Category Archives: playground

Underpasses Overlooked

An underutilized urban wasteland, a drive by blight for sore eyes has been transformed into parkland with a playground in downtown Toronto. This component of WATERFRONToronto’s West Don Lands project is the largest repurposing of underpasses in Canada and the first of its kind in Ontario’s capital. The total cost for the 1.05 hectares (2.7 acres) park is budgeted at $4.7 million.

Underpass Park Playground. Source: WATERFRONToronto

Underpass Park’s Phase I which includes a children’s play area is now open. The entire project is scheduled for completion in the spring of 2013. Here’s a video of construction at the site last fall that shows some of the already installed playground equipment.

Those who live in the new residential spaces being created as part of the overall redevelopment of the area will appreciate an opportunity to enjoy this small oasis. I wonder though about the noise and pollution levels caused by the steady stream of cars overhead. Toronto Star urban issues and architecture journalist, Christopher Hume, sees some greater significance in the creation of this park as it relates to Toronto’s overall development.

“As much as anything, Underpass Park offers hope that the city might manage to keep up with the future after all.”

Underpass Park Playground. Source: WATERFRONToronto

There is much of the same sentiment in an opinion piece published earlier this week in the Toronto Star.

Kudos to WATERFRONToronto for the innovative spirit in the remodeling of yucky urban blah.

Underpass Park Playground. Source: WATERFRONToronto

In Halifax we have spaces in the urban core that could benefit from this kind of deep makeover. Do you have any examples of similar projects in your city – recreating beauty and useable space from post industrial neglect?

Global Village Playground at Expo 67

Forty-five years ago this playground made quite a splash at Expo 67, the 20th century’s most successful World Fair. For a few weeks during Canada’s 100th birthday festivities, Montreal’s Expo was the cultural crossroads of the world. In that global village mashup, that summer of celebration and exuberance, the Canadian pavilion put children front and centre.

From CCA’s Cornelia Hahn Oberlander Archive

The playground at the Canadian pavilion was a must stop for the 10 and under set. By North American standards it was cutting edge, ahead of its time, as can be seen in this short excerpt from a National Film Board of Canada documentary.

Landscape architect Cornelia Oberlander had a great stage to share her playground design ideas with an international audience and the 30,000 appreciative kids who played there over the course of the summer.

The playground especially designed for Expo ’67, in conjunction with the Children’s Creative Centre, should provide some new ideas for crowded urban communities. Everywhere in cities there are areas that could be made into “vest-pocket parks”, with mounds, ravines, treehouses, streams for wading, and places for building.

See Oberlander’s entire Space for Creative Play text and a letter to the editor of Maclean’s magazine about the playground here.

From CCA’s Cornelia Hahn Oberlander Archive

Cornelia Oberlander is now a doyenne of the landscape architect circle. I have seen her referred to as the Queen of Green. The ideas she put in play at Expo 67 are increasingly in vogue. A case in point is the burgeoning interest in natural playscapes.

From CCA’s Cornelia Hahn Oberlander Archive

Cornelia, thanks for the Expo 67 gift that keeps on giving. It’s as relevant and exciting today as it was forty-five years ago.

More on Expo 67 here and here.

More on Cornelia Oberlander in future PlayGroundology posts.

Postscript to The Science of Play in Today’s Parent

Today’s Parent, a Canadian magazine, ran a feature in their June issue on playground trends and designs – The Science of Play. Sarah Lazarovic’s article provides an excellent overview of some of the current thoughts and perspectives on the world of playgrounds. She draws on a number of knowledgeable people in Europe and North America to illustrate the story. As founder of the blog PlayGroundology, and a novitiate playgroundologist, I was very pleased to be asked to contribute a few comments.

When Sarah and I spoke, I prattled on and on and on. Her questions provided some airtime to share thoughts on a topic I’ve become passionate about. I now have a modest couple of years under my belt researching and conducting interviews that eventually wind up as posts in this blog. My kids and I have also racked up some practical experience putting close to 100 playgrounds in five provinces through their paces. Just today, my son Noah-David piped up to me en route to one of our current local favourites, “Papa, we’re playground explorers, aren’t we?” Our hometown adventures, captured since the summer of 2009 in Halifax Plays, are just about to get underway for this year.

Home on the Range – Halifax

The Science of Play hits all the high notes on its whirlwind tour. Sarah does a tremendous job of connecting the dots on a story where the subject matter defies stereotyping or pigeonholing. There is no one size fits all when it comes to public playspaces. Sarah’s interview for the Today’s Parent story was a chance to share some of the playground knowledge I’ve acquired in the recent past. More importantly, the story presents a significant opportunity to build on Canadian conversations about what goes on behind the scenes of playground planning and development – discussions around policy considerations, design and financing models for example.

It’s in that spirit that I offer this postscript to Sarah’s article in order to expand on a couple of the points and provide some context around one of my comments.

Comparatively speaking, from what I have seen in eastern Canada, there is a lack of creativity when it comes to playground design in this country. All we have to do is look overseas to Denmark, Germany, the UK, Sweden and Finland where design is flourishing. Their towns and cities have not been overtaken by the march of composite plastics and prefab metal posts and beams.

Although creative design is not a hallmark of the Canadian playground ethos, it is not totally absent from the landscape. There are bright spots well worth a look. Nestled on the Mountain in downtown Montreal is Salamander Playground – green grass, grand trees and a water orb. In the nation’s capital, Strathcona’s Folly is a time capsule playspace made from architectural bric à brac, a treasure of form and texture.

Water Orb – Montreal’s Salamander Playground. Click here for Original Designs slideshow.

The Magdalen Islands’ Boats are anchored safely ashore as they crash and crest through imaginary seas. And as home port to Canada’s East Coast Navy, maritime traditions run deep in Halifax and now kids can pretend they’re on a diving adventure à la Jules Verne on their own orange submarine. In Winnipeg, there’s Assiniboine Park Playground opened in the spring of 2011 that puts nature front and center. I’m hoping someday to get out to Richmond, B.C., just to test and tour that funked up Garden City Park Playground.

In Halifax, we are well served by the number of playgrounds – over 300 – and by high maintenance standards. But with the exception of our orange submarine, we’re kind of sparse on the discovering new design frontiers department. As parents, if we’re not satisfied with the current state of playground design then we have a responsibility to band together and engage our municipal governments and/or school boards to bring about change. This is not change just for the sake of it. It’s about creating enticing spaces with public funds that will help to break the pall of physical inactivity which is becoming endemic. It’s about valuing creativity in our children and local designers and fashioning space that calls out for imaginative play.

Canada could benefit from a voluntary sector organization that focuses exclusively on advocating for play on behalf of kids. These organizations exist in Europe and Australasia. I’m thinking here of Play England and its independent sister organizations such as Play Wales which hosted the 2011 International Play Association World Conference.

These groups conduct research, develop policy guidelines, compile and curate online resources, work with and challenge government, deliver programming and fulfill an important role in the public promotion of play. They are a non-commercial voice of sanity. In the US the social entrepreneur group KaBOOM! does similar work promoting play through Playful Cities USA in addition to spearheading playground builds with local communities.

On the question of costs, customized designs local or otherwise, can be more expensive but this is certainly not always the case. If there are no requests for alternative playground designs being made of a municipality then the path of least resistance is a trip to the numerous manufacturers who provide tried and true professional service that does not deviate from code and embodies more of the same old, same old. With price tags running anywhere from $100,000 to $500,000 they’re certainly not in the ‘cheap’ category. Playgrounds are big business.

Ontario’s public broadcaster TVO with Sinking Ship Productions has co-produced the first season of a show that’s all about do-it-yourself improvements and renos to local playgrounds by the kids who use them. Each project comes in at $10,000 cash with additional donations and volunteer labour. It’s an interesting model that might catch on. Read about it soon here in PlayGroundology.

Thanks to the editors at Today’s Parent for assigning this article. This is a conversation that should continue to grow. There is more to this universe of play and playgrounds than meets the eye. I don’t have any sophisticated media monitoring tools at my disposal but I sense there is an uptick in Canada’s mainstream media on coverage that focuses on play and playgrounds. I’ve seen stories on TVO, heard them on CBC Radio and read them in The Globe and Mail, The National Post, The Toronto Star, The Calgary Herald and The Vancouver Sun to name some that come immediately to mind.

Keep the play movin’.

We Play, Therefore We Are

Today we’re welcoming Sarah Kean-Price from the UK, more precisely from Bath, England. Sarah emailed me a couple of months ago to see if she could publish a guest post on philosophy and play. As I am singularly unqualified to speculate on this topic, I jumped at the chance to have her share her thoughts with PlayGroundology’s readers.

When Sarah isn’t having great fun mishmashing culture and philosophy, she writes clear, centred and personable content over at Tweet @marmaladecopy to say hi.

Being as you are reading a playground-centric blog, you probably already agree that playgrounds are a good and useful thing. A manner of thing that leads only to good ends and useful experiences. But why? How can this be argued? And what exactly do good and useful mean, anyway? Do these sound like pointless questions?

They’re not. I want to make sure we’re singing from the same hymn sheet as this guest post about playgrounds is one of philosophy and the first thing you do in philosophy is define your terms.

So, let’s get things straight – I will be using the words good and useful to mean ‘a thing, entity or process that is overwhelmingly beneficial to the concerned party’. Falling off a spinning roundabout is a horrible, horrible process but, my goodness, along the way you will learn something about physics, bodily response, probability, safety, risk-taking and playing nicely with others – this is why we can call it good.

The child amidst his baubles is learning the action of light, motion, gravity, muscular force…

- Ralph Waldo Emerson

‘Personal development’ refers to the process of accumulating experience and becoming an individual with a distinct personality. These are good because, when we know ourselves better , we can all then work better together to achieve our collective goals of knowledge, spirituality, family, community and progress.

Finally, I imagine we all agree what playgrounds are and have to make certain assumptions about what we agree to be good for society because this is only short and this isn’t the arena for the nitty-gritty of ethics.

Still with me? Welcome to doing philosophy. It’s great. I swear it is, really.

What do philosophers think about play?

When you think of Philosophy, names like Plato and Descartes and concepts like ‘is it all real?’ spring to mind. However, some philosophers have looked into how play can be considered a Good Thing and part of humanity’s flourishing development. We’ll look at how playground use is practically useful (i.e. how it makes for good society) and existentially useful (i.e. how it helps us understand, deal with and live within the human condition.). So, what are the arguments?

Broadly, philosophers think that play is good and useful because:

− It defines the kind of person we are and engenders values.
− Playtime demands order and adherence which are useful behaviours.
− It frees us from ‘the tyranny of purposes’ because play exists only for itself.
− It creates a usable understanding of irony and absurdity.

Why is play practically useful to us?

At base, personalities are defined by preferences – “I am the kind of person who likes biscuits.”, “I am the kind of person that does not like hard pillows.”.

You get to develop your personality when you have opportunities to try out different practices and ways of displaying preferences. Playing in a playground is great for this.

Maybe you like the blunt and repetitive feel of climbing up and sliding down.

Maybe you like the open-ended and soothing motion of a swing.

Maybe you’re a thrill-seeker and you find that, no matter how hard you push and run, roundabouts never quite go fast enough.

Or maybe you’d rather hide under the climbing frame alone and invent a totally different kind of place; a cave or castle or home or den.

Our playgroundees are learning things about themselves which, in turn, enables the concept of choice-making: “I like to feel the pull of gravity and therefore, I want to go on the swing”.

Almost all creativity involves purposeful play.

– A. Maslow

Next, it affects the way that we display preference and make choices. Doing so enters our users into social contracts. Playing together starts to form an idea of what is good and bad social interaction. Consequences lead from certain behaviours and we invoke certain social qualities – either through care-givers or from seeing others respond to our behaviour.

Experience in this area will lead to a considered, developed personality which, in turn, is a good thing for society.

Next, the more hyper-philosophical.

How playgrounds are good for coping with life

Philosophically, the human condition is a tricky one. Namely – what is the point of it all? Many of us are religious or really strong advocates of certain social systems (like socialism or conservatism). If you adhere to these systems and feel that you’ve got it all figured out, this next part may not ring as true for you.

For the rest of us though, some of the existential thoughts surrounding playgrounds and playing are useful. To recap; existential philosophy is concerned with our reasons for and the understanding of how and why we live.

The most important sentiment here is that playground time creates a world within a world. Play allows you to seek meaning that is wholly grounded in the present, rather than the future. It concentrates on the deed rather than the goal.

Culture arises and unfolds in and as we play.

– J. Huizinga

The problem with working towards goals – whether they be a work promotion, raising a child or examination – is that they are inherently destructive. To achieve a goal, you must complete it and it becomes no more. Then you find another one. And achieve that. And so on. (Please note that I am not stating that having and attaining goals is morally or ethically bad.).

When you start a play goal, you impose an order and adherence to a make-believe situation that exists purely for itself. It has a natural end-point that doesn’t necessitate the setting of another.

This is particularly relevant because it can be argued that there isn’t much of a meaningful point to life. We all have goals but what’s really the point of it all in the end, really, when you get down to it? Unless you feel there is some form of salvation at the end of it, life’s meaning can be difficult to find.

As such, purposes are relatively futile and consume your present. Instead of seeking meaning via the fulfilment of future conditions that will endlessly repeat, you find it concretely in the present through your play.

The real philosophical value of play

And here is what our theorists argue is the real value of play, philosophically speaking. In moments of play, you step outside the drive of goal-fulfillment and reside within the calm of play’s simplicity, orderliness and it’s for-itself-ness. You escape the ‘tyranny of purposes’ where everything has a reason for being done, endlessly focusing on the future instead of appreciating the present.

Moreover, play is excellent preparation for life as it helps you become familiar with irony and absurdity. You become aware of the idea of assumed roles, doing things that are nominally pointless and the idea that you might say and do one thing whilst the reality of the situation is very different.

Play allows us to develop alternatives to violence and despair; it helps us learn perseverance and gain optimism.

– Stuart Brown M.D.

Irony and absurdity are more important than ever these days. We live in a knowledge-saturated environment that constantly generates new ways of doing things whilst being full of skepticism and disrespect for many of our traditional values and qualities.

Despite this, we still set life goals and still place value in certain ways of living. Understanding that we can and will want to take part in things without the reasoning of an over-arching system – like playing house, pretending to tunnel in the sand or running around for a game of Tag – is a lesson that can be universally applied and appreciated as you grow.

We play, therefore we are. Nos ludere, ergo sunt. Watcha think of that Descartes?

5 Cool Ones

Cool is in the eye of the beholder – no common currency, no standard to overlay. Since PlayGroundology’s beginnings in January 2010, I’ve come across a number of what I consider ‘cool’ playgrounds. My kids have seen photos of all of these places and without exception it’s the same question that leaps from their lips – can we go there? And that in a nutshell, as my Mom would say, is one of my primary litmus tests for cool.

So, here is PlayGroundology’s inaugural installment of 5 Cool Ones. They appear in no particular order. The beauty is that there are hundreds more out there waiting to be discovered. That is my dream job – exploring the playgrounds of the world with my family while meeting the kids who play there, the parents who take them and the people who design them. If you ever see this opportunity posted anywhere, please give me a call.

Salamander Playground – Montreal, Canada

Salamander Playground, Aerial View – Montreal, Canada.
Photo Credit – Marc Cramer

The design, equipment and feel here are reminiscent of some playgrounds in western Europe – flickr slideshow. That’s fitting as Montreal is a bustling cosmopolitan city that evokes the old country. There is lots of climbing, spinning, swinging and getting wet. All of this and more in the beautiful setting of Mount Royal Park close to the heart of Montreal’s urban core. More about Salamander Playground here

Miners’ Playground – Chuquicamata, Chile

Chuquicamata Playground, Chile
Photo Credit – Carlos Borlone Leuquén aka Mi otra carne in flickrville

Otherworldly with a touch of the surreal describes some unique play structures that sit quietly in Chuquicamata, a former mining town in northern Chile. Located in the Atacama desert, the most arid on the planet, Chuqui is encircled by foothills of slag and tailings from nearly 100 years of mineral exploitation.

Chuquicamata Playground flickr gallery here.

Himmelhøj – Copenhagen, Denmark

Amager Ark, Copenhagen, Denmark
Photo Credit – Alfio Bonanno

In Copenhagen, tucked away on Amager Island’s southwestern reaches, is a landlocked boat. It seems to have materialized from some distant time and place. The Amager Ark is one component of Bonanno’s Himmelhøj (Sky High), a four piece installation commissioned by the Danish Ministry of the Environment.

Himmelhøj photosets here and here.

Playground – New York City, USA

Playground – Tom Otterness
Photo credit – Marilyn K. Yee, The New York Times

Playground, a Tom Otterness sculpture cum anthropomorphic architecture, cum dreamy play area is a reclining behemoth. The gentle giant is a whirl of fun and fancy, an open invitation for children to play and for adults to rekindle a spark of childlike wonderment. The New York City iteration of the limited edition series is nestled between One River Place and Silver Towers on West 42nd St. between 11th and 12th Avenues, not too far from the Hudson River in Manhattan. Read more here on this one of a kind New York City play sculpture.

Eden Project – Cornwall, England

Oaken Log – Touch Wood Enterprises
Photo courtesy Touchwood Enterprises

Over a period of ten years, the Eden Project in Cornwall, England has transformed a disused clay mine into a lush and fertile oasis. Environmental, educational and cultural discoveries are the heartbeat of this wonderland.

The Eden Project also has a massive section of oak trunk that serves as a rustic play station. The trunk comes from an oak that fell naturally and was then hollowed and sandblasted by Touch Wood Enterprises Ltd.

Eden Log photoset here

Keep in mind that the sample size for these cool playgrounds is very small. There are so many great designers and interesting playscapes out there. If you know a cool playground you’d like to share, send a photo(s) of it, its name and location to for a future post.

Newsreel Playgrounds – British Pathé

Thanks to the assignment editors, producers and cinematographers at British Pathé for this selection of playgroundabilia ranging from 1939 to 1967 in various UK locales.

Click on the image to be taken to the play page. Clips can be played at full screen and each has a detailed shot list. Enjoy and thanks again to British Pathé for making their inventory available for public viewing.

Hold on tight, there is royalty, glitterati from both sides of the pond and of course plenty of kids starring in these reels.

Bolton Schoolyard Playground – 1939 – Runtime: 00:50

South Bank, London – 1953 – Runtime: 01:24

Come Out To Play, Reel 1 – 1950-59 – Runtime: 06:11

Come Out To Play, Reel 2 – 1950-59 – Runtime: 06:56

Adventure Playground, Crawley, West Sussex – 1967 – Runtime: 01:46

Lights, Camera, Action

Actually this post is about school, recess and playgrounds. These three words should be as intrinsically linked in the popular consciousness as the trio in the title. There’s just as much drama and adventure on most recess playgrounds as there is on a movie shoot. Recess action for the most part is unrehearsed and the cast are all naturals – it’s an organic kind of thing. Really what we have is a linear progression in that string of words, a causality of sorts – a place of learning, a time for release, and a designated space for physical play.

Over the past couple of weeks, I’ve been giving more thought to recess. We are in our first real snap of cold and snow on Nova Scotia’s Halifax coastline. Our primary school aged son has come home on a couple of occasions recently lamenting that there has been no recess and no outdoor play at lunch. The cold, cold is the culprit with temperatures plummeting for a few days into the feels like -25°C (-13°F) with wind chill.

Cancellation of recess for reasons of severe cold is a quandary that school boards and principals in many parts of the world have to deal with each winter. Here in the tundra. on the up side of North America’s 49th parallel, the cold temperatures threshold resulting in cancellations varies. In Edmonton it’s -23°C (-9°F), in Winnipeg -30°C (-22°F), in Toronto -28°C (-18°F). When the cold fronts and extreme temps move on, the kids get back out to play and this is a very fine thing indeed for both kids and teachers I’m sure.

In Halifax the kids are back out now blowing off steam, having some fun. We’re fortunate that our schools are well equipped with playgrounds and other play areas. More importantly, there is a commitment to making this time available to the kids for unstructured, free play. The best of the best, these playgrounds – maintained and operated by the municipality not the school board – are accessible to the public virtually 24/7. (Check PlayGround Chronicles for a peek at some of Halifax’s playgrounds.)

This happy state of affairs is not the case in all jurisdictions. Through my recent, late adopter adventures in twitterland, I’ve discovered that there are some places where recess has been shut down. It just doesn’t exist any longer. Fellow blogger and twitterite Meg Rosker is campaigning to bring back recess at her local elementary school in Redington Shores, Florida. When I read about her campaign, I had a bit of fun tweeting a riff which Meg joined.

school without recess is like peanut butter without jelly.

school without recess is like summer without ice cream.

school with out recess is like the sky without a sun

school without recess is like a smore without marshmallows.

school without recess is like a rainbow without the colour.

school without recess is like Halloween without candy.

school without recess is like humour without laughter

You get the drift, we think that schools and recess are inseparable companions like rough and tumble, best buddies like Toopy and Binoo. We’re not alone. The New York Times has reported on the results of a study by the Albert Einstein School of Medicine. The study provides empirical evidence for what many of us know viscerally – recess and play are good for kids – mentally and physically.

The next time you pass by a school at recess, stop, look and listen. The playground is like an orchestra in motion, kinetic soundscapes of bobbing colour. This is where the kids rule, where they run, talk, laugh and find common cause. This is where their thirst for free form fun is getting quenched. When I do get the chance to hear it, that rolling crescendo made possible by a critical mass of kids, I invariably smile. It takes me back to my own childhood, to british bulldog, red rover, tag, sports and the freedom to play.

If you’re in a school district where recess is under threat, join up with other parents and present school board officials with evidence-based studies on the value of recess for our children. There are a number of helpful documents posted on Carol Torgan’s 100+ Top Play Resources page, in particular the ‘Guidelines and Reports’ section. There’s also the U.S. based National Association for Sports and Physical Education site. Just pump in ‘recess’ in their search function and you’ll get a good cross section of material such as this position statement that also includes a brief bibliography.


Please join Meg and I’s riff by completing this sentence:

school without recess is like…..

Tweet your responses to @playgroundology or email to

A parting thought…

All materials, unless otherwise attributed or credited, copyright ⓒ 2011 Alex Smith.

If you’re a non-profit or not-for-profit group, feel free to hyperlink, excerpt, or reproduce the contents of this post. Please reference PlayGroundology. For commercial reproduction of this content, please consult the editor.

TV Promo for Local Investment Stars Playground Manufacturer

French and English language television stations in Canada are broadcasting a 30 second pitch in support of a labour led capital investment fund promoting economic development – Le Fonds de solidarité FTQ. The star of the show is playground manufacturer Jambette. Viewers watch as a play structure is manufactured before their eyes, then are asked to invest locally.

The Fédération des Travailleurs et Travailleuses de Québec (FTQ) – Quebec Federation of Labour – has teamed up with Jambette to make a tasteful promo linking investment in local enterprises today to economic well-being tomorrow. The catchy techno riff is taken from Pop Goes the World by the 1980s Montréal group Men Without Hats.

Playgrounds representing hope for the future, positioned as an investment – this is something I love to see. What’s more, there’s a funky beat.

Jambette is well known on the Canadian scene with installations from coast to coast. Here’s one of their structures at the École Stella Maris in Québec’s Magdalen Islands.

Happy Birthday PlayGroundology

Noah-David’s rendition of our local playground – Halifax, Canada

Happy 1st birthday PlayGroundology!

This joyful sweep of lines and colours with blue skies sailing is just the perfect scene to represent the fun and adventure I’m experiencing with PlayGroundology. Since the first post in January 2010, I am continuously surprised by people’s generosity, by the richness, variation and sometimes audacity in playground design and by children’s imaginative spontaneity.

Over the course of the year, I’ve had the chance to speak or correspond with many fine people in North and South America, Europe, Asia and Australasia. Many of them are advocates for play, some are aficionados and others activists. All have provided their insights – words, memories, photos. Their stories and images are the heartbeat of this small corner of the playground universe. Thanks to all of you.

Thanks also to the readers, the tweeters, the commenters, the bloggers, tumblrs, flickrites and facebookers. I appreciate your sharing of links and content, getting this blog in front of an expanding audience. We’re growing modestly with just over 16,000 views in the first year. That’s more than enough to keep me getting up at crazy hours of the morning to do a little research and writing.

In case you haven’t read them already, here are some of the more popular posts from the first year.

Screen shots of some of the more popular posts – click here or on the image above.

Manhattan’s Bronze Guy
Anthropomorphic architecture installation – Playground – by sculptor Tom Otterness and Playgroundology’s first post.

Go Tell it on the Mountain – Montréal’s Salamander Playground
Montréal’s Salamander Playground incorporates new forms and equipment in a design by Cardinal Hardy Architects. Located in the city’s Mount Royal Park, it opened in June 2009 and is becoming a desination playscape within the city.

Playground Access for All Abilities
Research study, after research study has proven that children need to play. Children need to play because it makes them healthier and less likely to become obese. Children need to play because it makes them more focused in school. Children need to play because it teaches them social skills that are essential to becoming adept adults. Although play has been decreasing from our landscape, many children are still out there playing on playgrounds.

The Playgrounds of Flickrville
The web is wide and deep – an ever expanding repository of sound, text and light. We’re in a golden age of information sharing. On the images side of the equation, it’s a global photorush and Flickr is the motherlode. With 4 billion images and counting, this is a visual feast fit for a gourmet. It is now established as one of the primary digital meeting places for people who want to share photos and their interest in specific subject matter.

Popular Mechanics on the Playground Beat
I remember Popular Mechanics as a boy growing up in the 1960s. One of the trademarks was a small font size. They also had wondrous plans, superb graphics and fine photos. Until I stumbled across an old issue, I had never considered it as a resource for playground research. At the turn of the last century, Popular Mechanics had started chronicling the playground world in the United States. Who knew?

In the year ahead, PlayGroundology will be featuring artists, designers, thinkers, great playground cities, playground organizations and of course more innovative playgrounds, playscapes and playspaces. If you have a story idea for us to go after, or a guest post you’d like to contribute, contact us at –

It’s been a fine first year – bit of a magic bus ride. I hope you’ll join us for the rest of the trip.

All materials, unless otherwise attributed or credited, copyright ⓒ 2010 Alex Smith.

If you’re a non-profit or not-for-profit group, feel free to hyperlink, excerpt, or reproduce the contents of this post. Please reference PlayGroundology. For commercial reproduction of this content, please consult the editor.

Playable10 Encouraging New Playground Design Paradigms

If you believe in playgrounds, you’re going to love what’s happening in Atlanta, Georgia and the whole world has been invited to the ball. There’s now an exciting, new place to exchange, promote and recognize excellence and creativity in playground design.

Cynthia Gentry, a passionate advocate for play, has taken the lead on establishing a juried international competition for playground design. A dedicated team of friends and volunteers with a shoestring budget and modest corporate support have created a global sandbox where children and designers are sharing their ideas and concepts of creative playground spaces and structures.

The Playable10 competition has four categories. Playable Kids is already a wrap. Submissions from children came from around the planet including one from a remote village in Nepal. There was a recurring theme from kids – they love to play with their families.

Winners in the remaining three categories – playable art, playable d-i-y and and playable site will be posted on the Playable10 site this evening at approximately 6:00 p.m. Eastern Standard Time.

PlayGroundology caught up with Cynthia earlier this week and got a peek into the Playable10 world.

PlaygroundologyWhat is the motivation/inspiration that got Playable10 off the ground?

Cynthia Gentry – The idea for Playable10 International Design Competition was a direct result of reading Susan Solomon’s, American Playgrounds: Revitalizing Community Space. In it, the author describes a playground design competition sponsored by the Museum of Modern Art (MOMA) in New York in 1954.

I contacted the author, got to know her, and she loved the idea of resuscitating the competition. Susan has since become an incredibly supportive mentor whose opinion I treasure. We finally met face-to-face last year on The High Line in New York and she is on the Playable10 jury.

The seed for the idea goes back even farther to my first playground building experience. In the summer of 2003, a freak storm blew up suddenly in Atlanta during the evening rush hour. There was a loud crack of lightening louder than anything I had ever heard before. Shortly thereafter I heard the news that a 100-year-old tree had fallen on a car out in front of our neighborhood firehouse. In an instant it killed a mother and her two little boys as they sat in the back seat of the car. The father who was driving was unharmed.

It was a few hours before the names were released. Killed were Lisa Cunard, her three-year-old son Max, and 5-month-old baby boy Owen. They lived next door to me with the dad, Brad Cunard. As soon as the names were known my phone began ringing off the wall. People were calling asking me what we could do. Casseroles would be nice, but not enough. Then someone suggested that since our neighborhood playground was virtually unusable that maybe, just maybe, we could raise enough money to buy a new swing set.

The next few months were a blur as I took on this project. With the support of the grieving dad, it grew from a swing set to a $300,000, 2-level playground-memorial garden, a revitalized greenspace. A memorial wall was embedded with two bronze reliefs of Lisa and her boys. The Cunard Memorial Playground was built by over 400 volunteers on a beautiful fall morning a little over 3 months after the tragic accident. It is an amazing testimony to what a community can achieve together when inspired to help others.

The side result for me was I started learning about the importance of play and of great design in play. We used equipment from Europe that, at the time, was unlike anything we had ever seen before. We lushly landscaped the area and worked with the gently rolling hills to add visual and physical interest to the site.

I heard from many, many people that families would come from all over the city to visit this playground because it was so much fun for the kids and so soothing and beautiful for the grown-ups. There was a true and powerful sense of place there. It didn’t look like every other playground around. When you are at Cunard you know where you are. Others, where all vegetation is stripped away and a colorful mountain of plastic is installed, are strangely cold in spite of the color.

This is what motivated me to find a way to make each and every playground a true community center. I believe that a playground should be place that speaks to kids when they are there, that challenges them, and inspires them.

I have learned about the power of competitions to inspire “creative-types” to greatness and to educate the public about an idea. Once I read about the MOMA contest in Susan’s book I knew that that was something I had to try. I contacted Claudia Rebola, a play-oriented professor at Georgia Tech’s Industrial Design Program at the College of Architecture, and she jumped at the chance to join in. We’ve been hard at work ever since.

PlaygroundologyWhat feedback have you received from the broader international play community? IPA, Play London, KaBOOM!?

Cynthia Gentry – The feed back from the international play community has surpassed any expectations I might have had. All of the organizations you mentioned have helped promote the competition and have been incredibly supportive. I hope they will also help us share the results. We have also received great support from the design community. I am on the board of IPA/USA and I hope to get more extensive feedback from my colleagues as we prepare for the next competition. I visited with Play England in the Spring and they were thrilled with the idea. London Play was an enormous help in getting the word out overseas. KaBOOM! played a very active role in promoting the competition.

We were quite surprised by the number of people from overseas who participated in Playable10. We had registrations from Iran, Portugal, Poland, England, France, Australia, New Zealand, British Columbia, Sweden, Germany, Turkey and Colombia. Oh, and the US, too.

PlaygroundologyWhat are some of the components that go into making a great playground?

Cynthia Gentry – That is a harder question to answer than most might imagine and there are many answers. For me, the chief components are imagination sparkers (I just made up that term) and movement inciters (I made that up too). When a child approaches a playground with “that” look in their eyes you know you’ve got it right. And “that” look is a combination of excitement, anticipation, wonder, joy…and life.

I like playground design that can be many things to many children and that inspires a lot of movement. It’s great when the same space allows for a lot of creativity to go on in a child’s imagination: when the same place can be the hump of a giant dragon, or the fortress of a castle or the roll of a wave.

Play value is hard to quantify. When it’s possible for a playspace to be climbed over, crawled under, jumped around, moved on, slid down, run around, and still has a bit of a quiet space to be found it’s got a lot of that value.

Another important component that I learned about from the success of the Cunard build is “genius locii”, a sense of place. Too often playgrounds all look like one another. People go into a space, rip out every living thing, flatten the ground, and plop a big mound of brightly colored plastic onto the cold, hard moonscape they have created.

Kids can hardly tell one playground from another and that quickly leads to boredom. Playgrounds should be living and breathing spaces. Spaces should honor the community they are in and the land they are built upon. They should work with the rolling hills, they should have hardy plants and trees for hide-and-go-seek and shading. They should have personality.

I have had many parents tell me that they love the Cunard playground because the space is so beautifully landscaped. There is a great peace there even with all of the laughing and screaming. As a general rule, people underestimate the importance of beauty and interest in an environment and that is a dreadful shame. WIth just a little more effort on design wonderful environments for play can develop.

PlaygroundologyIs there a community of playground designers? If not, can Playable10 help in the creation of community?

Cynthia Gentry – One of my sincerest hopes is that Playable10 will help create a community of playspace designers. We have a lot of work to do before we accomplish that, but Playable10 is the first step. We are lucky that we have received attention around the world. That will help enormously.

Next up is the online exhibit of many entries into the competition. We want to protect the designers’ intellectual property, so we will probably just post a few pictures from each submission along with contact information. Also, the overdue mounting of the PlayableKids entries. I also hope to have interviews with a lot of children as they discuss the various designs. I think their takes on what they see will be informative.

PlaygroundologyIs Atlanta ahead of the crowd with a Task Force on Play? How did this come about?

Cynthia Gentry – The Atlanta Taskforce on Play (ATOP) is a direct result of KaBOOM’s Playful City USA competition. It is one of the requirements. ATOP has handled applying for this designation and we are one of the few cities to have attained the title Playful City USA every year. I have been very impressed with the attention that cities across the country are beginning to pay to play. It is very encouraging.

PlaygroundologyWhere did you play when you were a child? Where do you bring children to play now?

Cynthia Gentry – In terms of places to play I had an idyllic childhood. I grew up in a traditional neighborhood with lots of woods nearby. During the summer and on weekends, we would pretty much head outside in the morning and my mother would call out, “Be back in time for dinner!” My friends and I were always building forts in the the woods, climbing, hiking, and hanging out talking. We also were constantly engaged in fantasy play. For example, playing “Man From U.N.C.L.E.” was huge back in those days. We’d make up our mysteries and run around the woods being chased by pretend bad guys.

Creative play was also huge. Back in those days there weren’t the television shows there are today and computers were only things you saw in science fiction movies. So we were free to be bored. Boredom is a HIGHLY underrated situation if you ask me. If we were bored we would figure out what to do. We put on plays and carnivals. We built haunted houses at Halloween. These days everybody thinks boredom is the kiss of death. I think it’s brilliant and leads to great things in children, but kids are never allowed to experience it without parents feeling they have somehow failed. Big mistake…HUGE!

Playgroundology - What is the overall budget for Playable10?

Cynthia Gentry – Budget? I knew I forgot to do something. Let’s just say “shoestring” and, I’ll have to remember to work on that next time! Actually, we got a small grant from Landscape Structures for the Playable Kids competition, and another from the rock band R.E.M.’s manager for Playable10. We had some funding from the registration fees, too. Everyone involved worked as a volunteer.

Congratulations on Playable10. With Playable11 on the horizon, playgrounders the world over will be hearing more from the playable folks in Atlanta.

Photos and playground sketch – courtesy of Playable10.