Roots of Play – Sculpting Social Landscapes

Now here’s a sweet spot that would put a spring in Joni Mitchell’s step. In Pasadena, California, an artist with a love for play liberates a parking lot and puts up a piece of paradise.

Katya Khan’s Sculpting Social Landscapes installation interweaves elements of art, community participation and landscape architecture practice. With concept in hand, sweat on her brow and recognition in the guise of local arts funding, Katya transforms a small parcel of urban land into a child’s temporary shangri-la.


The lot in northwest Pasadena is home to Side Street Projects an entirely mobile artist-run organization. It is frequently used for community events and engagements. Over the course of several weekends the space blooms with simple pleasures, an oasis of discovery and play. Hand built stone labyrinths (centre-bottom in photo above) and adobe huts (centre-top) co-exist with school buses and trailers.

I reflect on opportunities children have for free play in modern life. I notice that kids do not spend enough time outdoors, they rarely play without adults’ supervision and at the same time there is a deficit of in-person interaction between young and older generations.

The interactive, intergenerational project is based on the premise that the making of play is play in the making for children and adults alike.

planting with kids


This participatory approach takes many forms such as planting seeds (above) as well as making adobe huts and small hilly mounds.


Over the course of nearly two months, Khan collaborated with artists from various disciplines in five separate workshops. Throughout there was an emphasis on tactile activities providing kids and adults with opportunities for hands on creation.

This project was inspired by early adventure playgrounds and reminiscences from the sweetest moments of my own childhood. I thought what if there was a place where children would be able to touch plants, manipulate a landscape and get messy?


Khan remembers never ending childhood summers. From an early age she played outside coming home as the sun started to set. At her grandma’s house in the Russian countryside she immersed herself in nature. She loved the woods, playing with plants, making dens, being a part of the landscape and breathing the outdoors.
kids mounds


Prior to coming to the US, Khan studied environmental design with a fine arts focus in St. Petersburg. Her final project was a concept for a children’s garden. Since then she has been dreaming of the time when she could create a playscape that incorporates her love of art. community and the natural world. Sculpting Social Spaces is her largest public canvas to date.

It’s rewarding to see how people use the space that I imagined and that it actually works. Spaces for children should be fun and challenging. I’m not a big fan of all this standard, off the shelf equipment.

green sculpture

Khan has nearly completed a three-year program in landscape architecture at Cal Poly Pomona. Her influences include Noguchi and Danish landscape architect, Helle Nebelong. She is still looking for her niche and sees this project as being more along an art, rather than a design, continuum. From her artist’s viewpoint she is trying to solve landscape architect type problems.

At one point during the installation, Khan and a group of friends started playing with movement and meditation in the labyrinth. Their improvisation turned into a silly walk and gales of laughter. It made her think that she herself and adults in general should be playing more frequently.



She presented Sculpting Social Landscapes at the Community Built Association Conference in Davis, California. Khan plans on keeping plugged in to play. With her nine-year-old son as one of her inspirations, I’m sure we will be hearing more about her creations.

Experimenting with music was another playful activity for the kids.

kids music
Adults too let loose with sounds.

this piece was composed by Joe Berardi and Kira Vollman from the sounds collected at an interactive space installation during public art events. read more at

Thanks to Katya Khan, other participating artists and the kids for liberating a parking lot and putting up a piece of paradise.

4 responses to “Roots of Play – Sculpting Social Landscapes

  1. Pingback: Roots of Play – Sculpting Social Landscapes | PlayGroundology | DANA TOURSDANA TOURS

  2. This is such an awesome project! Thanks for posting, its v similar to the one we are currently setting up in Johannesburg…this sounds like me “with concept in hand, sweat on her brow and recognition in the guise of local arts funding” : ) The mobile workshop on the Side Street Project site also BRILLIANT….Alex I would love to get in touch with Katya, pls could you pass on details when you have a chance. Hope this finds you well! Ntsiki

    • Hi Ntsiki,

      How are you keeping? Love to hear more about your project and any other play-like news you come across from other regions of Africa. I’ll definitely flip your email address over to Katya so you can connect. I’m off to Scotland in a couple of weeks for a family wedding and hope to connect with some play folks there. Are you tuned into the world cup? Here is my little ditty you can pass along if you are so inclined – “play is childhood’s beautiful game”. Cheers, Alex

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