High Design + Playability = Success

Treehugger.com recently wrote a snarky piece about a new play area in Lexington, MA. The editor of the site dismissed this structure, saying this “play equipment encourages kids to pretend they’re in a Dwell article.”

It sparked my interest. From the images, I thought I saw lots of opportunities for kid directed and variable free play and I began to wonder if we expect – perhaps even unconsciously demand- low caliber aesthetics in outdoor architecture for children?. Do we cynically assume minimal playabllity when good design provides an armature for child-centric activities?

I am pleased to report, after a little bit of poking around, that this new play arrangement is not only great for kids but also may be an innovative, inexpensive template for engaging a community and for inserting children into the design process.

Admittedly, the Five Fields neighborhood that commissioned this play piece is an ideal client and one that would be supportive of a progressive solution. The Architects’ Collaborative (TAC) designed and developed this enclave of modernist homes in the 1950s. Led by Walter Gropius, TAC tried to envision an ideal suburban community of 61 houses on 80 acres of former farmland. The terrain was both flat and hilly. All of the houses ( 2-6 bedrooms) shared- and continue to enjoy and maintain- an enormous common space of 20 open acres. The whole ensemble is a perfect landscape for the many families with young children who currently reside there.

The rest of the story combines unique and universal elements. The Five Fields homeowners needed to replace old play equipment. Architects Michael Schanbacher (FR/SCH Projects) who lives at Five Fields, and Brandon Clifford (Matter Design), who has a passion for building what he draws, came together for this design. They have previously submitted competition entries together but this is their first joint work to come to fruition. The client and the architects aimed for a result that would not direct the children but allow them to flourish by having opportunities for exploration, success and failure, climbing high, going fast, and even hiding. It is laudatory how they have effectively embraced beneficial risk taking and d the definition of free play by recognizing it entails “liberation” and “irresolution.”

I am tremendously impressed by the playpiece, scaled to children but available to adults if there is an emergency, that has evolved. I usually prefer loose arrangements of parts that can be described as a “playscape” which encourages multiple ages, varied activities, and harmony with the surrounding land. This structure exhibits those characteristics, too.

Images, courtesy of Brandon Clifford, show a sleek, bold, abstract wood piece that emerges from the hillside. It becomes a cantilevered structure that provides height above a secluded and sheltered open space. Johanna Lobdell’s beguiling super graphics hint at possible entrances, yet there is no single way to access the play possibilities. If left on their own, children will self select where they feel comfortable although Clifford has noted that the “older kids climb over while younger ones crawl under.” The somewhat hidden open space is a magnet for the under five set; the zip line, climbing wall, stairs and ledges to nowhere, and high lookout pull in an older age range that includes young teens. In spite of the long and narrow footprint, the interior is non-directional. There are ramps, stairs, ladders, and a climbing rope inside so that play has both horizontal and vertical opportunities; there is a floor that disappears and becomes horizontal ropes that children have to negotiate to get from one area to the next.

The economics of this piece are also impressive. Each homeowner contributed $100.   The budget of $6100 was viable because the architects contributed their services, designing and building the structure pro bono. If, however, we think about paying a fair market rate for a substantial number of design hours and a significant amount of construction time, there should not be a sizeable differences between this type of custom piece and the cost of standardized plastic equipment. The primary difference is the pieces from a catalog usually have limited uses and are age specific; one piece for the youngest kids and another or older ones. Those generally cost between $75,000- to $100,000 each without considering the price of installation or surfacing.  Clifford and Schanbacher possibly point the way to considering the affordability of bespoke design. They also had an advantage in that they were able to secure a little more latitude for the design process because they were donating their professional services.

You need to know that one of the most inspired aspects of the Five Fields pieces is only apparent in the results. Clifford and Schanbacher did not fully design the play piece before they began to erect it. They figured it out as they constructed it.  Even more importantly, they allowed local children to test out and comment on the designers’ ideas at the end of each day’s work. In an era where we mistakenly think that kids will “design” playgrounds by putting a few ideas on paper, this approach is fresh and empowering.   Take a look at the Matter Design web site and you will see that the “kid consultants” are even credited for their participation.

So why do we think unique design would most likely be unsupportive of how kids thrive? If we give them a faux pirate ship or a romanticized castle, we think we know what they will do. We are more relaxed when we can see what kids are doing and can predict how they will interact, something that is usually true of themed equipment. Modern design can be more nuanced; it does not pander to what we mistakenly think will engage youngsters.

I would argue- and here I have learned a lot from Scandinavians, especially Ellen Sandseter who has investigated what good risk looks like- that we Americans prefer to control kids actions. In other words, we don’t’ believe that children can make good choices. We don’t trust them. While, I like the unfussy, clean design of the Five Fields structure and I admire the abstraction that allows kids to devise whatever kind of play they prefer, I am most in awe of how much this environment respects children’s abilities to let play unfold and how it reflects a way to value kids’ judgments when they confront an unprogrammed setting. The Five Fields play space inherently says kids are smart and we adults can trust them. I enthusiastically applaud that!!!

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