant interest to me in studying ‘play’ behavior is how it factors into the modern adult life. I am experientially convinced that humans do not cease to play upon reaching adulthood. However, the forms of play often undergo significant metamorphoses. After all, what are we doing when we spend an evening out at the bar with friends? Hours watching Netflix at home? Online gaming? Board games? Street sports? Shopping and ‘playing’ house? Going out on dates? Making love? Cooking something new? Paying to watch spectator events? Goofing around with our children and pets? Travelling?
In adulthood, we often live out the adventures we imagine as kids – and because the adventures are real, they may also be stressful. There are no time outs. Frustrations abound despite all our efforts. But child’s play is ridden with stress too – that’s just part of adapting and growing! If you’ve ever watched children sharing a conventional playground, there are proverbial fountains of tears being shed (crying is an exceptional way to relieve stress, by the way). Sometimes we blame immaturity for a child’s tears on the playground – I have – but their reaction is completely normal. As we age, the expectation in most cultures is that we cry less and tolerate more. Maybe that’s fine, but becoming a ‘resilient,’ ‘well-adjusted’ adult does not imply we ought to lose our celebratory, whimsical spirit. We all desire to play, to let loose, to feel the burden of social obligations lift for a moment and find the freedom to explore ourselves, our physical environments, and each other. Unattached. Unfettered. Alive.
I strongly associate the act of play with ‘living.’ Whether or not this association is valid, I find myself entering adulthood wholly unwilling to part with play. It is essential to who I am as a person, and I see the value in it for others as well. On the matter of play in adult life, I have written one ‘critical literature review’ grounded in environmental psychology, and a few fictional narratives that explore it experientially via archetypal landscapes. I plan to make these available in an upcoming post, but will send them through another round of editing before I do that. In the meantime, I’d like to get some feedback from you, dear reader.
What are some ways you play in your adult life?
Please share your play-habits in a reply below.
“It’s not that we spend five days looking forward to just two. It’s that most people do what they enjoy most on those two days. Imagine living a life where everyday are your Saturdays and Sundays. Make everyday your weekend. Make everyday a play-day…”