Category Archives: playground design

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.

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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!

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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.

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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

Next Post

Check out the best of London’s playgrounds with well known advocates and lovers of innovative playground design Tim Gill (rethinking childhood) and Paige Johnson (Playscapes). There is a parallel event happening in NYC too in this first ever and hopefully recurring Open for Play. My only disappointment about this great news is that I won’t be able to join all the playground aficionados in London. I’m sure there will be posts in both Tim and Paige’s blogs.

Félicitations for organizing what is sure to be a great event.

Rethinking Childhood

Glamis adventure playgroundMy plan to showcase some of London’s most playful places has been in the pipeline for a while. And now it’s around the corner. For all the latest info, follow this link to the mighty Playscapes blog – including handy onward links to the Open House website, with more details and maps for all the venues.

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Kids and Playgrounds Co-star in New Canadian Reality TV Show

Ontario’s towns and cities could be on the verge of a grassroots playground revolution. It’s already taking place in 13 communities across Canada’s second largest province. GIVER, a new TVO public television reality program for children, shows how kids themselves can make a difference and inspire broader community action.

It’s the kind of experiential television that has the potential of creating ripples. Seeing young designers and builders mashing up playgrounds in a truly kidcentric vibe is sure to have other kids, parents, municipal councillors and parks and recreation directors sitting up and taking notice.

Hamilton, Ontario’s Future Park – artist’s rendition

J.J. Johnson is one of the principals and co-founders of Sinking Ship Entertainment, co-producers of GIVER with TVO. He’s almost evangelical when speaking about the the impact these small scale community projects are having on the kids who participate in the planning and the builds.

The kids learn about taking control of their environment, making something that suits themselves and their friends. It also shows them that it’s possible. The kids are out there getting people to donate stuff. They’re learning that it’s not as complicated as they might have thought.

Series host and kid crew leader Michael lays out the recipe at the top of each episode – six kids, three days, one mission – build a playground with their community.

It’s all about kids with ideas and tools pumped to learn. They’re having fun, becoming community minded and learning practical life skills by refurbishing, rebuilding and renewing their public playscapes. GIVER, targeted at the six to nine-year-old demographic, is part sweat, part play and part problem solving with a dash of magic thrown in for good measure as the clip below shows.

Even for the creators of successful series like This is Daniel Cook and Dino Dan there were some unanticipated learning curve moments as GIVER was coming out of the starting gates. When Johnson received a $460,000 quote on the show’s first playground design, he thought it was all over before they even had a chance to begin. With a budget of $10,000 per playground, Johnson knew that they would not be able to rely on standard design or build approaches.

Not surprisingly, the path to success was grounded in community engagement. The GIVER team called on local businesses to donate supplies and on volunteers to help with construction. Experts were available to advise on safety issues and the kids themselves generated some do-it-yourself design.

Donations of time, labour and materials in conjunction with more modest designs helped the show stay within budget. The GIVER teams, local kids were recruited from each community, were able to create memorable experiences, playable public spaces and stay within budget.

Hawkesville, Ontario – Pyramid Movers

Johnson thinks the playground posse from Hawkesville (population – 300) might just have put together the best finished product in the show’s first season. Kids there now have a giant sandbox that Johnson is hoping is the biggest in Canada, an 8′ tall pyramid climber and a sandcastle with a hidden passageway. Local craftspeople were instrumental in making the design come to life.

This flickr slideshow captures the impressive transformations the kids reigned over in four of the participating communities – Hawkesville, Hamilton, Etobicoke and Batawa.

In the course of the first season there has been a lot of learning. Johnson wants to do his best to share the GIVER experience as widely as possible. Blueprints of the designs will be posted online for other communities to use and adapt. Currently there is a tip sheet available on what is becoming an extensive website.

GIVER screenshot

We’ve met so many communities that have been fundraising for years trying to build a playground because they think it’s $400,000. If we can share some hints on how we can build with proper approval processes and some of the scarier things you think you can’t do, I think we’ll find that they can build these things for $10,000 to $15,000 just by activating people in their community.

Another important plus in this process of community engagement is pride, ownership and a strong link to all those individuals – kids and adults – who helped create something new. Without exception, usage of the GIVER playspaces skyrocketed when compared with pre-show levels.

So what do the kids think of all this? If you live in Ontario, you can find out by tuning in at 6:30 p.m. EST Tuesdays. Check the TVO schedule for additional air times. If you live in Canada, you can view previously broadcast episodes online here or by clicking through on the image below.

Click through on image to TVO’s GIVER page.

If you’re from somewhere else in the world and can’t generate a Canadian IP address then you’ll either have to be satisfied with Johnson’s take on it, or start up your own GIVER type show. If you do the latter, please flip us a note.

“It’s great to see the sense of pride in the kids from what they’ve accomplished. It’s a director’s dream. My favourite thing to shoot was the final interviews with the kids. Invariably each would say that they feel like they can do anything now and that they were proud that they helped their community,” he says. “One little girl wished that she could do GIVER every day.”

The last word goes to Pat Ellingson, creative head of TVOKids.

It’s all about kids doing something to help others and connecting to their communities. GIVER shows just how amazing, intelligent and caring young people can be. It’s wonderful to introduce a child to something new. Every episode you see the light bulbs coming on. It was like watching education in action, a spark was being created. Kids were engaged. It was the best classroom.

Thanks TVO, Sinking Ship Entertainment and all the kids giving something back to their communities. Let’s hope you’ll be back for subsequent seasons.

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’.

There’s a New Kid Greening the School Block

I love the ability of twitter to share ideas far and wide. This morning I clicked through a sweet green tweet from @sdanks on a nascent organization building its membership base throughout the world – the International School Grounds Alliance.

The group has just released a video showcasing ‘green’ school grounds. It provides commentary from educators, environmentalists and designers on the learning and play benefits associated with introducing elements of the natural world into what are frequently concrete jungles.

In a news release issued earlier this week, ISGA co-founder Sharon Danks of Bay Tree Design in California provides some context for the movement’s work.

“Children around the world, growing up in very different environments and cultural settings, all need engaging childhood learning and play experiences for healthy development and enjoyment. The ISGA is not only a resource, but is also a call to action for teachers, parents, and students to go outside, improve their school grounds and explore the world first-hand.”

With growing awareness of the value of natural play and the well documented strengths of experiential learning, the ISGA is an alliance that is sure to flourish. The ISGA’s 2nd international conference will be hosted by Evergreen in Toronto, Canada in the fall of 2013.

As an end note to this post, I encourage you to pop on over and read Lily Horseman’s just published Green makes school, a write up of a study tour exploring green schools in Germany. There a plenty of wonderful photos as well as links to video. You won’t be disappointed.

ScreenShot Mondays – Earthplay

A couple of Mondays per month, PlayGroundology screenshots a cyberspot that focuses on playgrounds, or play. I hope readers dive in and explore. Even if you’ve seen the selection before, take a moment and check to see what content has been added recently.

Think of this as a very slow stumble upon, an invitation to relish something new or to revisit an old friend. Some of the people and places may be household names in the world of play and playgrounds, others not so much. I hope all will pique your interest in what they have to offer and further your own possibilities for playfulness.

earthplay

Round up a bunch of kids, throw in a dash of the natural world, bring in a Rusty Keeler and a Leon Smith to stir, simmer and then bing, bang, presto – earthplay.

“We can do it. We can create extraordinary places for young children to discover themselves and the world around them.” earthplay

This site a great source of inspiration and information on natural playscapes. The banner photos include some spectacular shots of kids in natural environments – streams, trees and barefoot in leaves.

Check the project photos from China and the US, the external links section and Rusty’s blog. Plenty of good ideas and some tips for communities on how to develop a natural playscape project.

Some sections of the site, like the store, are under development for content. I’m waiting to see those tongue drums, the wooden resonator boxes. They last a lifetime. I still have one in good condition that I purchased over 30 years ago. Love the earthy beats.

ScreenShot Mondays – Playground Ideas

A couple of Mondays per month, PlayGroundology screenshots a cyberspot that focuses on playgrounds, or play. I hope readers dive in and explore. Even if you’ve seen the selection before, take a moment and check to see what content has been added recently.

Playground Ideas

Think of this as a very slow stumble upon, an invitation to relish something new or to revisit an old friend. Some of the people and places may be household names in the world of play and playgrounds, others not so much. I hope all will pique your interest in what they have to offer and further your own possibilities for playfulness.

What I immediately enjoyed at Playground Ideas was the sense of resourcefulness that informs their approach to do-it-yourself playgrounds. There is hope here too and dreams – just look at the wonderful iconography of a child swinging from a shade bearing cloud. Playground Ideas works with a clientele that is far too populous.

We design and build great playspaces to improve the education, wellbeing, and safety of the world’s most disadvantaged children – and we support and train others to do the same.

Registering on the site provides access to more material such as the Playground Manual and the design section. It also enables readers to contribute content of their own. The registration process is quick and painless.

In addition to running small, sustainable projects in Asia, South America, Africa and Oceania, Playground Ideas has also promoted and managed an international design competition.
Photo credit – Playground Ideas

There’s a lot to see and take in here including photos, video, designs and an interesting collection of books.

It’s a great idea to do sustainable, small scale work with local communities to bring playgrounds to the kids.