Playground Postcards

It’s a real pleasure to welcome a new contributor to PlayGroundology and a new voice to the international conversation on play and playgrounds – Rachel Hawkes Cameron. I met Rachel earlier this year at a downtown coffee shop – not a playground in sight. My ears were wide open as she told me about her studies and the thesis that she was preparing at the time. She wanted to speak with me about what I had picked up during my playground blogging over the past few years. For my part, it was the first time I had met a flesh and blood person who was studying playground design – what a treasure. I encourage you to check out Rachel’s thesis – see the link at the end of this post.

Rachel will be participating on a panel discussion as part of Where has all the playing gone? two evenings of presentations based on the PlayGroundology and Halifax Plays blogs. For Halifax readers details on the presentations at the Alderney Library here. I’m looking forward to further posts from Rachel in the weeks and months to come.

Image AA make shift bicycle sits in Kolle 37 – a modern day adventure playground in Berlin, with treehouses built and maintained by kids with adult supervision.

As a child, our interpretations of the spaces in which we play aren’t necessarily analytical – a child who grows up scaling beams in a barn is not aware of his or her experience as being vastly different than the urban child’s daily interaction with monkey bars and metal slides. However, it is undeniable that these early experiences with recreational play can influence us as adults. Through play, we learn to problem solve, to share, to act independently.

As for myself, I grew up in downtown Toronto, attending elementary school in the eighties when it was okay to have a two-story wooden fortress in your playground. My family didn’t own a cottage and I was pretty highly scheduled what with ballet classes, swim team and piano, so my experiences with outdoor play were mainly urban. Yet I recall my experiences in the playground distinctly – the defeat of falling off the highest rung of the ladder, the accomplishment of getting up the nerve to jump off the swings when they are going their highest and – for me – the devastation when my soaring playground was levelled to make way for a pre-fabricated, innocuous and plastic “play structure”, as enforced by the city so as to prevent injury.

I reflected upon these experiences when I began my Master of Design thesis, which I completed in May at the Nova Scotia Academy of Art and Design in Halifax. Entitled “From the Playground UP: Can the design of playspaces influence childhood development?”, it is an examination of the importance of providing challenging, evocative playspaces to kids living in urban parts of North America.

Image B

Because I was executing my research from a design standpoint (my undergrad was in Architecture), it seemed clear to me that visiting playgrounds internationally – specifically in Europe – was essential in gathering the immense possibilities for playspaces in North America, and possibly a way to understand what we’re missing.

Throughout the course of my thesis research, I visited playgrounds in Berlin, Amsterdam, Toronto, Montreal, St John’s, London and Barcelona. I designed a playground “recording template” for the purpose of documenting and comparing these playgrounds from a design perspective – what are they made of? how are they used? what challenges do they provide? what age group do they accommodate? I’ll begin by introducing my trip to Berlin and am excited to share more of my “playground tourism” photos and thoughts with you on this blog!

Image C

This “Jungle Playground” in Berlin was located in a big park within an upscale residential neighbourhood. The designers, a company called SIK-Holz, uses primarily Robinia wood in its playgrounds, giving them an organic appearance, often leaving the material true to its original form. This playground was directed, but not prescriptive. The theme of “jungle” was supported by abstract animal sculptures and tall (like 30 foot) “palm trees”, not to mention a super long zip line, yet the story seemed open to navigation.

Image D

The Rubber Playground was located in Berlin next to an elementary school. Tall, arched steel frames act as support to an intricate series of thick rubber sheets, which take form as swaying platforms, slides and ladders. The structure is truly a 3D labyrinth, one that requires both hands and feet to manoeuvre. Kids of all ages were climbing around, some bouncing on the sheets close to the ground, others venturing up to the top of the apparatus, negotiating the maze of rope and platforms.

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This structure, observed in Tiergarten Park in Berlin, welcomed kids of all ages. There was a sense of progression as a child would climb as high as they felt comfortable. It is essential to provide growing kids with play equipment that encourages them to negotiate their own domain – physically and psychologically. To use this pyramid at Tiergarten as an example, a child develops a sense of pride through their autonomy, their ability to conquer and overcome their fears. It is imperative that this child feel supported, as often the fear projected by a supervising adult can result in self-doubt. One thing I noticed in the playground in Berlin was the attitude of parents and guardians towards their kids’ play experience. It was either a casual observance or being actively involved. Rarely did I see “helicopter parents” hovering over a child, rather reassuring guidance seemed the norm.

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My exploration into the “emerging social science” that is playground design has only just begun but I am inspired everyday. Resources such as this blog are invaluable tools in expanding perceptions about what a playspace can be. I am truly excited to contribute my research to PlayGroundology and to be a part of the conversation!

An online version of my thesis can be found here and I can be reached by email: rachelcameron@gmail.com

3 responses to “Playground Postcards

  1. I grew up in the Depression in a town just outside Toronto…an empty field across the street had several excavations in it for homes but had been abandoned when the builder went broke. They were great places to play and later when another builder started erecting homes there we could watch the horses pulling big shovels to make more excavations and when the workers went home we could jump off the ever rising brick wall into the piles of sand below. Our ability to master heights grew as more bricks were added each day/

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