Listen Up Playground Patrons and Playground Designers

I have a strange preoccupation. I keep a digital record of play that occurs vigorously and spontaneously on non-playground sites.  I also accumulate pictures of playgrounds where kids use play equipment in unintended- but often stimulating, sometimes horrifying – ways. I have pulled three examples from my “archives” and am showing them here. My hope is that these might give some clues to playground patrons and designers as to what is needed on American playgrounds. As a group, these three “snippets” illustrate some of essential ways that children could play, ways that are frequently not adequately addressed today on traditional playgrounds.

My first example, seen in a video, shows kids having a sensational time on a metal incline. They keep pushing themselves to get to the top as fast as possible and then have a swift ride to the bottom. The uneven surface of metal shingles not only does not deter them but also may beckon them with startling and event menacing material. Yet no one appears to be getting hurt. The great breadth of this sliding zone means that kids can run across it- a thrill in its own right- and pick their favorite spot for a ride (or even a walk?) down.

The Takeaway: non-directional play, on a somewhat steep slope, with an unfamiliar (scary?) surface, might give kids varied opportunities to succeed and fail; to triumph by thinking clearly about where they are going or to fail and to try the process all over again until they succeed.

FYI: I received this video in a text from relatives visiting Chicago on Labor Day weekend. I wrote back immediately that I thought this was one of the best playspaces in the US. Where was it? It turns out it is the end section of the bridge (designed by Frank Gehry and sponsored by BP) that links Millennium Park to Maggie Daley Park. And by the time I learned where/what it is, I also learned that the park police had just shooed off the kids and closed their access. Fifteen minutes of dynamic play were already over.

Too bad. I thought of the wonderful things that people like psychologist Ellen Sandseter and play advocate Tim Gill have written about kids needing to experience heights, speed, sense of doing something dangerous. I thought about how professor Roger Hart, someone who has studied play over two generations, has said that kids need to feel like they are doing something unpredictable, possibly unsanctioned by adults. Here were those elements and kids knew exactly how to activate them. Even though Maggie Daley Park is nearby and has loads of opportunities for children, some kids wanted to appropriate a “non-play space” and make it their own. While the youngsters might not be able to articulate it, there are freedoms, no costs, and spontaneity on the bridge that are hard to replicate in a totally controlled environment.  The children are effectively showing us what they need.

My second example, also a video, has to do with art. In this case it’s a wonderful stabile that Alexander Calder designed (its title is Trois Disques and it is actually a maquette, 1967). While sculpture usually falls outside of the Consumer Product Safety Commission’s playground guidelines, something intriguing and playful is happening under this hulking stabile that is over 12’ high. These children see Calder’s piece as an abstract enclosure, one that is just big enough for them to work on their own drama which is partially sheltered by this art. The kids may be acting out a space ship launch, a restaurant dinner service, or a school room setting. It is hard to say. But it is clear that they feel comfortable seizing the space as a place to concoct their own stories. They can negotiate how to divvy up the roles and cooperate together.

The Takeaway: abstraction, especially if it offers a small amount of enclosure, may be a key to dramatic play. It provides an armature from which children develop their own stores. I suspect it inspires creativity more than a pre-ordained pirate boat or rocket ship.

My final example (the image at the top of this post) is one that I love to show when I lecture. You see a normal playground in Berkeley, CA with a plastic slide clearly in view. There is also a gazebo which might be good for youngsters who want to play store or maybe even hide from each other. On top of the gazebo, as you can see, a couple of kids have devised a personal climbing gym. The gazebo, clearly not intended for climbing, is appealing. It is harder to surmount than most climbers since there are no rungs or foot holds; it is relatively high and kids actually have to look carefully to make sure they are steady. There are many ways- not just a single one- to access the roof and just as much variety in where and how to get off. And I loved that no one tried to dissuade the kids from trying the “gazebo gym.”

The Takeaway: we need to offer kids ways to be daring without putting them into harmful situations.

We Americans often talk about observing kids during play. That usually (but not always) takes place on school yards and on dedicated playgrounds. I hope that my three examples will continue to inspire those who seek (or need to be encouraged to seek) the weird, unexpected, places that children chose to inhabit or that they organize themselves. I believe we can learn more about what play in public spaces could look like if we apply the lessons from real children to what we demand or create.

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