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03 JULY 2012

Sense of adventure: what happened to playgrounds that give children space?

Aldo "Van Eyck believed playgrounds should challenge a child's imagination without jarring the adult's aesthetic sensibilities. His abstract, elementary forms – often manufactured out of metal tubes like modernist furniture – were meant to belong in a well–mannered streetscape. During the same period in Britain, however, we were developing a tradition of playground design that was almost diametrically opposed. The first 'junk' playgrounds emerged amid the rubble of the Blitz, and the results were far less polite. Consisting of makeshift structures cobbled together out of roof beams and detritus, they were often designed with the assistance of the children themselves. That essential character survives today in descendants such as Glamis Adventure Playground in Shadwell, east London, a riot of skew–whiff woodwork and clashing colours, and an odd hybrid of post–war austerity and postmodern assemblage.

The junk playground model was created by the Danish architect Carl Theodor Sorensen, who believed playgrounds should reflect the imagination of the child not the architect. In 1943, having observed the creative way children play in construction sites, he developed the prototype junk playground on the Emdrup housing estate in Copenhagen.

The concept was brought to Britain by Lady Allen of Hurtwood, who tested it out on the site of a bombed church in Camberwell and then built dozens of what she called 'adventure playgrounds' – the term 'junk' tended to turn local mothers into nimbys. Not only did Allen feel that ordinary playgrounds were sterile places ('it is little wonder that [children] prefer the dumps of rough wood and piles of bricks and rubbish of the bombed sites'), but she believed in the healing effects of exposing children to the urban scars of warfare. At the same time, having them take part in the post–war reconstruction effort was deemed a good way of shaping model citizens.

Essentially, all playgrounds are designed to do the same thing: to help children develop their abilities, use up excess energy and keep them off the streets. But the ideology of the adventure playground is interesting for several reasons. First, there's the notion of not restricting children to the repetitive motions of the slide or swing, because the sooner you reach the technical limits of the equipment, the sooner you have to stretch those limits – hence all those swings you see coiled around the crossbar. The adventure playground was designed to liberate the wild thing within and, by exposing children to risk, teach them personal responsibility (all forms of play are underpinned by some form of didactism, so it's worth reminding ourselves that this is also simply more fun). Just as crucially, it was intrinsic to the concept that children be involved in designing the playgrounds, dreaming up weird structures and adapting them later by tacking on extra elements. This participatory dimension, managed by volunteer play leaders, is key to the development of their creativity.

It's curious how much the ethos of the adventure playground chimes with the language of a new era of design today: a 'participatory' process, recycled materials, an adaptive product. It doesn't sound like the 1940s. But equally valuable is the zone of exception that the adventure playground represents in the city, one of improvisation and informality that, pace Van Eyck, does not blend in to a polite streetscape.

Today, there are few true adventure playgrounds left, but occasionally another is built that follows all the essential tenets, such as the Kilburn Grange Park playground in north London, designed last year by Erect Architecture and based on the ideas of local kids. Increasingly, though, 'adventure playgrounds' are produced by specialist manufacturers and merely designed to look rustic. You can't adapt them, or at least anyone who tried would be carted off. These are the products of a health and safety culture that watered down adventure playgrounds in the 1980s and 90s. There was a minor revival a few years ago, when the Labour government invested £230m in new play spaces across England, but the coalition government freed that budget up for other uses, so it was short–lived. And now, with the cuts, several adventure playgrounds, including the giant ones in Battersea and Kilburn, face losing the play workers that make such playgrounds what they are.

It's worth remembering just how cheap and yet how luxurious these spaces are. We should let kids loose on this new breed of sanitised playground, to inject a little of the old spirit in them. I hear the builder behind Kilburn Grange Park salvaged the formwork from Zaha Hadid's Olympic diving towers – that could come in handy."

(Justin McGuirk, Tuesday 3 July 2012 15.40 BST, The Guardian)

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TAGS

1940s19431980s1990sad-hocadventure playgroundAldo van EyckAlfred Trachselausterity • Battersea • bomb site • Camberwell • Carl Theodor Sorensen • challenge imagination • childhood imaginationchildren • clashing colours • coalition governmentcobbled together • construction site • CopenhagencreativityDanishDenmarkdetritus • didactic • didactism • dream up • elementary forms • Emdrup housing estate • Empress Frederick • engagement • Erect Architecture • exposure to risk • formwork • free expressionfun • Glamis Adventure Playground • healing effects • health and safety culturehybridimaginationimprovisation • informality • junkjunk playgroundjunk playgrounds • Justin McGuirk • Kilburn Grange Park • Labour governmentLady Allen of Hurtwoodlearningmakeshift • model citizen • modernismmodernist aestheticmodernist furniture • new era of design • NIMBY • open-endedopen-ended play spacesparticipatoryparticipatory processpersonal responsibilityplay • play leader • play spaces • play worker • playground • playground design • playscapespost-war • post-war reconstruction • postmodern assemblagerecycled materialsrisk-takingRobinson Crusoe • rough wood • rubbishrustic • salvaged • sanitised • scriptible spaces • Shadwell • skew-whiff • sterile placesstreetscape • Theodor Sorenson • urban scars • warfare • weird structures • Zaha Hadid

CONTRIBUTOR

Simon Perkins
04 NOVEMBER 2010

Parsons The New School for Design: The Center for Transformative Media

"CTM is a new research center dedicated to the invention, critique, and understanding of transformative media practices, including gaming, social networking, creative mobility, data mining, and participatory learning.

Our work combines expertise in the design of social media, games, learning environments and communities with a deep understanding of the way dynamic media networks are used – and increasingly transformed – by audiences in their quest to learn, work, play, and participate. Projects draw from expertise in both design and the social sciences with a particular focus on ecologies of change. An emphasis on networked publics as spaces of learning forms a core perspective of The Center for Transformative Media.

Faced with an increasingly complex, participatory, and information–rich network culture individuals must learn how to engage in meaningful ways, with others, in order to gain access to information, services and entertainment. The space of the network, which spans local and global, real and virtual space, has become a primary site for engaging with the world, people, events, and ideas.

The power of the collective has become a primary strategy for managing information, solving complex problems, and building expertise. Recasting media spaces as networked learning environments will be the key to innovation within the next decade."

(Center for Transformative Media)

TAGS

audience • Center for Transformative Media • communitiesconvergence • creative mobility • data miningdigital culture • ecologies of change • engagementgamesgaminginformation-richinnovationlearning environments • managing information • media networks • media spaces • network culturenetworked learning environmentsnetworked publicsnew mediaNew York • paces of learning • Parsons The New School for Designparticipatoryparticipatory learningresearchresearch centresocial mediasocial networking • solving complex problems • technologytransdisciplinary • transformative media practices • virtual space

CONTRIBUTOR

Simon Perkins
11 OCTOBER 2009

An Evolving Map of Design Practice and Design Research

"The design research map is defined and described by two intersecting dimensions: One is defined by approach and the other is defined by mind–set. Approaches to design research have come from a research–led perspective (shown at the bottom of the map) and from a design–led perspective (shown at the top of the map). The research–led perspective has the longest history and has been driven by applied psychologists, anthropologists, sociologists, and engineers. The , on the other hand, has come into view more recently.

There are two opposing mind–sets evident in the practice of design research today. The left side of the map describes a culture characterized by an expert mind–set. Design researchers here are involved with designing for people. These design researchers consider themselves to be the experts, and they see and refer to people as 'subjects,' 'users,' 'consumers,' etc. The right side of the map describes a culture characterized by a participatory mind–set. Design researchers on this side design with people. They see the people as the true experts in domains of experience such as living, learning, working, etc. Design researchers who have a participatory mind–set value people as co–creators in the design process. It is difficult for many people to move from the left to the right side of the map (or vice versa), as this shift entails a significant cultural change."

(Liz Sanders)

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TAGS

artistic practiceco-creatorsconceptualisationcreative practicedesign-led • design-led perspective • discoveryenquiryexpert • Liz Sanders • map of design practice and design research • participatoryresearch • research-led • research-led perspective

CONTRIBUTOR

Simon Perkins
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