Making It Better…Playgrounds

March 1, 2010

Five years ago, my husband and I moved back to the USA from London where we had lived for four years.  When you make big cultural moves, it seems unavoidable to have periods where you think what you just came from is simply better.  Sometimes it actually is and sometimes, in the face of something new and different, the old just seems better. We experienced this both coming and going, and now with the perspective of time, I feel like I can be more objective. When we moved to London, I was appalled by fact that things weren’t open on Sundays, that it rained so much, that I couldn’t get the phone/ Internet/ ikea/ car rental/ TV/ tax collector/ bank/blah blah blah – fill in the blank) to work as I thought it should.  For a while, frustration and irritation was a daily occurrence. But it was eye opening to how things could be different, and often better.

We lived in Notting Hill and at the very far end of Portobello Road was another road called Goldbourne Road and at the far end of that, there was a playground (actually in North Kensington) that completely captured my heart.   At the time I had an infant…so the fascination had nothing to do with her, it was all about my own interest in exploring this amazing place.  It was called Hornimans and I never actually got to go inside because you had to accompanied by a child over 6 years old, but I have since come to figure out what the strange awesome kid place was….it was an adventure playground – of the sort I have never seen this side of the pond. Adventure playgrounds are more common in Europe but in litigious USA, I actually know of none (though I hope some exist somewhere). Hornimans and other adventure playgrounds like it are based on the idea the children should be able to create, shape, dream and imagine a reality.   They take a different and more open perspective on risk (that is allowing things that are far more dangerous than average) but these types of playgrounds are one of the many things that I still think is better in Europe and I wish the US would embrace.

hornimans_adventure_playground_63e89c4ffefa6b205f673de82509bc40image by Nicobobinus (yes – the playground has a goat in residence)

The idea behind adventure playgrounds  (also commonly called junk playgrounds) is that kids basically get to build and modify the playground for their needs– given a structure and materials.  They were originally imagined by C. Th. Sørensen, a Danish landscape architect who noticed that children preferred to play everywhere but in the playgrounds that he built. In 1931, he imagined “A junk playground in which children could create and shape, dream and imagine a reality.” Why not give children in the city the same chances for play as those in the country? His initial ideas started the adventure playground movement.

emdrup adventure playground

image by jensen.pernille

One of my favorite blogs is Playscapes. It is a wonderful collection of inspiration for great playgrounds. I can get lost there for hours and wishfully wonder why fabulous playscapes like the adventure playground in Notting Hill  and others aren’t more the norm as opposed to the corporate plastic unimaginative junk that we mostly see.  So on a recent visit to Paige’s site, when I came across her effort to help playgrounds be better I excitedly started preparing this post to hopefully help out the effort.  Paige is using a genius site called The Make Better Project.  The Make Better Project is a website that connects people who are interested in initiating change.  The Better Project encourages building communities around the notion of making something better.  You can post something you want to make better and invite your network to brainstorm ideas for how to make it work.  With this open discussion it is the hope that great ideas will bubble up and hopefully will gain greater followings and support.

Here is the link to the page that Paige started to generate ideas about enabling better playground design.  Do you have any great ideas worth discussing? My favorites are (of course)  1) Move from ‘risk assessment’ of playgrounds to ‘risk-benefit analysis’ and 2) Learn from best practice abroad. I encourage you to visit and contribute your $.02.  And while you are at it….make a visit to Playscapes for more fun ideas like this one.

not by the hair of my chinny chin chin playhouse straw house design

Not-by-the-hair-of-my-chinny-chin-chin straw house by Ludwig Designs.

REgister now!

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