A New Look at Playscapes in the Built Environment
For many of us, the past year of zoom gloom reinforced the insight that excessive time spent indoors, hooked to technology, is related to many modern-day behavioural issues related to attention and mood, especially among children and teens. Yet beyond a simple ‘opting outside’, what exactly constitutes an optimal outdoor playscape? How much designing do such spaces need? How much is simply about spending time in nature? And what kind of ‘nature’ can families access in today’s urban and suburban environments?
More than twenty years ago, a thematic issue of Built Environment aptly critiqued traditional playgrounds as ‘insignificant, underestimated and ignored’ sites in the city. Another 20+ years before that, the great British anarchist social historian Colin Ward had already famously proclaimed that ‘one should be able to play everywhere easily, loosely and not forced into a playground or a park’ (Ward, 1978). Our summer 2021 issue of Built Environment thus takes another look at ‘playscapes’ in cities, with a particular focus on how nature or natural elements have been reincorporated into playgrounds – but also how other, virtual, artificial or ‘smart’ elements of play are competing, complementing or otherwise influencing the way children and young adults are experiencing the outdoors. We took a broad view, understanding ‘playscapes’ as important locales in our urbanized environments that by no means have to feature classic play structures such as swings, teeter-totters, or sand boxes. We also acknowledge that access to nature has become an important environmental justice issue, as many studies show that higher socioeconomic status is closely correlated with superior access to green spaces.
The issue draws its original inspiration from a pre-pandemic winter 2020 academic study trip to Sweden and Denmark where my students and I were exposed to the best examples of outdoor playscapes that Scandinavia has to offer. A special highlight was a magical day on Stockholm’s Lidingö Islandwith Siw Linde, the founder of the Swedish Rain-or-Shine forest preschool network, and a group of two dozen preschoolers and their teachers where we experienced the true power of the Skogsmulle love of the outdoors (Friluftsliv) pedagogy. The clever, safe use of sticks, rocks but also of adult-size sharp tools to engage in play and simple woodwork and bushcraft exercises was a recurring theme during the rest of our visit. We also learned that nature schools can offer much more engaging ways to learn traditional subjects such as math or English. Scandinavian pedagogies are based on the firm belief that children must remain connected with nature even if they grow up in cities and suburbs. A key insight was that natural playscapes may indeed be designed and edited – yet what matters is that these playscapes are deeply and consciously integrated into our built environment and our daily experiences and learning.
As I pondered how to put these often very practical lessons back into an academic context, I soon realized that the Scandinavian contributions I had solicited after my study trip would be best paired with stories from places where outdoor pedagogies are less firmly rooted in national culture and education. Another important goal was to give voice to practitioners in addition to academics. This is the main reason the issue opens with a wonderful autobiographical essay by Danish landscape architect Helle Nebelong. Her insightful personal account of how she came to be convinced that ‘nature is the best place for children to play and develop their creativity’ speaks for itself. She was clearly ahead of her time in designing rich sensory experiences for children of all abilities, providing opportunity for contemplation and creative play. Swedish education researcher Maria Hammarsten then analyses her own walk-and-talk conversations with young schoolchildren, supplemented by photographs taken by the children themselves, to highlight their perspectives on ‘unedited’ outdoor places with natural features that were not designed by adults. Rounding off the Scandinavian contributions, the members of the Swedish VASS project report how specially programmed tablets were used to enhance the outdoor education segments in a Swedish primary school. Children scanned QR codes, overlayed information on local fauna and flora and used GPS coordinates for geocaching treasure hunts, thus creating experiences and ‘playscapes’ that were both authentic and virtual. Writing from Cornwall in the UK, Wendy Russell, John Fitzpatrick and Bridget Handscomb, then flip our perspective by investigating the value of play in natural playscapes not just among children but also among playworkers. What is play? Who plays, who learns, and who does the ‘work’? Adventure or ‘junk’ playgrounds have always disrupted notions of directed and normative play. At Gwealan Tops Adventure Playground, the playworkers made creative use of critical cartography in order to problematize simple binaries such as nature/culture, child/adult, and play/work. Further expanding on the question of the how and why of playground use, Los Angeles-based planning academic Anastasia Loukaitou-Sideris then discusses the historical causes and consequences of the current underuse of many playgrounds in the U.S. Rather than calling for potentially difficult-to-attain ‘time-in-nature’ as an alternative, she presents different examples of ‘smart’, interactive play structures designed to entice children back to the outdoors. She also emphasizes playground underutilization as an environmental justice issue, noting that ‘especially for inner-city children … retrofitting the existing playgrounds near their homes should be a policy priority’. Brooklyn-based MIT Media Lab graduate Edwina Portocarrero, meanwhile brings us back full circle to Colin Ward, asking instead how play opportunities can be re-introduced in places where ‘play has lost its grounds?’ She offers ListenTree, ‘an audio-haptic display embedded in a tree’. Several trees were fitted with hidden bone-conductor technology in a Mexico City park such that visitors could hear famous poetry recited when hugging and leaning their ears against these trees. The site-specific cultural resonance of the installation during the important Mexican Day of the Dead holiday made for a powerful blend of nature and technology that was both playful and deeply evocative for participants of all ages.
As we continue to think through the idea of natural playscapes and their human-designed enhancements, we must also continue to think through humanity’s relationship to nature, and our own nature in relationship to the environment in which we live. The global movement for more and better natural playscapes transcends their local specificity and place-based attributes in each individual city.
Ward, C. (1978) The Child in the City. London: Architectural Press.
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