I am a parent of a 9 year old and a 12 year old who are growing up in a relatively urban environment in Providence, RI. Their current playground is our street, our garage (clubhouse) and our postage stamp-sized back yard connected to several other neighbor’s back-yards. Their playground when they were little were any one of six neighborhood public playgrounds depending on the day and where the parents wanted to catch up. I must admit that some playgrounds were better than others for the following reasons:
- shade from trees or structures at the right time of year,
- playground surface material – what gets stuck in our shoes?,
- sight-lines – can I see both my toddler and my first-grader?,
- benches – enough of them at the right spots in good condition,
- traffic patterns – who is running into the swing sets?,
- security – who is running down the street? Or into the woods to build a fort?,
- play equipment – is it getting too old, time for replacement, or uninteresting?
- What about each playground is actually interesting?
What I observed the children to find most interesting were the shrubs and trees surrounding the play area where they could hide, climb and find sticks and branches a bit unsupervised. They also loved any kind of slope and it did not matter if there was grass, bare soil, snow or plantings on the slope. They particularly loved playing on the largest, scariest piece of equipment known to mankind at the age of 2. And lastly, they loved when an adult jumped in and played an intense game of tag around the entire park.
Conceptually, these favorites sound like my childhood with the exception that I did not have a public playground to visit. I had 60 –foot tall climbing trees, giant boulders crushed together by glacial deposits to make forts in, stream culverts to dare to climb through, two dogs to hike with and a few friends to join in on the fun. My desire to take risks as a child is far outnumbered in what we as parents want now or what our litigious society claims as acceptable in the public realm.
We’ve gone too far. We’ve allowed ourselves to create, design, manufacturer, build super safe environments where there is no possible way to get hurt. This begs the question – where and when is RISK okay and HAZARD not okay? In other parts of the world, five inches of super absorbent, spotlessly clean, cushion floor is not a requirement for public playgrounds. Decidedly age-designated structures do not exist. Much of the manufactured equipment has been about meeting safety standards and not necessarily built for creativity and risk taking. Children by their very nature are explorers, adventurers, risk takers – how can we build and renovate those so important public play spaces to allow for imagination and learning risk but not be a complete hazard?
Sounds great, we can do this, add hills, add plants, real boulders, real trees, climbing nets and stepping logs, a shed full of stuff to build with, a deck, a stage, art easels, chalkboard paint, picnic tables, Yeah! And then there is the official testing of local, state and federal agencies. The jobs of these agencies and departments are to ensure safety to the highest standard. In many ways, this is completely appropriate in order to enforce a level of upkeep for older playgrounds and maintain a measurable level of safety across the board. But how can we stay out of the trap of designing and building sterile environments that our kids would honestly rather avoid?
It’s a tricky question. In our firm, we design many public playgrounds for schools, municipalities and for-profit child care facilities. We have opportunities to push the boundaries of design and at the same time we have severe budget constraints and aversion to certain types of equipment due to liability. There, I said it. LIABILITY. As an example, swing sets are a bone of contention. Clients either love them or hate them. Swings are either a huge liability or the one item on the wish list that’s a definite Must Have. One solution is to locate the swings in an area not prone to high traffic. There are also many more swinging apparatus that satisfy clients’ fear of swing safety. Honestly, can you imagine growing up without a swings? The higher the better. I remember being stung by a bee right smack in the lip while swinging and singing a Christmas song in June!
Our charge as design professionals is to ultimately enhance the human experience – in this case the child and the care giver – given the framework of the client goals, project budget and safety without losing the ability to learn from risk. We can measure our success when the end-users are cheerfully making up their own games in a space where they can create, imagine, explore and sing whatever song is in their own head.