At 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.