Whose playground is it anyway?

playground motorbikeAt last September’s Open for Play seminar, London playground designer Jerry Cooper of Theories Landscapes wondered whether there was a danger of losing sight of the child who – he argues – should be at the centre of playground design thinking. “Are we,” he asked, “turning ‘play’, a free-flowing and natural activity, into an adult controlled, designed and spatially confined event in places and ways that are adult-devised, justified and rationalised?” It’s a good question (which Jerry reminded me about in an email exchange last week).

We know that councils and other playground providers are often constrained by budgets and procurement procedures, and can be knocked sideways by fear of litigation. We also know that parents and residents are often quick to impose their own demands. Here are just two examples: a story about residents complaining of the colour of the equipment in a new play area, and a piece from my local paper about parents protesting at the design of a play area just a mile or so from where I live. [Declaration of interest: I fed into the early thinking about this space, on a voluntary basis.]

My hunch is that public play areas are set to become ever more of a battle ground for competing adult interests. Jerry’s question is in effect a challenge to playground designers to show how their designs answer to children, and how they respond to the complexity of children’s play impulses and activities.

Jerry knows a thing or two about play spaces. He has been designing and building bespoke playgrounds for longer than I care to remember, going right back to the ’80s and ’90s, when the dismal KFC play area design template reigned supreme. So his concerns stem from experience.

Jerry is particularly worried about the use by designers of strong figurative imagery and overarching narratives to explain their work. He says, “Whilst I continue to believe that the aesthetic design of play spaces is very important, I am also aware that we (adult designers) have infiltrated every aspect of play design.” He confesses, “I too am guilty of creating designer adventure playgrounds where control is entirely arrested from the children and staff who traditionally self-constructed these spaces, leaving them as mere consumers rather than participants.”

Yet Jerry does not believe that the answer is to ask children themselves. Indeed he is sceptical of simplistic approaches to children’s participation. He is a fan of the “A shoal of red herrings” article published on the website of the play consultancy PLAYLINK. In this provocative piece Judi Legg and Sue Gutteridge – the twin architects of Stirling Council’s pioneering naturalistic approach to playground design – argue that “consultation with children (or adults) as it’s usually understood and carried out not only contributes nothing to creating good play spaces, but can also be detrimental to it.”

The PLAYLINK article closes with a plea for a robust, value-based approach to design, informed by close observation of children at play out of doors. Jerry echoes this in his call for “a deeper understanding of what ‘play’ is” – an understanding that “accepts that the card board box can sometimes provide better play value than the expensive gift it wraps.”

Is Jerry right? Are some designers focusing too much on meaning and symbolism, at the expense of what spaces might be like for children? Or is an interest in deeper narratives a helpful, even necessary step on the road away from cookie-cutter, plastic fantastic playgrounds – a welcome sign that playground design is finally being taken seriously as a discipline? Is it the designer’s job to fly the flag for ‘child-centred’ designs, even in the face of resistance from residents – or parents? I have my own views – which I hope to share in conversation – but it would be great to hear yours. Especially if you are a designer yourself.

Update 20 February 2013: my next post – a response to the comments below – offers seven principles of playground design.

31 responses to “Whose playground is it anyway?

  1. I have read your blog and as a Parish Councillor in the process of looking at new playground designs I’m now wondering if we should consult the local children about what they would like to see???

  2. I have to agree with Jerry on this one, I see too many “clever” designs around the city that look good in magazines but are not really for kids. Just designers showing off…… and observing how children play and not worrying about how the playground looks, is more important, in my opinion.

    Another bug bear of mine, as a landscape architect, is how little nature is included in these spaces and I think it is the professions’ responsibility to introduce nature when and wherever possible.

  3. I agree too, to a degree, but I think there is much that can be beneficial from engaging local communities. As a Landscape Architect with many years experience of working with children and young prople, I agree that observation of play, and understanding play is crucial of course, and I am very anti some types of ‘consultation’. However, from my experience I believe children can make a very positive impact on design ideas if they are involved skilfully, and where they can give us the most useful insights. They also tell me it feels good to make a contribution, especially when they are also involved practically in construction ( and not just planting!)
    I also think it is useful, in this context, to draw a distinction between designing school grounds and designing public play space, but that’s a different debate!

  4. Thanks for the comments so far. I am going to hold back on chipping in for a bit, as I’d like to see how the conversation unfolds first.

  5. Informed observation, as I like to call it, is the key.

    “Matthew, aged eight, was observed for two hours at a play area. On arrival he went straight to the flying fox, where he played for ten minutes. The rest of the time was spent transferring water (in crisp packets) from a paddling pool to a sand play area where he built dams and channels. Asked as he was leaving what he’d liked best about the play area, he cast his eye around and said ‘the flying fox’ – a more obvious visual feature of the space, and an experience much easier for him to articulate.”

    … from the article Tim mentions; says it all, really.


    • Thanks Arthur – it is a very telling quote and anecdote.

    • Beautiful! Careful observation of what children DO in play might be of far greater importance than ASKING children to help design a space. Unfortunately for the charette process, children are not great at self-analysis or meta-cognition! They will SHOW you far more than they can TELL you about what they value and need.

  6. This is a real concern of mine too and one I tussle with every time I sit down to think about designing a new play space (or improving an old one). Landscape architects tend on the whole to be better than some other design professionals (not just thinking of architects!) at thinking about how spaces are, or will be, used and then letting this thinking inform the design (‘form follows function’). However I do think a lot of us struggle with this when the activity under consideration is play, an activity which as adults we perhaps have a hazy recollection of, we may not have even children ourselves, and few of us have been exposed to the more academic and quite cerebral articulation of the theory of Play. As designers we do spend a lot of time thinking about how things ‘look’ (in real life and on plan) and this is probably the default position for us when faced with an activity we don’t really understand. Working on Design for Play I have to say that the most successful play spaces (in the all round sense of the word) were those in Stirling where a landscape architect worked alongside someone with a proper understanding and appreciation of play. These play spaces married good design, resulting in an attractive and characterful place, with a flexible environment in which children could just do their own thing. Although the designer often had his own narrative which informed the design process it was not made explicit and imposed on the children in the space so they were free to think of the ‘castle’ as a den or anything else for that matter. Interestingly when we spoke independently to each of them they both thought they had ‘led’ the process! So I suppose the advice I am giving myself is 1. Remember what the point of the exercise is, it’s to provide a space where play can happen. We’re not play designers, really we are play facilitators. 2. Try and get a basic understanding of play and child development, it’s really interesting and will make the design process more meaningful and fulfilling. 3. Try not to worry to much about what it will look like in your promotional literature, the ‘better’ play spaces often tend to look rather scruffy and on plan actually rather inscrutable. What an interesting debate this is though.

    • Aileen – many thanks for such a long and thoughtful response. Just what I was hoping for! For my money Design for Play (which Aileen co-authored – published in 2008) is as clear, comprehensive and user-friendly a guide to the topic as any. People wanting to get hold of it can order a print copy, or download a full pdf, from the Play England website here.

  7. We’ve just built a range of play spaces at cypress school and out of everything we built the monkey bars a probably the most used feature and they didn’t require any design at all!

    There is a link to some of the play spaces here http://grassrootsplay.com/projects/playground_equipment

  8. Here’s how I use participation and consultation in my design work.
    I usually hold a charette for parents, teachers and administrators as a kickoff to the process. I always begin with a guided visualization that helps participants remember a favorite place from their own childhood. The sharing of those memories around the room instantly takes the group from a focus on “safe and pretty”, to thinking about the magic of childhood and their fondest memories of unstructured time in nature. There are some very universal settings and experiences that come up consistently—climbing trees, secret hiding places, and playing in water.

    From there I share a lot of the research on the value of connecting children to nature, and what today’s children are loosing by not having that connection. I include a powerpoint with images of natural play. The goal is to broaden their thinking from equipment-based playspaces by showing them ones designed mostly around plants, tree parts and stone. I must confess that I realized a while ago that whatever images I included in the slide show would be what came up in the brainstorming afterwards, so I do sometimes, “stack the deck” a little if I know the committee wants or doesn’t want a certain element in the space. I think that is an area to tread very carefully.

    The main goal of my charettes is to educate the community about natural play and to get them on board with the idea so they can help with fundraising and maintenance of the space once built. I do get very helpful design ideas when I ask them to tell me about what is unique to their community—the school, the land, the neighborhood—and I can reflect that somehow in the design so that the spaces are not cookie cutters.

    If a meeting like that had been held in the upscale community with the roped off playspace, I think they would be in a much different place today.

    The most fruitful involvement of children has come from talking informally to them on the playground, as I am often called in to renovate an existing space. I spend time observing them both indoors and outside and talk to teachers and children about problems in the current space to be solved by the design.

    As pointed out by other commenters here, I think there are several dangers in asking children “what they want” in an outdoor space. The ideas they can articulate will be limited by their experiences of playgrounds, so I find it works a little better to ask what they like to DO when outside, not what they want to have on their new playground. I find it is really important to ask them to show me what they like in their current space. It often turns out to be things I might not have noticed that are highly valued by the children and can be celebrated in the new design.

    In one project, I did have that “what would you like in your new space” conversation with a group on the old playground, and one imaginative little boy told me he would like to have a haunted house as part of the new design. I dutifully wrote it down along with all the ideas kids were tossing out. A year later, when the space was built, (with lots of participation by the children and families) that same little boy saw me observing on the playground one day and marched over to ask where his haunted house was. He was NOT satisfied when I pointed to the loose parts area and explained that he could build a haunted house using the crates and planks available there. I realized that there are children with long memories, and there is a danger of setting up expectations when we dutifully go through the motions of getting children’s input. I fear that the experience planted a seed of cynicism in him about public involvement going forward. It taught me to be very clear with children from the beginning about what I can and cannot deliver.

    Thanks so much for posing such an inspiring question!

  9. Asking children to participate in the Design process has become a popular activity for several reasons. One, for the Design Team to show how sensitive they are to children’s, more importantly parents, thoughts, feelings and to get them involved and take some ownership. The second, to actually get some ideas and direction because they really have no idea what they are doing. If you took all the responses, from all the surveys, it would most probably fit into one small list. Even taking into account factors like age, invironment, social status and location, monetary considerations, culture, public or private, in the end children’s responsies to desired play opportunities are actually one of the constants of the world we inhabit. The success, mediocrity or failure of each individual designer corrrelates directly to how they interpret and respond to that immutable information. Followed by lengthy observation, every time, of the completed project being used, abused and re-invented by children at play. Children’s responses to your questions vary little but their responses to your completed project is where all the surpries and deviations are found and where the real education and understanding starts. In truth,to my mind, there is only two real constant in this field of Design, Children have the unique talent to find playful opportuniies in every situation and they can make even the most thoughtful and experienced Designer look like a fool. To often Designers are limited and controled by factors they cannot change or influence; budgets, safety guildlines, avaliable manufactured choices, lack of availablitiy or awarness of more creative or custom resources, liability, expectations by parents, know-it-alls and the powers that be, the unknown, fear of the unknown, doubt and even arrogance. This is not Rocket Science, although that field might be easier in the long run, do not make this more difficult than it aleady is. Forget all the fancy rhetoric and theoretical positioning, just spend a lot more time listening and observing children at play. No guarantees but by far your best resource.

  10. I think you can draw inspiration from the children that you consult from. We have seen some amazing shapes and designs from 3 year olds, using pipe cleaners and blue tack, that only a child could come up with. Letting them feel involved in the process is as important. We like to create something that can change shape in a child’s eyes from day to day. It shouldn’t have to look like anything. One day a structure could be a ship the next could be a giant scorpion. This way it stays fresh.
    Designing something that can act as a catalyst for play is best. The creation of an invention of a game using a structure or a landscape. In my experience a child will always make his or her own mind up about how an area is used, so why not harness that ability.
    I have been lucky enough to observe the things I’ve built at adventure playgrounds across London. This is probably a rare privilege and has really helped me tailor my designs for maximum play value.
    I feel there is a real need for a better flow of information and observations between professionals working in the education, and designers and builders. When a well implemented consultation with designers, teachers and children is done well, great and valuable things are created.
    As a designer/builder, the worst thing that could happen is that the children just look at what you’ve created and walk off. The greatest job satisfaction that I get is seeing what you’ve built being loved and enjoyed. I think I say that for the vast majority of us.

  11. Pingback: Seven principles of playground design | Rethinking Childhood

  12. In case you missed the pingback above, my next post continues this discussion, and offers seven principles of playground design.

  13. Perhaps it depends on who the designer is and what they are trying to achieve? If the they are landscape architects who are used to creating designs that look pretty on paper the they may find ‘chaos’ and free spaces (perhaps to be used for loose parts play) ‘difficult’. If they are play designers from a play equipment supplier they may find a design that has no play equipment ‘difficult’. If they are seeking to impress a tender panel maybe some of this ‘gobbledy gook’ sounds impressive and may help them get the design accepted? In the end, it probably doesn’t matter as long as the design works for that environment.

    As a designer I find it is often difficult to please everyone because people come from different viewpoints – some adults will want low maintenence, tidy, durable low maintenence spaces that they can afford to look after as they have no maintenence budget and no personnel to directly mange the site. Others will desire a natural space that is attractive and has playful opportunities and are happy for it to look a bit shabby, take a bit of input to keep it evolving and changing and are excited about children being allowed to explore, get dirty and perhaps hurt themselves occasionally trying out new skills. Often ( in fact I’d go so far as to say always) within one parish council membership or one school of teachers or the staff of a nursery, opinion will differ. I find as a designer I have to pull all these opinions together, challenge some to think further outside the box. I often find I have to challenge the status quo of opinion and be the child’s advocate. Its important to stay informed about what makes a good play enviroment – and this means not only designing the physical space but also in a lot of cases ‘informing and inspiring’ the adult decision makers and giving some ‘the licence to play’ and the necessary information to allow them to escape the h&s worries, maintenence anxieties and other adult ‘hang ups’.

    Lets not go too heavy on designers – its not an easy task!

    • Jane – thanks for this. The pressures you mention are real: designers are pulled lots of different ways. One way to see Jerry’s worry is this: when we are being pulled different ways, where to we pull back to? What is the centre of gravity of a project? And I think he is saying: it should be our view of what makes a place – and what might make this particular place – great for play.

  14. Does anyone here live or work in New York? I am so inspired that there is a discussion about this with people that share my views! I would like to be more involved and meet landscape designers who specialize in children’s play spaces. I have my own program, http://www.findasenseofplace.com but am reaching out more and am curious if anyone has experience in the NY area? Thanks!

    • Ora Berman, Landscape Architect

      Susan hi… I am a landscape architect in NY designing for children’s play and outdoor learning environments. You are welcome to contact me.
      Tim hi – once again, this discussion is absolutely wonderful!! As designers we must learn to listen and observe. I find myself re-evaluating my work constantly.

  15. I am new to playground design, with 3 projects in various stages of development. It is reassuring to hear an emphasis on the importance of child/play oriented spaces and observation from the voices of experience. I am spending a lot of time “hanging out with the kids” and observing the existing spaces, playing and asking questions. I am also listening to staff, centre directors, committees and other powers that be. It all goes into the melting pot.

    Thanks to all for the depth and intelligence of the comments – there is a real sense that this is a growing field of knowledge. The importance of getting play spaces right for kids and the adults that care for them is also growing. I haven’t read the 7 Principles article yet (but looking forward to it).

  16. Dear Tim,

    Is it too late to weigh in on the subject of fences and playground design? Your articles are rich and the comments that followed.

    Coming from the open urban campus of the typical post-war North American city, with acres of setback and grassy parks, denuded of anything but a few isolated structures, I find the fences, gates and low walls of London very refreshing. They express boundaries, but also community and the celebration of entrance. Over here (Toronto, Canada), I feel the undeclared purpose of the open field is to fight off any sense of wildness or complexity, either from the great Canadian wilderness itself or from a community of urban people, adults and children – also great unknowns in the diversity of the modern city. What lack of boundaries often produces is the sense that this is no one’s land, or at least, someone else’s – we never know whose – and the space remains unclaimed, serving only to separate and alienate. It is much more comforting to walk by someone else’s place (as in London) than to walk by no-one’s place (as is common here), in the sense that a relationship can at least be imagined. Care and relationship are the issues. Care and the remnants of such care in the landscape speak to us.

    An example. We have a local park that is heavily used by parents with small children and, alas, dog owners. The children’s part is of course a blob cut out of the larger area and it is gated with a low rod-iron fence – somewhat unusually. As a parent, I always enjoyed the gate and the fence – the whole ritual of entering and the creation of the line around which people would gather. It provided context. The park has some lovely mature trees, but only a smattering of ground cover – a few bushes provide the screening that allowed some children to play hide and seek. The fence made this possible. Without it, many parents would have been too nervous to let their kids hide. For children, ages 2 to 6 years of age, the area enclosed by the fence created an area large enough for wandering and a sense of ownership over wide prospects. And just as importantly, the parents could RELAX. This factor cannot be dismissed. My parents were relaxed about me playing on the street when I was 3 years old. I certainly wasn’t when my children were little, although I did want to be. Too much had changed.

    Recently, there has been an initiative to renew this playground. I advocated for a larger enclosed area. Children over the age of 8 cannot use this park very well. I wanted to triple the size of the enclosure and introduce more complex features for the older child, particularly natural features. Many people disliked the idea of “corralling” the children into a gated area, and there was opposition to the idea of a basketball court, which was proposed as an alternative to a larger enclosure. (The default approach is to create programmed space for teens.)

    There is such unconscious resistance to the wildness of free play, so the playing child, ages 6 – 12, is not seriously thought about. Net effect: they have no space of their own in the park, so the dogs, the drug dealers and the scary folk have got it. And yes, too much time and money were spent on design aesthetics to improve the existing boundary rather than expanding and allowing for the chaotic mess that is the world of active boys and girls. Without the boundary, the older children have no place to gather, to form a play community and to experience the prospect of a large unprogrammed space that is theirs – not exclusively but effectively. How I would have loved to be able to send my son to the park, knowing that there was a place where other boys would hang out after school or on weekends.

    You can see the potential for this in the winter, when great piles of snow are dumped in the open space of the park and the kids go to work on those hills, building forts, caves and slides. In this boundaried landscape, outside the fence, older children play for hours. So, given a beacon of orientation, older children will play in the park and their parents will be able to easily, informally and unobtrusively create supervision. In amongst the high spirits created by the snow adventure playground, perfectly strange parents spot each other warm-up time from the cold. Trust becomes possible.

    I do understand that private park ownership is a problem in London. Over here, we need to create a sense of ownership and I think that fences have a role to play in creating porous boundaries that define places and create affordances for community, including play communities.

    Love your website by the way, and the blogs and the discussions. Best regards, Brenda

  17. Pingback: Outdoor Play and Risk: raising confident children | SoccerPlayGroup (Wyckoff, Bergen Co., NJ Area)

  18. Pingback: Consulting Children in Playground Design: Hart's Ladder of Participation - Playscapes

  19. Pingback: A century of rethinking childhood | Rethinking Childhood

  20. An interesting article. But what’s wrong with the classic, humble slide? My own child is happy as larry so long as there’s a slide in the playground. He typically ignores everything else anyway, no matter how elaborate the equipment.

    Incidentally, the world’s oldest playground slide was discovered this year in a park in Kettering:http://www.wicksteed.co.uk/is-this-the-oldest-swing-in-the-world-n196.html

    I wonder how the children back then would envisage their perfect playground? :o)

  21. I am fascinated by the differences between the parents’ concept of play and what one can observe children actually doing. My 14 year old son takes the compost to the yard, and that becomes a play event for him if he’s in the mood. As a Landscape Architecture graduate student with an intense interest in playgrounds I find myself cataloging and observing as a matter of habit when at playgrounds. I also find myself doing that in daily travels. I recall the idea, expressed by Marco Huttenmoser, that it is utterly worthless to compensate for the disadvantage of living in unsuitable surroundings by “frequent visits to the public playgrounds”. I agree with this idea, if the extreme case is true and there is no safe place for a child’s imagination and body to connect, outside the home, except at an officially sanctioned site. Children tend to find play wherever they are, with whatever they have with them at the time. I fear that the habit being instilled is that play can only happen at that destination place, that play is separate from life and that planners and town administrators will see no need for child/family friendly streets when there are playgrounds where play is “supposed” to happen.
    Finally, the posts regarding Sue Guttereridge and Judi Legg’s ideas on who to consult are excellent. Does it make sense to attach the idea of using the child as the unit of measure to their concept? American playgrounds use the CPSI recommendations as their sole unit of measure and, honestly, designing a safe playground is something the brain-dead can do; just make the playground boring enough to keep the kids away and total safety will be achieved! Is total safety really the goal? If the playground’s goal is fun, engagement, future utility, then the standards of measure become more fuzzy, and perhaps that is where the total commitment of the patron with vision is critical. One cannot use a ruler to measure that.

    I welcome ideas on how one can utilize the child as a unit of measure in the absence of an informed patron, and how one might be able to create empirical data from that. Planners and government people love data.

    Thanks to all for wonderfully constructive dialog. I have to go watch Dr.Who, now. My kids are hooked.

    • Thanks for your thoughtful comments – and I agree, this is a lively and stimulating thread, which I continue to refer back to. You are right: safety standards are hopeless as an indicator of design quality – and not great as an indicator of safety!
      Robin Moore and colleagues at North Carolina State have done a lot of work on quantifying childen’s use of space. And enjoy the Doctor’s adventures!

  22. Pingback: Are playgrounds designed for adults or kids? |

  23. This is a really useful resource that has sprung up lots of ideas (but mainly problems) with playground design. I am in the process of reviewing our consultation and design process and I think what I have identified is not so much to think about the different types of play equipment, but the format in which it is laid out in. We have a large set of playground elements but are relatively limited to constantly creating new equipment due to time, materials and skills.

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