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letter of approval :)



UP Can the design of playgrounds influence childhood development? Risk aversion and the benefits of provocative playgrounds

This thesis is presented to The School of Graduate Studies Nova Scotia College of Art and Design

by Rachel Cameron

In partial fulfillment of the requirements for the Master of Design

Copyright 2013 Rachel Cameron All rights reserved. Book design and illustrations by Rachel Cameron Typeface: Verdana Page Headings by hand. The images in this document were taken from a variety of sources. All references can be found in List of Figures. NSCAD University Halifax, NS Canada April 2013

Thank you to: My inspiring colleagues, Philip LeBlanc and Lola Landekic. My most supportive spielplatz research assistant and partner, Jason Burns. Marlene Ivey, Christopher Kaltenbach and Rudi Meyer for their encouragment and advice. Gene Daniels, Angela MacKay and Alex Smith for their expertise. Everyone who contributed to my research by sharing their playground memories. And most of all, to every kid who loves to play!

Part I

List of Figures




Thesis Abstract Sketch




Early History of Playgrounds


A Little History


The Importance of Play

22 Benefits of Play Obstacles to Play

Part II

Contextual Review


Design Process as Methodology





42 Kolle 37 Rubber Playground Kreuzberg Tiergarten

Lateral Thinking




The Psychology of Play


Part III

Part IV

Playground Studies Book


Playground Stories


Application Proposal


The Playground in Situ: Exposition







Playground Orientation Sketch Models


Thesis Abstract Sketch


Early History of Playgrounds Illustrated Timeline


“Amsterdam Playground Scene” © 2002 NAi Publishers:



“Adventure Playground London: Paddington” from Design for Play

© 1969 Reinhold Book Corporation.


“Elevation 56m“ © 1968 Orion Press.


“1976 Playcubes” © 1976 Dattner Architects


“Imagination Playground Blocks” © 2013 Imagination Playground LLC


“Woodland Discovery Playground” © 2013 James Coroner Field Operations


“Crochet Playgrounds: McAdam Open Air Exhibit” © clarkmaxwell, used with



permission from

“Sculptural Playground/ ANNABAU” © 2012 ANNABAU. Found on

“Slide at Teardrop Park” © 2010 Dattner Architects


“MLRP Mirror House” © 2012 Laura Stamer for

14. “Century of the Child Tripp Trapp Chair”


from “Century of a Child: Growing by Design” © 2012 Museum of Modern Art from

enhanced- 16.



Still from “Riding the Wave – Halifax, Canada” © 2012 Alex Smith for



“Wave Sculpture”© 2012 Adrian Veczan for National Post from


Harry Harbottle Quote: Risk does not equal Hazard


Statistics of Outdoor vs Indoor Play


Helicopter Parenting Illustration


Sad Playground Illustration


Elements of Childhood Play and Types of Play


Abstract Thesis Sketch and Design as a Research Tool


Risk terminology in the Play Vocabulary


Early Process Photos, left to right: Degree Project sketches, 3D Thesis Model,

Colour Blocking Play Painting, Photo from Camp Brigadoon, Photo of Ashton

at the

Halifax Commons Skatepark, Image from Sketchbook.


Playground Orientation Sketch Models with Notes


Entrance to Kinderspielplatz, Kreuzberg, Berlin, Germany.


Panoramas of (from top): Tiergarten Park, Rubber Playground, Jungle Playground,

all Berlin.


Photos from Kolle 37 Playground, Berlin.


Found instrument from site: Kolle 37, Berlin.


Photos from Rubber Playground, Berlin.


Images from on-site sketchbook of Gorlizer Park.


Detail photos of Gorlizer Park’s “dangerous” playground elements.


Progression photos of climbing structure in Tiergarten Park, Berlin.


Conceptual Playground Paintings


Process photos of plaster playground models


Playground Movement Visualization Diagram


Imagining Play in Sketch Models


Scaffolding Diagram


Playground Studies Book Cover


Playground Studies Book Cover and Table of Contents


Gorlizer Park, Berlin


Kolle 37 Adventure Playground, Berlin


Tiergarten Park Playground, Berlin


Rubber Playground Park, Berlin


Britzergarten Park, Berlin


Jungle Playground, Berlin


Halifax Waterfront Wave.


St Andrew’s Creative Playground, New Brunswick.


Toronto Underpass Park.


Halifax Commons Playground.


Halifax/Dartmouth Boat Playgrounds.


Peace Playground, Dartmouth.


Collected Playground Stories


Places2Play Playground Locator App Icon


Screen Cap of Places2Play App

*all figures without a specified copyright are © 2012/2013 R. Cameron


Over the centuries, popular notions

fears, perpetuated by media, parenting

about playgrounds have fluctuated

guides and educational authorities in

in an effort to discern exactly how,

combination with paranoia surrounding

where and what is best for kids when

liability due to injury, there is a crippling

it comes to play. Tracing this history of

stagnation when it comes to the

playgrounds within North America and

originality presented in much of the

Europe is a testament to this evolution

North American playground landscape.

as well as a reflection of what parents,

Observing the provocative, imaginative

governments and psychologists deem to

and exploratory nature of international

be suitable at the time. The playground

playgrounds – specifically those within

landscape as it exists today in North

Germany and the Netherlands– is key

America is predominately populated

to identifying the fact that the majority

with drab, presumably non-offensive

of North America’s standardized play

playstructures. We must consider the

spaces do not provide sufficient physical

possible benefits that we as designers

and psychological challenges for their

can provide by challenging the widely

young users. Often satisfied with a

accepted typology of the playground as

trusty manufacturer and a check-list of

it exists today.

normative playground features, North

As we learn more about the critical

American playgrounds commonly lack

importance of exploration, adventure

the diversity, invention and imagination

and self-navigation in the mental

that can be observed in their European

development of kids as they play, it has


become more and more evident that

We must educate ourselves about the

prescriptive, over-regulated playgrounds

importance and benefit of designing

as well as those unequipped to provide

dynamic, provocative playspaces as a

sufficient challenges to their users

way to engage and challenge kids. This

are in fact inhibiting social, physical

thesis will propose a re-examination and

and psychological development. A

re-imagination of the playground model,

consequence of overly exaggerated

from the ground up.

keywords: managed play, playspaces, KFC playgrounds, helicopter parents, risk benefit, prescriptive playspaces, regulated play.

fig. 1 12

fig. 2


The physical and psychological development of a child is influenced by a myriad of factors –such as school and social environment, family life (including access to emotional support), hereditary predetermination, biology and so on. Increasingly, however, child psychologists are recognizing the role that recreational play has in this development and its potential as a tool in creating better adjusted, socially successful, confident kids. Between the ages of four and ten, the quantifiable time


Jane Clark Chermayeff

which a child spends playing is integral to their development. But what is of even greater importance is the quality of that time (Hewes, 2010). Indeed, it is imperative that a child acquires the adequate amount of physical activity necessary to best maintain their physical health and wellbeing. This physical exertion is essential; not-for-profit organizations such as KaBOOM!, led by Darell Hammond, exist to solve a problem they call “The Play Deficit” (Hammond, 2012). By striving to ensure that an operational, well-maintained playspace exists within walking distance of every child in America, the goal is to prevent the occurence of now rampant childhood obesity, Attention Deficit/Hyperactivity

“There’s an assumption that if we make a playground for children, it’s going to be absolutely safe. This concept is something

you’d want in a nuclear power station, but it’s something you don’t want in a child’s playground.”

Harry Harbottle,

Richter Spielgrate Playground Manufacturers

disorders and disconnection with the outdoors itself. KaBOOM! is just one example of an organization responding to the growing awareness of the trends towards “sterile, uninspired play environments”, which they attribute to children being “overscheduled, and…lulled by television, computers and video games” (Hammond, 2012). Beyond the importance of play for its obvious physical benefits, we must be critical of the quality of this play. Indeed, a child’s imagination is limitless and practically any structure or material – be it a cardboard box or pile of bedsheets – can be transformed into a multifaceted play experience. In the words of Jane Clark Chermayeff, a leader in Architectural Playground Equipment, “children’s lives are becoming increasingly urban” (MOMA, 2012). Therefore, more and more kids are living in cities, which are in essence, designed environments. These urban lives also include a distinct sense of organization; extra-curricular activities, class time, recess, social visits, weekend activities – a child’s schedule is rarely anything but

14 14

unstructured. Thus, the playground becomes the destination for play – be it in

Better a

BROKEN ARM than a broken spirit

Lady Allen of Hurtwood, 1968

their schoolyard or the park closest to their home. Responsibility for the design of dynamic, engaging, inspiring playgrounds is one that will impact the kids that it serves – and this responsibility can only come about if we are to engage in a re-imagination of the construct itself. Furthermore, in order to properly embark upon more dynamic, complex playgrounds, there is a need to understand the concept of calculated risk. Psychologists such Dr Ellen Sandseter have dedicated their research to analyzing whether “dangerous play” really is such a bad thing. Indeed, it is imperative for playgrounds to meet the codes and regulations of existing safety standards; however, the drastic aversion to injury may now be a hindrance, rather than a protective measure. In his article “Can a Playground Be Too Safe?” author John

“Children approach

thrills and risk in a

progressive manner”

Tierny states: “While some psychologists — and many parents — have worried that a

child who suffered a bad fall would develop a fear of heights, studies

have shown the opposite pattern: A child who’s hurt in a fall before

the age of 9 is less likely as a teenager to have a fear of heights.”

The physical manifestation of these “safe” playspaces are standardized, prefabricated playstructures: innocuous, redundant, boring. According to David Ball,

Dr. Ellen Sandseter

professor of risk management at Middlesex University, there is in fact no concrete evidence to support that these playgrounds are indeed any safer than their “treacherous” predecessors, (Shin, 2011).

“ We have allowed our playgrounds

to become



Now the typecast is shifting, but its still modular and pre-fabricated.

Alex Smith, author of Playground Chronicles, Halifax 15

fig. 3



A playground, by its most basic definition, is an outdoor area

The Industrial Revolution had a large influence on the

provided for children to play. Its function is physical; a set

development of playgrounds. As child labour laws were

of apparatus and equipment with which children can interact

introduced, so were limits as to how many hours children

with. The typology of a standard playground is one that

could work, what kind of work they could do, and how old

exists as an ingrained stereotype in the minds of many North

they had to be to be employed. Thus, the concept of public

Americans: a swing, a slide, monkey bars, seesaw. Today, we

playgrounds was introduced, in an effort to help improve the

often see these elements combined into a single, colourful,

quality of life for these children as well as hopefully instill

plastic structure, known as a “play structure.” These fixtures,

improved moral and social behavior as possessed by children

which function as the perceived essence of “playground” are

of higher classes. Relatively simple playscapes by design,

timeless, eternal and adequate vehicles for kids to use as play

the playgrounds were often equipped with wooden beams,


climbing apparatuses and swings. Prior to the introduction of these public playgrounds, most lower income children in the

To trace the history of the playground back to its original

United States created their own playgrounds from the urban

roots, however, is to uncover an idea formed with a far more

landscape that surrounded them; derelict lots, back alleys and

fluid and inspired spirit than these static structures described

the streets themselves acted as meeting points and spaces to

above. Although formal playgrounds were originally introduced


in Germany as a way to instill good manners in small children


– particularly those of lower classes - their fruition came about

In Europe, the concept of “adventure playgrounds” was

as a means of providing a space in which kids could imagine

introduced as a response to the devastation and rubble

and grow. German pedagogue Friedrich Frobel is credited

that resulted from World War I. Inventive kids made use of

with the introduction of “kindergarten,” a concept introduced

dilapidated, unused urban spaces and created play structures

in 1837 to acknowledge that children need their own unique

using abandoned materials and tools. Found materials

space to foster their specific needs and competencies (Frost,

became the building materials of choice, and intricate fort-

2012). In Germany, children’s physical and psychological

like structures were assembled by resourceful kids intent on

development was, and continues to be, of acute importance.

creating spaces to play (Playgrounds in Parks 2010). According

Children learn through experience, and such experiences were

to architect Richard Dattner, Adventure Playgrounds allowed

to be nurtured in the best way possible. Frobel, considered to

children to “rearrange their physical world to their liking - one

be the original playground pioneer, emphasized the concept

way to exert some control over their experience” (Dattner,

of “free play” and encouraged his students to engage in

1969). These “adventure playgrounds,” which were so popular

unstructured, “rough and tumble” activities in environments

in the UK and still exist today, were never fully adopted by

with organic materials and unfixed parts (Froebel, 1887).

North America due to concerns around safety.

fig. 4

fig. 5

fig. 6 Clockwise from top left: Fig. 4: One of architect Aldo van Eyck’s 700 post-war playground spaces in Amsterdam, 1954. Fig. 5: A kid-constructed Adventure Playground in London, this one monitored by a supervisor Fig. 6: An image from Le Corbusier’s Nursery Schools, a documentation of the architect’s playground situated on the top of a building, 1947-1952. Fig. 7: Richard Dattner’s 1976 playcubes, an early investigation into modular, kid-controlled play.

fig. 7 19

fig. 8 Imagination Playground Blocks: modual blocks for purchase to be used by kids to design their own playspaces.

fig. 9 Woodland Discovery Playground at Shelby Farms Park by James Coroner Field Operations.


fig. 10

fig. 11

fig. 13

fig. 12

Clockwise from top left: Toshiko Horiuchi-McAdam’s knitted playspaces, Wonderspace II at Hakone Open Air Museum, Japan. ANNABAU playground structure in Wiesbaden, Germany. Mirror House in Copenhagen by MLRP Architects Slide at Teardrop Park, Battery Park, New York by Richard Dattner, 2009.


Around the 1980s, playgrounds in North America began devolving into prefig. 14

manufactured structures designed to meet stringent safety codes and standards. A rash of paranoia surrounding injury and liability resulted in more from-the-box playstructures, devoid of the creativity and adventure of their predecessors. The early ideals of playground design, it would seem, have been lost in today’s playgrounds. To examine what is commonly considered a “suitable playspace” for kids – be it in school or in a public park – is what many consider to be a static, uninspired excuse for an environment that should inspire adventure and exploration. This widely accepted standard of innocuous playgrounds is an unacceptable solution in providing “safe” public playspaces for kids. Misunderstanding not only of the importance of play, but more specifically, the importance of diverse and challenging play, has resulted in a notable trend of overregulated, uninspired play structures has resulted in a notable trend of overly regulated playground structures. A pronounced underestimation of the importance of playtime is apparent in prevailing attitudes, ones which dismiss play (specifically recess) as a time to “blow off steam,” rather than a crucial time to grow and develop. It has been argued that play has – for far too long – been undervalued and treated as a luxury (MOMA “Century of a Child” symposium, 2011). Such an attitude causes play – especially “free,” outdoor, unregulated play – to drop to the bottom of the list of priorities in schools as well at home. This undervaluing is evidenced in the decreased

fig. 15 22

number of hours that kids play.

“The landscape of childhood has changed in the last ten years,” noted Jane Clark Chermayeff, founder of the 1990 International Design Conference “Growing by Design”, a meeting of the minds which focussed on design of children’s play spaces and toys. In 1990, eight-year-old kids in the United States spent 78% of their time outdoors. Today, that outdoor time has diminished to 20%, no doubt due to the fact that about eight hours a day is devoted to screens. It is this decline that has pushed the conceived need for diverse and well-designed playspaces to the bottom of the list when it comes to a child’s development, with new technology and the latest devices taking precedence. Recess in North America has dropped from over an hour to an average of 26 minutes – less for lower income children (Patte, 2008). In fact, in some states, there are no legislatures to enforce any outdoor physical play during school hours (Sommer, 2008). To observe the figures, one can conclude that the steady decline of time allotted for outdoor recess can indeed be considered an increasingly common attitude that places low importance on outdoor play in childhood development. This shift away from regarding play as a crucial stage in childhood development has resulted in a staggering decline in the complexity of playspaces that we provide to our children. Indeed, as Chermayeff states, the “landscape for play” has changed; children are living in increasingly designed spaces as urban migration and dwelling grows. Yet it seems that many schools and cities are satisfied with providing a standardized model of playground so long as they are deemed adequately safe.


During childhood development, there exists a progressive need to negotiate not only the world around us, but ourselves and our place in it. The brain develops at a rapid rate during childhood, taking in brand new understandings and ideas every day. Solving problems, negotiating risks, addressing sadness and failure, realizing strengths and capabilities; a child’s identity is formed by and large through their experiences, many of them based in play. Some children are equipped with a relatively constant context in which to operate and a stable home life is no doubt advantageous to a child as it provides a familiar territory to which they can refer. Those with less personal stability are often left grappling for constants; be it social interactions, familiar environments or parental figures. Every social and fig. 16 Kids climbing the “off-limits” wave sculpture on the Halifax waterfront

environmental interaction experienced by a child is hugely influential as there is a constant expansion and realization of oneself and one’s governance over environment (Dattner, 1969). A child’s experience in play can not only equip them with the social, physical and logical skills imperative to a successful adult life, but it can also support the working through of trauma, anxiety, confusion and frustration (MacKay, 2012). These experiences most often do occur in a playground setting, a small sphere of childhood development that is often interpreted by the child as a microcosm for their home life, or their place in the world entirely (Dattner, 1969). The opportunity for positive growth and physical development during a young child’s play time should be of upmost importance. Playspaces have the ability to evoke a child’s endless imagination at any age, adapting to cognitive and physical development. This changeability is presented in congruence with moveable, unfixed parts such as swings, ropes and sand which make a kid feel can manipulate, again resulting in a sense of confidence and ownership over their personal domain.

fig. 17 Still from a playground blog video of defiant wave-inspired joy at the Halifax Waterfront.


Designers, psychologists, teachers and parents alike should make themselves

aware of the benefits of outdoor play. Beyond the benefit to an individual child, there is an undeniable positive force felt by a community equipped with dynamic outdoor playspaces – ones that physically challenge kids. A physically challenging playground is one that provides an opportunity to conquer a series of challenges; equipment that offers a graduation of accomplishments such as a tall climbing structure allows kids to build confidence through the act of conquering fear. Playspaces can serve as a safe, accessible place for growth and exploration: “Not enough playspaces are being built; those that exist are often in disrepair. Fears surrounding lawsuits and safety are trumping common sense, resulting in sterile, uninspired play environments. Recess is being eliminated from our nation’s schools. Kids are overscheduled, and in their free time, many choose to stay indoors, lulled by television, computers and video games.” —KaBOOM! founder Darrell Hammond NO CHILD LEFT BEHIND MOVEMENT According to the American Association of a Child’s Right to Play, as many as 40%

= fig 17a


of United States school districts have decreased the time allotted for recess as a result of an act called No Child Left Behind (NCLB) (Pappas, 2011). Instituted in 2001, during the presidency of George W. Bush, NCLB introduced a drastic shift in the American elementary school system by enforcing an increase of classroom time devoted to math and reading. The objective of NCLB was, in essence, to achieve 100% proficiency from students by introducing an education structure that disregarded differences in the economic, racial and ethic backgrounds of individual children. This was intended to level the playing field and avoid preferential treatment of children from one particular group. A negative result of this was, of course, that a child with a cognitive disability, speech or language difficulties, or one with English as a second language would take the same test (of which the results are posted) as a more adequately equipped classmate.


The NCLB’s central principles dictate: 1. accountability from schools of results gathered on a yearly bases; 2. a curriculum that operates in direct correlation with what is scientifically proven to be the most effective, based on research; 3. better communication with parents as to progress of individual kids (detailed report cards and alerts as to slipping grades;) and 4. an option to switch schools should its results be considered consistently “low performing”

(Forum for Education and Democracy, 2007)

Ultimately, the Act’s principal intent was to produce more college-ready kids through standards-based education reform. The result was the effective eradication of the arts, social studies and recess. Mandatory annual tests were introduced to elementary and secondary schools, enforcing an Adequate Yearly Progress report (AYP) to test scores. Failure to yield such improvement from any given school results in standardized actions; schools would be flagged as “in need of improvement,” deemed suitable for corrective action and replacement of staff if necessary. NCLB serves as an example of the decline of the imporance placed on outdoor play time. This shift is an indicator of the new direction that many North American schools are taking toward emphasizing academic accomplishements. This emphasis does not seem to take into consideration the importance of the foundations of early socialization; such fundamentals are best learned through interactive and physical play. The outcome of decreased outdoor playtime has taken a toll. In direct response to No Child Left Behind Act legislation, a movement formed called No Child Left Inside. This group pushes to improve and increase environmental education for children, emphasizing the importance of a child’s relationship with nature Types of playgrounds

(Louv, 2007). The intention was to amend the No Child Left Behind Act to include environmental literacy. The objectives of NCLI are in line with what NCLB claims that it aims to achieve: improved test scores, ultimately resulting in more college


acceptances and more functional, successful kids. This new movement does so, however, by emphasizing that such results come from balancing academic education with physical, outdoor activity. Ensuring that students are connecting with the environment results in increased focus, a more stimulated imagination and ultimately – better test scores (Louv, 2007). Another significant source of the decline of outdoor playtime for North American kids in public schools is the increased sophistication of interactive and digital technology as primary learning tools. Huge leaps have been made in the last ten years and computers have become a standard in almost every school across North America. The sophistication of such digital tools has resulted in some overwhelmingly positive results; digital games and programs have been shown to increase reading comprehension, strengthen memory links, and expand vocabulary (O’Hara, 2009). Digital video especially has shown to result in a better engagement between the students and the material being taught. Interactive and digital technology has the ability to create and simulate environments like never before; but could these virtual environments be mistakenly accepted as sufficient substitutes to actual outdoor stimulation? With the introduction of the Nintendo’s “Wii” game system, for example, children’s health experts breathed a sigh of relief; finally, a way to satiate North American kids’ obsession with video games while combining physical exertion. An argument could be made, however, that such “stimulation” offers a false solution to the declining amount of time kids spend exerting themselves physically outdoors. fig. 18

One must consider an emphasis on diversity as a major component of successful play: exposure to a variety of situations will result in a range of challenges and complexities that a child is forced to negotiate and overcome. These complexities are simply not possible if a child is merely “playing” in a virtual world. There may be variables within a video game or interactive application, but ultimately, the physical engagement and need for negotiation will always be missing. A 2D screen – though dynamic and stimulating to a maturing brain – should not be accepted as a substitute to interactive, outdoor play. 27

The time that kids spend dedicated to engaging in physical, unrestricted play outdoors has undeniably been affected by increasingly cautious attitudes from parents. Parenting strategies that are driven by an identification of the possibility injury and risk have resulted in unnecessarily over-protected, relentlessly regulated playtimes. This attitude is evident when observing parents with their children in North American playgrounds in comparison to those in Europe. Cultural differences in parenting styles are most evident when examining the attitude towards allowing a child the freedom to play independently on the playground itself (McKay, 2013). HELICOPTER PARENTING In recent years, the term “helicopter parenting” has become an increasingly common term used to describe the phenomenon of overprotective, hovering, everpresent adults looming around their kids at every turn. In a broader sense, this definition applies to parents who constantly meddle and interfere in their children’s lives due to a fear of said child getting injured or feeling abandoned. But as this type of parenting becomes more prevalent, it is important to note such fears are often self-perpetuating. Often the fear of injury begets caution, leading to an increased caution which in turn heightens fear of injury. This self-perpetuating cycle is a fundamental problem which has resulted in the playground paranoia we see today. In 2010, for example, a ten-year-old kid in Charlottetown, West Virginia was lying on fig. 19

his schoolyard’s swing on his stomach, emulating Superman. Eventually he flew off helicopter parenting

the swingset head-first, resulting in a broken arm and couple of very angry parents – parents who took legal action towards the elementary school, in the form of a lawsuit. As is often the case, this lawsuit was enough to cause panic throughout the district. The final outcome was the complete removal of all swing sets in the county, 19 in total. This type of incident is not isolated – there have been numerous cases of playgrounds being torn down so as to avoid possible lawsuits. Often the justification


for doing so is that it is cheaper to remove potentially “dangerous” equipment rather than wait for an injury and ensuing legal suit (Chambers, 2010). The removal of “dangerous” or “potentially dangerous” playground equipment more often than not results in the introduction of a compromised alternative; enter the pre-fabricated, low rise, primary colour playstructures so ubiquitous to today’s play landscape. The Canadian Standards Association has the only nationally recognized standards for children’s playspaces and equipment. The association functions as a guideline for everything from electrical safety standards to potential fire hazards, providing referential information on equipment, materials, measurements, maintenance and the need for safety inspection. The guidelines were first published in 1990, and are updated and revised as new studies provide relevant research. These standards are for public playgrounds, not privately owned ones. “Public playgrounds” mean parks, daycare centres and for cities like Halifax, all public school playgrounds. There is no national enforcement for playground operations – they are, in fact voluntary. However, there are operators who are employed to randomly check playspaces and ensure that they meet the standards of the CSA. These inspectors can visit during final stages of a playground’s construction, or can be asked to visit an exisiting playground to assess risk. The most common injuries on a playground are related to places where a limb or a piece of clothing like a sleeve or a scarf can get caught. Thus, colder parts of Canada or the US can sometimes be regarded as posing a higher risk - more layers of clothing are often worn, therefore increasing the risk of it getting caught. The occurrence of scarves or drawstrings becoming trapped in equipment can in fact pose a far greater risk to safety than a child climbing too high or jumping too far. Nevertheless, the most common injury on a Canadian playground continues to be falling, though it is rarely fatal.


THE BENEFIT OF RISK An emerging phrase in playground design vocabulary is “risk benefit assessment” (Ghomeshi, 2012), the evaluation of playgrounds for the amount of physical challenges that they can provide, rather than being blacklisted for any possible threats they might cause. The positive challenges being identified are proving to not only be advantageous to childhood development through play, but essential to it. Risk-taking, negotiation and experimentation during play help foster confidence and assertiveness, tools crucial to building capable kids. The current standard of uncreative play spaces is one that may be contributing to kids who feel insecure, doubtful and vulnerable to bullying and victimization (Shin, 2011). There has even been arguments made which fig. 20

suggest that these standardized playstructures may in fact be physically dangerous. Helle Nebelong, a Danish Landscape Designer states:

“I am convinced that standardised playgrounds are

dangerous, just in another way: When the distance between all the rungs in a climbing net or a ladder is exactly the same, the child has no need to concentrate on where he puts his feet. Standardization is dangerous because play becomes simplified and the child does not have to worry about his movements. This lesson cannot be carried over to all the knobbly and asymmetrical forms, with which one is confronted throughout life.”


-2002 Designs on Play Conference, Portsmouth City Council.

These playstructures, which have slowly become the norm in the current landscape of playgrounds, pose a dilemma to the play advocate; they are at the very least providing adequate exercise and a site in which to play. A child’s imagination can find adventure in anything, and these structures provide the minimum elements (apparatus for climbing, minimal physical exertion) to qualify them as places appropriate for play. With fear of injury or worse, liability, plaguing so many school boards and municipal governments, it was once hard to argue for more challenging, unique playgrounds. However, as we learn more about the importace of play, it becomes evident that playgrounds as they commonly exist today may in fact be failing to equip a child with the skills to take risks, negotiate space and assert themselves through decision-making as it refers to both social and physical play. Joe L. Front, an American expert on play writes: “Research shows that when children engage in free, spontaneous play outdoors, they adapt more readily to their culture, to society and to the world� (American Journal of Play, 2008). This type of play can best be amplified by creating physically and socially challenging playscapes; equipment that requires physical engagement (hands and feet, such as climbing apparatus) requires a kid to remain absorbed and committed to their play experience. Playspaces that require a series of decisions in order to navigate, are comprised of a nonstandardized series of spaces are ones which truly engage a child within their exploration of the space. Equipment that allows a growing child to accomplish or conquer a series of graduated challenges will provide ongoing interest, something fig. 21 elements of childhood development and six types of play

to aspire to. Such interest - a desire to further challenge oneself - will result in more physical activity and creativity.


It can be argued that the design of

It has been argued that designers

playgrounds has only recently become

and architects have been capable of

recognized as a legitimate form of

tapping into their own memories of play

design – particularly in the world of

as a source of inspiration; appraising

architecture. With leading architects

and evaluating these experiences in

such as Frank Gehry poised to design

hindsight has given us perspective into

a playground in Battery Park, New

what sort of environments might offer

York City, and an increased dialogue

an even greater sense of adventure and

revolving around the importance of the


aesthetic of play becoming more and more apparent in the mainstream media

Why are play and playgrounds becoming

(as evidenced in the numerous recent

relevant again? If we take present

radio interviews and newspaper articles

day New York City as an example of a

referenced in this thesis), playgrounds

microcosm for playground trends, we

are demonstrating themselves to not

can decipher that a decreased fear of

only be an opportunity to experiment

crime has allowed parents and schools to

with contemporary design and

enter into a new outlook on playspaces

engineering concepts but also a way for

as dictated by the recognition that

designers to contribute positively to the

unstructured play has been found to

next generation. Looking to architect

have a hugely positive affect on kids.

Herman Hertzberger – a leader in

Between 1930 and 1960, a steep decline

school design who believed he could,

during the 70s and 80s and a re-

through the design of schools, “define

emergence in the early part of the 21st

and influence the human condition”


(Hertzberger, 2008), one may begin


to understand the possibilities and

Increasingly, North American architects

potential that can come from successful

are looking towards Europe - especially

and creative playspace design by

Germany and the Netherlands - to

architects. There is a distinct feeling

understand how important early

of optimism associated with the

childhood play is to developing well-

development of any design project made

adjusted, confident adults

specifically for children – especially

(Ghomeshi, 2012). There is a distinct

those designed as a device for play.

difference in the way in which play is

“Children will not develop unless they have a risk. A child is not walking yet, one day they will stand up and use a chair or something to help them stand up. Then they will start to walk. All parents know that that is when a toddler starts to have accident. A bump on the head or the chin, whatever. Basically that child is standing there in a stable situation, moving into an unstable situation and putting themselves deliberately out of balance so that they can walk. We regain the balance. Without taking a risk, the child will never walk. Children learning to manage risk is evolutionary, it’s the only way that they will learn to understand themselves and the world around them.� - Harry Harbottle, Richter Spielgerate Playgrounds


valued throughout Europe.

(van den Bergen, 2002). Van Eyck’s

This movement exends away

preliminary designs proved successful,

from prescriptive, regulated and

and were well received. He went on to

unimaginative playgrounds and toward

design over 700 playgrounds across

“adventure” and “natural” playgrounds

Amsterdam, introducing fundamental

- changeable, moveable, malleable -

design elements that today would be

designed spaces which require kids to

considered essential to any playground.

take responsibility for their actions.

In addition to his most well known

This idea seems to only now be making

components - tumbling bars, igloo

its way to the forefront of the North

skeletons and central circles - van Eyck

American design discussion surrounding

also contributed the concept of a “non-

playspaces and playgrounds.

hierarchical” playground. His plans were scattered in nature, allowing children


to navigate space for themselves and devoid of imposed order as seen in

One of the most important influencers

previous examples of outdoor play for

of playground design, whose concepts

children. Van Eyck emphasized the

continue to be reflected in modern

importance of play equipment, and

playgrounds is Dutch architect Aldo

had children test out his playgrounds

van Eyck (1932-1981). At the age of

to ensure that they were effectively

28, shortly after the end of the Second

stimulating. Although many of these

World War, he joined the Department

playgrounds have since devolved or

of City Development in Amsterdam.

disappeared, van Eyck’s contribution to

Van Eyck referred to his city at the

playground typology resounds today.

time as existing in “year zero” due


to its post-war physical condition. He

Another highly influential authority on

recognized that with the city in such

playground design - one whose forty-

disrepair and an imminent baby boom

year contribution continues to this day

approaching, there was dire need for

- is American architect Richard Dattner

public playspaces. At a time when only

(born 1937). Dattner represents an

a few private playgrounds existed,

American perspective of playground

van Eyck took the opportunity to

design that pioneered the way for

exercise some larger architectural ideas

those who followed him. According to

his own writings, Datter was highly

That is, through a child’s experiences

influenced by not only van Eyck, but

and environment – either happy or

by the spontaneous and hap-hazard

traumatic – they are forced to process

post-war adventure playgrounds which

those experiences, sometimes without

sprung up in Birmingham and London,

the didactic and analytic tools of

England. Dattner’s own response

the adult brain and without previous

to the adventure playground occur

experiences to compare. How can we

predominantly throughout the States,

as designers insert ourselves into the

specifically in New York City. His most

process of childhood development and

famous playground, called Teardrop

improve these diffucult transitions? The

Park was built in 1966 (Trainor, 2012)

answer is: through play.

and succeeded in creating a diverse and provocative playground space. Complete

Dattner’s influence in playground design

with both sand and water features

stems from his accute attention and

(which Dattner himself deems to be

observation of childhood emotional and

the most important elements of play),

mental growth. In his book “Design

the park appeals to kids of all ages

for Play”, Dattner justified much of the

and accommodates them as they grow

design of his playground structures as

(Dattner, 1969).

they referred to the stages of childhood

fig. 22a

development; a process he categorized From his book “The Design of Play”:

into distinct stages, stating that “play is a child’s way of learning” (Dattner,

“Children translate their

1969). These stages, Dattner states,

experiences into a form that suits

help us to understand what kind of

their inner needs. This is a way of

playing is necessary to facilitate the type

understanding what happens to

of learning a kid should be engaged in at


a given age. Play behaviors as they exist (Dattner, 1969)

on “maintenance-free” playgrounds, Dattner states, can be quickly exhaus-

Dattner’s statement speaks to the

ted, leaving a bored and restless kid. As

ongoing and age-old debate amongst

they make their way through the stages

psychologists in the field of intellectual

of play, (from “symbolic play” at one

development theory and asks: is it

year old to regulated “rule-based” play

nurture or nature that takes precedence

around at age 8), we develop new skills.

in the emotional development of a child?

Dattner uses New York City as an 35

example when presenting the dilemma

the result is monotonous playgrounds.

of “introverted values” when it comes to

a way of determining that a sufficient

playground design. Indeed, more often

If we are to consider playground

amount of challenges are present

than not we observe a counter-intuitive

design as a way of testing out more

in their equipment while complying

hierarchy during the consultation

complex architectural ideas (as Dattner

with safety standards. The company

stages of playground design; more

suggests), we indeed understand

emphasizes that there should be certain

often than not it is municipal officials

playgrounds as a microcosm of the

appropriate precautions taken in order

and city workers rather than parents

adult world. By introducing kids to

to avoid serious injury, however they

and children themselves. It is through

dynamic playground environments,

promote a child’s access to independant,

this distorted hierarchy that one begins

we are equipping them with tools for

“free play” (Spielgerate, 2012).

to realize just how much power city

practice to begin to negotiate with

Construction details within Spielgerate

administrators have in comparison to

what will evenutally be essential skills

playgrounds have a loose style, with

the voices of kids and parents when it

in their adult lives. Therefore, it is our

natural, untreated wood as the primary

comes to the design process of many,

duty as designers to provide complex,

material. Atmosphere is of the upmost

if not most, public playspaces. Dattner

intricate and interesting playspaces to

importance, with an emphasis on each

observes that often -- in the interest

appropriately encourage and equip pre-

playground’s particular site. Connection

of longevity, budgetary concerns and

adolescent minds.

with the site is takes precedence,

the avoidance of lawsuits -- playground

and it is through this connection that

plans are reduced to a “barren, concrete

A playground should be an atmosphere,

Spielgerate’s playgrounds aim to evoke

wasteland of indestructible, prescriptive

rather than a set of individual

an adventurous spirit from their users.

and unimaginative play equipment” –

components. As Dattner puts it: “The

structures that are purposefully as non-

whole point of play is that you can

Finally, one of the most comprehensive

controversial as possible (Dattner, 1969).

fail,” meaning one learns the physical

resources on playground design today is

Despite the fact that typical playgrounds

boundaries of their body by falling and

a blog called Playscapes. Updated almost

have a life expectancy of only ten

failing (Dattner, 1969). These lessons

every day, this site offers an ongoing

to twenty years (due to a number of

are important in negotiating one’s own

and current review of playground design

factors – the natural growth, expansion

limits, which change and develop as we

from across the world. The site, which

and evolution of the urban city being


was started five years ago, has grown

the primary one), there is an over-


“appropriate risk benefit assessment”,

immensely in popularity, now boasting

arching drive to install indestructible,

A figure at the forefront of modern

approximately 100,000 page views a

maintenance-free playgrounds that will

playground design is a company called

month. (Playscapes, 2012). When the

match future safety codes. With the

Richter Spielgerate, whose work is

blog was first launched, there were very

overly emphasized preoccupation with so

particularly prominent in Germany.

minimal resources available.

many logistical and budgetary concerns,

Spielgerate’s playgrounds emphasize

Now, however, there exist countless

results for when searching for “playground design.� This ongoing access to news regarding playground developments, interviews with designers and suggested reading have been instrumental in staying in touch with the most recent and relevant playground design today. As the conversation about the importance of evocative, risk-beneficial playgrounds extends, designers will continue to be afforded an opportunity to engage and personally affect change in the psychological and physical development of children. By educating ourselves as to how playspaces can inspire and challenge children at pivotal times in their mental, physical and social development, we can begin to explore exactly how to design environments that will be exemplify these qualities.

fig 22b. Richter-Spielgeraete playground 37

As a way of uncovering the relationship between the design of playgrounds and the physical and mental development of a child, the process of design is used as research tool. Utilizing action research equips the designer with a process through which to investigate, one that operates in a cyclical structure. Introduced by Cal Swann (2002) in a paper entitled “Action Research and the Process of Design”, there is always a problem that is identified as the starting point to a design research pursuit. A designer’s job then becomes to solve this problem through social examination, contribution and planning. Abiding by the action research method requires the inquiry to occur alongside the practice. That is, by identifying the starting point of the research as an “act” and ending in “reflect,” the designer is effectively armed with a structured path through which to begin their investigation. This cyclical path is effective in that it so perfectly complements the process of design – a process unique to each individual. To examine one’s own design process in comparison to that of action research is to understand a unique structure: a guideline, to be sure, but also a starting point from which to deviate if the design so requires. Beyond being complementary, Swann argues that action research in fact requires the design research process in order to be effective. Throughout this thesis, the process of research through design was used so as to create playspaces that truly reflected the imagination and adventure of childhood. By reflecting upon the wonderment and innocence that is experienced only by young kids who are just learning about themselves in the world, the process of designing became about emphasizing adventure and suppressing “adult” notions of strict practicality. The design process for researching playgrounds and playspaces relied on case studies, personal stories and accounts, explorations of space and structure and finally an examination of how to realistically implement these findings within North America.


fig. 22





Early brainstorming for possible thesis

To grasp the most rudimentary fundamentals

To expand the scope of physical actions

directions required an inventory of not only

of design for children, specfically in the

that a playground potentially facilitates, an

personal interests but personal experiences

interest of childhood development, 3D

exercise in colour blocking and open-ended

so as to create a first hand narrative which

modelling was used to distill complex ideas

word flow was undertaken. While keeping

would direct the research. Taking stock

into a physical form. Through research, and

in mind concepts of both physical space

of resources, existing knowledge of work

by examining the history of spaces designed

and notions of movement and progression,

already done in the field allowed a narrowing

for children, an understanding of the spirit

overlapping colour blocks allowed for a sort

of focus. With a background in architecture

of play began to emerge. By keeping the

of puzzle-piecing concept of a playground

and an acute interest in how space affects

narrative light-hearted and child-like, there

plan. Playspaces are in and of themselves

human interaction on a day-to-day basis,

came about an understanding of the role

an active environment, though it is crucial

the process of mapping ideas resulted in a

that wonder and innocence should play

to maintain space for the vast and complex

realization of the depth and vastness of the

throughout the thesis research process.

set of activities which must be facilitated.

topic of design for children.

As children develop, they become interested and engaged in new and different types of play which a playground must accommodate.





As part of NSCAD’s collaboration with



the Dalhousie School of Architecture, the

Through conversations with kids and parents

Designing in plan, the ability to think

oppurtunity to participate in to a two week

regarding their personal relationship with

spatially about a child’s experience within a

long design-build studio afforded experience

the spaces available for them to play, a

playground became a way to organize and

working for and with Camp Brigadoon in the

conversation began to form in which both

exercise architectural concepts as well as

Annapolis Valley, Nova Scotia. Beginning

positive and negative issues were broached.

employ theories of child psychology and how

with site analysis, preliminary charettes with

Access, safety, diversity, size and interest

kids respond to physical space. By combining

both administration and young campers,

from the children themselves were all factors

these two schools of thoughts in a visual

the concept for a series of two-tiered firepit

which contributed to a new dialogue, and an

medium, notions of dynamic and constructive

benches were developed. By remaining on

oppurtunity to think critically and demand

playspaces begin to emerge.

site throughout the entire process, the design

more from playgrounds provided.

team was able to best understand the needs of the client, and the feel of the camp itself.


fig. 24 42


The playground typology that North American cities and schools have come to accept as standard is one that fails to provide sufficient challenges to a child’s physical, social and psychological development. According to playground expert Alex Smith, author of “Playground Chronicles”, we as Canadians, in particular, have “typecast” our playspaces. When it comes to playground design and implementation, the importance is wrongly placed on avoiding injury at any cost and pleasing inevitably apprehensive parent who may be unaware of the benefits of challenging playspaces. Playgrounds have become passive due to their ubiquitous nature; and because they are so common, many North American parents and educators have ceased to challenge their very nature. It is by looking to other countries, specifically those in Europe, that we may be able to once again rouse an interest – even a demand – for more dynamic, challenging and inspiring playgrounds. There is an undeniable enthusiasm for playground design by designers and architects worldwide. Through research, it appears clear that the attitudes towards playground design in Germany and the Netherlands could serve as invaluable tools to understanding not only what our playgrounds are lacking but also what we as designers in North America can strive towards.

fig. 25 44

With the help of funding and bursaries through NSCAD University, an itinerary was formed for embarking upon a “playground tour� of Berlin, Germany and Amsterdam, the Netherlands. These destinations had shown through research, to offer the most diverse mix of rich playground history as well as new, experimental playscapes. Note-taking, sketching, photography, comparative study and the experience of first-hand observation proved invaluable to the design research process. Being on-site allowed for a full analysis of the structures themselves, their relationship to their site, the ways in which they were used by both children and parents and the overall atmosphere and attitudes toward play in Europe.

fig. 26


Kolle 37 is an example of a modern-day adventure playground. Located in the affluent neighbourhood of Prenzlauer Berg in Berlin, the playground was constructed entirely by children aged 6 to 16 over the course of the past 20 years. A larger park and an organic farmer’s market nearby support and provide services to the neighbourhood such as bicycle rentals and a clay oven. Children who visit are invited to make use of the tool shed - which contains shovels, hammers, crow bars, nails and wood - and contribute to the ongoing and constantly evolving treehouse structures. Kolle 37 seems impervious to issues of safety as it self-governs and is only open to the public when there is adult supervision. It is financed by the district of BerlinPankow, and is staffed mainly by volunteers. It is estimated that on any given day, between 30 and 100 children visit the playground, contributing to its structural evolution. The spirit of adventures playgrounds such as Kolle 37 is one that could not be replicated by a predetermined design scheme. It is the unrestricted, spontaneous nature of the construction that allows for its infectious sense of experimentation and exploration; a place where children can truly take ownership over their playspace.

fig. 27

ruler found near site fig. 28 46

Located in Winterfelderplatz, a mainly commercial area in Berlin, “Rubber Playground� is unlike anything observed in North America. A tall, arched steel frame acts as the support to an intricate series of thick rubber sheets, which take form as swaying platforms, slides and arches. The structure is a 3D labyrinth, one that requires both hands and feet to manoeuvre. Rubber Playground offers challenges for children of all ages, some content to bounce on the giant rubber sheets close to the ground, others venturing to the top of the apparatus, negotiating the maze of rope and platforms. The playground’s designer, BerlinerSeilfabrik abides by a philosophy that all playgrounds should inspire movement, thus their materials are in constant flux, helping children to develop balance and spatial

fig. 29

negotiating skills.


left column: Gorlizer’s fortress-like tower peaks left: Pages from on-site sketchbook

fig. 30

below: A bridge 6 feet off the ground, a 10 foot tall climbing log, chain bridge - all elements observed at Golizer park that would most likely be considered “too dangerous for young kids” in North America.

fig. 31 Situated in a densely forested park in Berlin’s trendy Kreuzberg neighbourhood, the approach to Gorlizer Park is one of discovery. The playground itself is vast, with massive wooden structures of various heights and sizes and areas dedicated to both quiet, independent play and adventurous group activities. There is a clear hierarchy to the narrative of Gorlizer, with an immediately determinable “highest peak” at the top of one of its many fortress-like structures. However, the plan of the playground is scattered, and the diverse areas for play are separated. The theme of medieval battle carries throughout, emphasized by sword and shield symbolism, archaic water and sand hoisting mechanisms and drawbridge-like bridges that lead from one tower to the next. The verticle elements of the playground offer an exaggerated sense of scale to small kids, who dart from one structure to the next, playing games of battle. Aside from the towers, the park includes see-saws, vewrtical “tree” elements for hiding, metal tube slides and sandboxes. A series of benches surround Gorlizer, for parents to sit and observe their children at play. Playspaces with overarching themes or narratives have the danger of stagnating the imagination of kids who play there. However, there is a difference between telling a child what a structure is (a boat, a plane) and setting a stage for a game or story to unfold.


This structure, observed at the playground in Tiergarten Park, Berlin, welcomes kids of all ages. Standing at about seven meters tall, the pyramid is certainly a force to be reckoned with for a small child, and many were observed approaching it with calculated excitement, some even participating after being encouraged by parents. Structures such as these require both hands and feet to climb, making them not only safe, but also engaging and challenging for kids. There is a sense of progression as a child gathers the courage to climb as high as she feels 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 in 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 feels supported, as often the fear projected by a supervising adult can result in self-doubt.

fig. 32 49

During the early stages of thesis development, preliminary paintings became a tool through which to express intentionally naive and uninhibited forms of expression. The concept of “thinking from the viewpoint of a child” is essential to a successful playground design. A child’s imagination is limitless, and devoid of the pragmatism which often can cloud the creativity of an adult designer. In an effort to evoke this innocent state of mind, and experiment with creating weightless, uninhibited concepts for playspaces, the method of creating free, loose paintings was instituted. Using bright colours, large canvases and a stream of consciousness way of navigating the page, the result was a series of paintings that demonstrate early ideas for play, free of the logic of scale or structure. This methodology provided fresh, unrestrained preliminary concepts for playspaces which otherwise may not have been conceivable. Stepping into the mindset of a child in a playspace brings about the nostalgia of innocence and wonderment. Through creating a series of paintings with limitless, weightless design concepts, safety and liability are not of concern, and playground design can return to abstracted, imaginative concepts - free of restricted “adult” logic.


left: an exploration of positive and negative space, pathways and program right: by exploring concepts of weightless play, possibilities for connections and climbing become infinite

left: a continuation of weightless play as a design strategy, this exploration introduces a concept of soft surfaces right: a consideration of the child’s perspective of navigation through a playground, watercolour paint dictates and informs theories of orientation

left: an exploration of geometry and progression as a design strategy for a playground right: colour and pathways as primary approach to a playground in plan

fig. 33 51

Rapid protyping allows for design to take an immediate form, to flesh out a series of ideas. The outcome of this process is a 3D model, one that intends to condense and inform design questions. In the investigation toward creating dynamic, provocative playspaces, it became clear that in order to conceive of truly creative space, one must first identify a way to think of play in a more abstract sense. Creating small plaster models, punctuated with random tunnels and crawlspaces, set up a narrative to explore what a playground model might look like in three dimensions. These small models serve as an example of free, experimental concepts.

fig. 34

fig. 35 52

Play therapy is a form of psychotherapy most often employed with children under 11 in the interest of resolving some trauma or suppressed emotions, or to help work through challenges. Using play as a tool for communicating, children are able to express themselves on their own terms; the therapy is often unguided and self-navigated, with the therapist on hand to interpret and encourage communication. Play therapy has a long history and continues to be recognized today as a successful tool for helping a child communicate his or her emotions. According to Dr. Angela MacKay, “play therapy taps into the creative resources of all involved” (MacKay, 2012). Dr. Mackay feels confident that her therapy has been successful once the child is not anxious to go outside and play with their friends. “Temperament and attachment” are variables that predict behavior, and there are ways that play therapists are able to categorize children so as to better treat and diagnose them. Uncovering the benefits of play therapy allowed for a more thorough understanding of the importance of play to childhood development. Dr. MacKay’s emphasis of a child’s need to execute control over their environment lends itself to the playground’s role as a space in which to learn the skills of negotiation, collaboration, recovery from failure, social governing and leadership, among others. One important tool, according to MacKay, is the act of “scaffolding.” This refers to the need to offer support and confidence to a child during play, building their independence and finally allowing them to negotiate a situation for themselves. It is fundamental to a child’s

fig. 37

entrance into a wider social understanding and to the benefits of calculated risk.


so how do we get kids

& away from the

S C R E E N S ?

1. Playground Book: a template for the analysis, observation and evaluation of playgrounds 2. Playground Stories: the gathering of personal histories as a means of reflecting upon how playgrounds shape us as children 3. Places2Play: a proposal for an app with which to locate reviewed playgrounds within a city

fig. 38 56

When one looks at a city – be it their own or one they are visiting, there is much that can be learned from the examination and observation of the playgrounds within it. Location, size, scale, diversity, apparatus; playgrounds can serve as a microscope through which one can begin to understand attitudes of the city itself. Although there exist countless factors which contribute to both the quality and quantity of playgrounds within any given city, often these factors can often be indicative of the city’s attitude toward play itself, and ultimately the attitudes toward how children – their future citizens - should be raised. Through the research of countless playgrounds, both within Canada, the US and Europe, it became obvious that in order to properly extract both quantitative and qualitative information, a database would be required. Photography and sketching is invaluable, as is first hand observation of the way in which each playground was engaged by its #1 user (the kid). However, what was deemed to be missing was a way to compile the information gathered into a concrete set of data. This required the formulation of a template – one that would allow each playground visit to be distilled into a pre-conceived set of categories. These categories would allow the playgrounds to be analyzed from a critical and concrete standpoint. Prior to embarking on a trip to study and analyze playgrounds in Berlin and Germany, it was paramount to design a tool to succinctly and methodically record my findings. Thus came about the concept of a Playground Studies – a recording template specifically designed to record both the structural components of each playground - size, scale, material - but also observations pertaining to the nature of the space; how kids interact with the equipment, the freedom given to take risks and use imagination. Playground Studies could be used as an ongoing research tool for city workers, municipal governments, landscape architects, educators, parents and designers. By filling in the categories provided by the template, one begins to be able to both quantify and qualify the value of each playground. From there, we can understand which playspaces are successful and which are lacking. 57

fig. 39

fig. 40 58

fig. 41

fig. 42 59

fig. 43

fig. 44 60

fig. 45

fig. 46 61

fig. 47

fig. 48 62

fig. 49

fig. 50 63

fig. 51


Playground Studies acted as a recording template through which to organize and quantify observations of playgrounds in Berlin, Amsterdam, Toronto, Halifax and St John’s. Although these locations certainly do not offer a fully comprehensive perspective of international playground design, they may focus understanding enough to draw some early conclusions. The Playground Studies recording template is a tool through which one may focus their understanding of a playground by interpreting the most fundamental elements (size, scale, material, details) in parallel with more emic specifics (observations as to how kids play, where they gravitate to, integration of the structures into their site.) Factors such as weather, season and time of day must be considered as variables when taking into account the activity of a playground at the time of observation. Such a template would best be used after school or during recess, should the playground belong to a school. Research throughout this thesis has suggested that avoidance of adventurous playground design is due to a lack of awareness. Perhaps by presenting examples of case studies of successful, beneficial play structures to communities, parents and schools could expand their imaginations beyond standardized play structures. Perhaps by presenting examples of successful, effective “case studies” to communities that might only be aware of the standardized playstructures, parents and schools might expand their imaginations. Every playground is different, as are the cultural perspectives through which they are understood. Our individual perceptions of playground typology resound, yet concepts regarding the purpose of delegated time and space for kids to play varies drastically. When educating municipal playground officials about the importance of providing risk-beneficial, evocative playspaces to encourage productive play experiences, it is crucial to first take inventory of what already exists. Budgets and safety regulations reign supreme when it comes to the decision of who gets to build and what gets built in the design of public playgrounds. By providing a recording template for playground analysis, parents, city workers and even kids themselves are equipped with a tool to evaluate and measure the playgrounds that exist in their jurisdiction and beyond. To recognize and compare what they lack and where they excel in both qualitative and quantitative categories. Subjecting a playground to such analysis allows the user to become critical. This recording template equips them with a document through which to understand how a playground measures up and to determine its full potential. The template can be used as a tool for change; by understanding the positive and negative aspects of playground design in an organized, clear and qualitative form.


Ashton Deschambeault, age 9 Riverview, NB

Julia Jackson, age 27 Halifax, Nova Scotia My small elementary school had a wonderful playground. It was all wood beams and metal slides and rope ladders and gravel and seemed to blend in to the nature surrounding it. Safety wasn’t much of a concern back then and we were allowed free reign over the playground kingdom. I remember playing Marco Polo with my best friend Emily, and she was chasing after me up onto the top level of the two story playground. There was a section of wall that was missing so you could slide down a pole, and one minute Emily was there, blindfold and all, and the next she was gone. Having fallen off the playground, she broke both wrists, her collar bone and bit clear through her top lip. She still has a scar there. After that, they tore out the unsafe playground, replacing it with rubber fl oors, primary colors and plastic, making it look like every other playground in the city. Sometimes I walk up to my old school and look at it. the space still holds memories, but seems unfamiliar, and I wonder if the change of playground has kept other kids safe. I grew up downtown, my brother and I roamed the streets and harbourfront. Although we had many places to play as kids, my favourite haunt was always the boat playground. I had a particularly special bond with it, as my dad built it the year I was born. As I aged, it aged with me, the wood turning from brown to grey, the rope shredding then disappearing altogether, the steering wheel rusting. I played on that boat for years, and still visited it as I grew out of playground games.

fig. 52

My fi rst memory of a park is my Dad’s park. It was a swing set that he built and it had climbing bars across the top. I would climb and swing with my friends all the time. Erin Hall, age 34 Port Dover, Ontario The elementary school playground I remember best was at Port Dover Public School, where I went from Kingergarten through grade six. It doesn’t exist anymore, but there were actually two playgrounds. The K-2 one was fairly small and contained, with just one big jungle gym-type structure. The gr. 3-6 side was much bigger, with a similar multi-part jungle gym, and then more swings, a set of monkey bars and a long narrow section with a zip line.

My school park now is great because it’s great to run around in. My ultimate play park would have monkey bars and it would have a long zip line. When we went camping once there was a park with a huge blow-up trampoline - it was so much fun. I would also like to have a climbing wall in a play park.

Both the playgrounds were really new and made of this nice light-coloured wood - they actually might have been built while I went there, My major playground-related memory from that time was when I was in grade 2 - I was in a split 2/3 class and partway through grade 2 the teacher and my parents decided I would skip into grade 3, and I was so upset because I’d have to move to the new one and wouldn’t be able to see them at recess anymore. I didn’t care anymore after like the fi rst day because the older kids’ playground was so much better. It was also better than the playground at my next school (Doverwood Public) - I wasn’t too concerned because I was in grades 7 & 8 and who needs playgrounds then, but the PDPS just looked so much nicer with the blonde wood instead of colourful metal or plastic, like the ugly plastic ones you see today.

Jennifer Burns Deschambeault, age 39 Hatfi eld Point, New Brunswick I remember going to a park with a metal merrygo-round. It was so scary to me but every day I would go on it and hold on for dear life as my friends spun it around faster and faster. I have no idea how no one was thrown to their death! As a parent, the biggest fear I would have is my child falling and hitting their head as the boys love to climb. We used to go to a play park that had tiny black rubber “pellets” for a foundation. It left black residue on our hands but the ground was so safe and soft.

Richard Light, age 30 Toronto, Ontario

Gage Deschambeault, age 15 Riverview, New Brunswick

I am not exactly sure when the massive, wooden and cement structure that was formerly the centerpiece of the Frankland Community School’s playground was constructed but it was surely in a time before concerns about children safety were overriding. Of course because the design seemed to not take in to account the wellbeing of children it was also incredibly fun place to play. It could stand in almost anything in a child’s vivid imagination and easily accommodated hundreds of us every recess. My friends and I were fortunate enough have access to it right before its demise in the mid-1990s.

My earlier childhood memory of a playground was across the street from our house in Manitoba. It had a rocket ship structure that was made out of bars that I would climb through and on it. It also had a really high swing where my Mom and Dad would “under-duck” me, I loved that. When we moved to Saskatchewan the park we went to everyday was pretty plain but the tire swings would spin around so fast. They were pretty dangerous but it was so fun to do tricks on them. Another park I used to go to had a all of “webs” where you could climb on the ropes. I liked it a lot. It also had these ropes that had platforms on each rope that you could step across – my friends and I would race across them. This park also had a very cool design that I like a lot. The main parts you had to climb on were bright red. My elementary school play park was so great because it had bridges that connect every part so we could play “don’t touch the ground” and you had lots of places to go. My ultimate play park would have a base of sand so it would be soft if you fell. It would have very cool designs and colours. It would have very tall swings and tire swings. It would be really big with lots of space for playing tag. It would have a lot of things to climb on, and a merry go round. It would have a big open space to run around.

Cheryl Hawkes, age 63 Toronto, Ontario I had two childhood playgrounds - one at my elementary school and the one at our local park. My school playground was a blank canvas on which we played out a million fantasies - huge expanses of brick walls to play throwing games and wide open spaces of concrete which we were free to gather and talk or play. Behind us, was a huge playing fi eld - where, I suppose, there were games of other sorts. Mainly our playground games were products of our imaginations. And I suppose that is the most important thing about them - children needed to be less directed, more open to invention, with less ‘furniture’, few prescriptions for play and fewer cautions. No one’s mother phoned the school to demand we be forbidden to slip and slide on our ice patches in the playground. We just had to be more careful! The second playground I remember was in our local park. I think SWINGS are the best playground invention ever - and remain that way. I also remember “Monkey Bars” which we clambered all over and hung from the top bars by our knees for hours! The important thing was that we were outdoors summer and winter. As for how that all compares with today’s playgrounds, hard to say. I feel crowded at playgrounds now - too much furniture, too many bright colours (the Dufferin Grove playground is different, more creative), too much plastic and too much terror of ‘accidents’. What is that saying - ‘When things don’t go the way you want, that’s where learning begins.’ There has to be an element of risk to all of this otherwise why call them PLAYgrounds.



The basic layout was a long, multi-level wooden bridge, probably a few hundred feet across, stretching over a sandy, sunken playground. 2 orange, plastic slides descended steeply from the top of the bridge in to the western side of the sand pit while, even more treacherously, 2 orange “climbing” tubes rose up vertically from the eastern side, connecting with the smaller, upper level. I have fond memories of this place: Children running and chasing each other across the bridge and along the cement walls; play (and real) fighting at the top of the structure; the digging of vast, purposeless pits in the dark underside of the bridge; massive games of football or British bulldog overtaking the large, open sandy areas. It was an extremely fun place for a child. There was supervision but it was limited. A few teachers at the outskirts are all I can think of. They must have patrolled the structure itself but for the most part it seemed as they we had relative freedom of movement within the place. Kind of like prisoners in the yard. A rambunctious friend of mine was once dragged away by his arm by our stern first-grade teacher for some infraction but this was rare and he must have done something quite naughty to bring this upon himself. For the most part I remember us being left to our own devices. At some point after I graduated in 1994 the bridge – the centre piece of our playground – was torn down. I am sure because of safety issues. Last I checked the cement wall was still in place but there were only a few small, benign play structures in the centre area. I think a similar fate has befallen the other grand and terribly unsafe play-structures that elementary schools in my neighbourhood also had. I certainly enjoyed ours and still sort of miss it when I walk by my school. It also gives me some pride that we grew up with a “real” playground that came with an element of danger. We weren’t coddled. Then again, I would never let a child of mine onto monstrosity like that today.

Commonalities within Playground Stories referred to speciďŹ c incident mentioned danger or fear referred to a speciďŹ c playground incident mentioned danger or fear referred to a playground that no longer exists mentioned taking a risk referred to other kids



fig. 53

Places2Play is a concept for a smartphone compatible application that would serve as a map-based directory to municipal playgrounds worldwide. As an extension of the principles behind Playground Book, which suggests a comprehensive inventory of city playgrounds, the Places2Play app would provide location-based information about all public playgrounds in a given city and make a list available through a refined search engine. Parents could use Places2Play as a comprehensive guide of great playspaces in foreign cities while travelling with young kids. Existing databases that provide information about playgrounds are scattered, outdated and disorganized. Parents travelling with young kids could use Places2Play as an itinerary building tool, compatible with their iCalendars and GoogleMaps. Often, a city’s best playgrounds are tucked away in areas far from popular tourist areas and hotel districts. When using the app on a trip to Europe, for example, North American parents could participate in a play experience that they may have never otherwise experienced. “Playground Tourism” is a budding industry, with guided tours increasingly popping up in cities like Berlin and Amsterdam. In addition to navigating unfamiliar cities, Places2Play has the potential to reveal playgrounds within a family’s own city that they never knew about. Exploring new neighbourhoods and introducing new playscapes to kids is an important experience, one that is often overlooked. Frequently, children build relationships with their “home playground,” be it at the park near their home, in their backyard, or at their elementary school. Taking a supervised trip to a playground outside of one’s neighbourhood provides the opportunity for a child to step out of their comfort zone, negotiate new equipment and overcome new physical challenges. At the time of publication, an existing app with which to locate and retrieve information about playgrounds and their locations was not known to be available.


fig. 54


How does the experience of play shape our day-to-day reality? What makes an environment playful? Is it possible to extend the experience of learning through play into a broader meaning? So much of a child’s early conceptions of himself, his peers, his parents and the world around him are developed through play. Physical play allows a child to interact and negotiate the world around him, all the while gaining a broader set of experiences from which to function. On the playground, for example, a child’s understanding of the consequences of risk might be formed by jumping off a platform that they are told is off limits; it is only by personally experiencing the emotions associated with danger and fear that the child is armed with the emotional touchstone to which they may relate and recall. These experiences give context, build confidence and incite curiosity. As a way of extending ideas of play within an everyday setting, we must reflect on what inspires us to play. As compiled in Playground Stories (page 72), practically every adult can recall with great detail their early experiences with play; the physical setting, the emotions experienced, the repercussions of certain behaviours and how these experiences affect them today. As part of the Master of Design thesis exposition – a gallery environment, one of quiet observation – there arose an opportunity to experiment with creating a playful space. Intruducing a playful space in an otherwise “unplayful” environment requires a reflection upon the elements we associate with play. a poster developed for Master of Design thesis expo


Swing Installation Arguably the most iconic element of playground typology, the swing represents the essence of play. This simple device allows its user to experience a momentary feeling of perfect freedom - the sensation of flying. Often found attached to a metal frame in a playground, hanging from a giant willow tree bough, even the skeleton of a highway billboard, swings evoke our most primitive desire to play. By installing a swing in the studio, this desire could be keenly observed; how would people react to this playful element in an unexpected setting? What does their instinct tell them? Was their sense of fun outweighed by safety concerns or the danger of looking silly? Indeed, the spirit of the swing prevailed. As visitors circulated throughout the room, they were often drawn to the swing yet hesitant as to if they were “allowed” to sit and engage with it. Once encouraged, the result was infectious. Others awaited their turn, and many gravitated toward the sense of play, each with a distinct smile. Playground Sounds There is something undeniably reminiscent of childhood when listening to the sound of a crowded playground. Children laughing, the open sky, the clanging of equipment – it is truly a beautiful orchestra of joy, adventure and spirit. Inspired by the nostalgic nature of the playground soundtrack, the idea of recording and installing audio of playground noises came about as a means of further evoking a playful environment in the studio. The sounds were subtle and uninvasive in their familiarity. Often it took visitors a minute or two to respond or react to the playground noises; perhaps this is because in our urban environment, it is not unusual to hear kids playing in groups - in schoolyards or simply out on the street. The playground sounds did however seem to evoke a sense of joy and calm in most visitors, some remarking that they felt comforted by the sound.

images from thesis expo


The time has come to reconsider our approach to the urban playground. The abundance of standardized playgrounds we see in North America can be attributed to our tendency to regard every activity through the lens of liability and to a parenting culture that equates child safety with the avoidance of risk at every possible turn. The role of the media in promulgating this obsession for dramatic effect cannot be ignored. The result is that our playground do not offer the full potential benefits of time spent playing. With time devoted to outdoor, physical recreation so limited, it is essential to consider what harm is being done by making our playgrounds so developmentally limiting. Indeed, the standard urban “playground” we see today is just that; mass-manufactured, predictable and unimaginative. Yet it has come to be widely accepted as an adequate solution, a sufficient contribution to a community playground. Such a model serves as a gesture of play, and one that will satisfy and pacify parents who are easily unnerved by their children exhibiting “risky” behaviour. Additionally, with city budgets usually quite modest in the playground department, the most sensible solution is a reliable manufacturer with equipment that can safely accommodate the lowest level of risk-taking. There is a widely accepted perception that standardized playground equipment will protect children from injury while providing adequate access to “play”; often in the form of a modest slide, restricted swings, a ladder or two, etc. Studies suggest, however, that injuries have not decreased in the last ten years; some experts even suggest that such standardization has made kids desensitized to the physical negotiation skills acquired through unsystematic play structures. By providing only predictable, simple structures for play, children are not forced to engage with both hands and feet. This can leave them susceptible to boredom and disengagement, which can cause injury. According to Harry Harbottle, leader of innovative and “risk beneficial” playground manufacturer Richter Spielgerate: “We have become so risk averse, we are in danger of long term damage to our children. We must reverse this trend, corrective action is urgently required. Children must learn to manage risk”. Add to this hesitation the fear of liability and a pre-emptive avoidance of implications toward a dangerous environment and it is not hard to see how it is that we find ourselves in such a dull, drab (albeit blindingly colourful) playground landscape. While this thesis has not delved into economic issues, it is important to mention that when considering the implementation of a site-specific, custom manufactured playground, there are often misconceptions that may eliminate them from consideration. It is an undeniable fact that to build a “destination” playground – one unique to its city – there are far more specialists that must be considered in order to bring it to fruition: a landscape architect, metal or plastic fabricators, designers, engineers. Such an endeavour may be dismissed as too costly, especially when compared to picking a pre-designed, pre-fabricated playground


kit-of-parts that requires no more than the click of a mouse and a few hours of construction. However, the benefits of introducing a unique, custom playspace to a city are numerous: an increase in family-fuelled tourism, a new gathering space for communities and parents, the opportunity to extend the playground environment (organic garden, pizza oven, meeting spaces, art classes), and most of all, the significant effect that comes from providing a dynamic destination playspace, one that citizens can feel proud of. For a city such as Halifax – equipped with over 300 well maintained, moderately fun, equally dull playgrounds – we must look for opportunities to invigorate and unite our young families. A large public space such as the Commons or Point Pleasant Park would thrive with the introduction of an evocative, original playspace. Highly trafficked public spaces with an abundance of natural features offer an array of possibilities as a playground site. Kids living in urban environments, which accounts for a growing proportion population, are often highly scheduled and as such, are arguably deprived of time allotted solely for physical play. Kids who live in urban environments crave a sense of control over their environment; in most cases, they are sharing their space. In a playground setting, the urban child has the chance to negotiate, manipulate and influence their own sphere. We as designers have an opportunity to expand the minds of parents, educators and municipal officials to the benefits of evocative playspaces. Perhaps the principal at a creative child’s elementary school has never even seen the soaring, winding playgrounds created by German office ANNABAU or the hand-knitted rainbow dream world from the imagination of Nova Scotia based artist Toshiko Horiuchi McAdam. By expanding our perceptions of playspaces, we might evoke a new avenue for designers, one with countless opportunities for both employment and creativity. Finally, it is essential to consider the benefit that the individual child gains from their interaction with an engaging playground. Kids who are encouraged to play hard, take risks and get creative will throw themselves into play and expand their imaginations. Playing hard builds confidence, founds creativity and even fosters concentration within the classroom and at home. Kids who are presented with challenging play environments develop into adults that are better equipped to negotiate a given situation, assert confidence and leadership and express empathy. The skills we develop on the playground equip us with the most important tools we can use as adults. Surely it is not necessary for every playground to be original, evocative and custom-built according to spec; indeed, kid’s imaginations can make a spaceship out of a cardboard box. A small playstructure is certainly better than no playstructure at all, but it is time to promote our ideas as to the typology of “playground”. Let us educate ourselves as designers, expand our ideas to parents, schools and cities and begin to create playspaces that truly engage and inspire kids to play.


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MacKay, Dr. A. (Interview). Child Psychologist and Play Therapist. Interviewed February 4, 2013, Halifax, Nova Scotia. McGinn, D. (November 24 2012). Forget Monkey Bars. Let Them Be Monkeys. The Globe and Mail, F5. O’Hara, S. (2009). What is the Impact of Technology on Learning? Pearson Education Ltd. Retrieved December 13. 2012 from: http://www. Pappas, S. (2011). As Schools Cute Recess, Kids’ Learning Will Suffer, Experts Say. LiveScience Online Journal. Retrieved October 4, 2012 from Richter Spielgerate Website. (2012). Retrieved December 1, 2012. from:, Shin, L. (2011). “Safe” Playgrounds Could Be Stunting Emotional Development, Studies Say. SmartPlanet website. Retrieved February 2, 2013 from: Smith, A. (Interview) Author of Interviewed March 15, 2013, Halifax, Nova Scotia. Smith, A. Halifax Plays: to play is divine. A Halifax playground blog. 78

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from the Playground UP!  

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