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.

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