I really appreciate the thoughtful comments to my last post about playground design. It prompted me to summarise my own views in the form of seven design principles (plus an extra one for luck). What do you think of them? Feel free to continue the conversation!
1) Design is a creative process, not a mechanistic one. So it is simply wrong to try to limit designers in advance. While I have some worries about designer ego, I would be much more worried if designers with an urge to be creative felt their wings were being clipped at the outset. All great play spaces have something special about them, and many have hidden meanings and a sense of place, of depth and of mystery. I find the idea of ‘genius loci’ (or ‘spirit of place’) helpful, as introduced to me by my friend, Danish landscape architect Helle Nebelong. (You can see a few of my photos of her work on my Flickr site).
2) We should not place the burden of designing on children. That is our job as adults. Designers may want to gain inspiration from engaging with children, but that should be linked to a designer’s wider intentions and approach.
3) Children may have useful things to say about design – and also about location. (Sadly, all too often the location of a site is a given, when it should be a critical topic to explore.) If you plan to involve children in design, it is vital to be thoughtful and creative (as Felicity and Tom point out in their comments on my original post). Asking them ‘what equipment do you want?’ is almost guaranteed to lead to an unimaginative shopping list of pieces of kit. We all know how much children like splashing about in the rain. Yet no child would ever say “I’d like a puddle in my play area please”. (Which doesn’t mean kit has no value. It does. But that is a line of thought for another time.)
4) It may be helpful to capture children’s views as part of an awareness-raising process aimed at adults. This may well encourage parents, residents or decision-makers to revisit their ideas about what makes for a good place for play. But it needs to be done thoughtfully, in ways that recognise both children’s abilities and qualities, and their limitations. As Grace comments, “children are not great at self-analysis or meta-cognition.”
5) We should ground our designs in a sound understanding of the depth and richness of children’s play, based on (amongst other things) extensive, thoughtful observation of different children at play in different kinds of places (yes, Arthur and Bob) and on our own childhood memories (yes, Nancy).
6) Form should follow function: the Bauhaus design ethic quoted by Aileen is not a bad place to start. Different types of project – a small neighbourhood play area, a destination park, a nursery garden, an inclusive play space, a staffed adventure playground – need different approaches and have different constraints.
7) The views of parents, other residents, staff, facility managers, regulators and other adult stakeholders are important. They cannot and should be ignored. But they should not distract designers from the central job of a play space: to offer great play opportunities for children.
One final thought: my hunch is that play spaces would be much more scruffy (to quote Aileen again) if we paid more attention to the kinds of places that truly spark children’s playful impulses.