The Land, an “adventure playground” in Wrexham, North Wales, is freeform, junk-strewn and rife with risk. Lacking designated play structures and anything remotely primary-colored, The Land instead presents children with possibilities in the form of old tires, fishing nets, tools and fire pits, allowing them to explore, build and even destroy in whatever way strikes their fancy.
The unusual site is one of 40 pioneering play spaces highlighted in the “Extraordinary Playscapes” exhibition in Boston. Curated by Design Museum Foundation, the show opened June 8 at BSA Space, a design exhibition center and home of the Boston Society of Architects/AIA and the BSA Foundation.
Boston is a fitting site for the launch of this traveling exhibition, as the hometown of Joseph Lee, father of the playground movement whose life of play advocacy spanned the late 19th and early 20th centuries. The show, which will move on to Portland, San Francisco and Chicago, highlights some innovative Boston play spaces, including a play sculpture designed for this show and installed temporarily at City Hall Plaza.
For Design Museum Foundation Executive Director Sam Aquillano, the grittiness of The Land recaptures something of the independence, with its risks, that he experienced growing up in Erie, Pennsylvania.
“I grew up playing in the woods, playing with hatchets and lighting fires,” he says. “I know the focus on play and being free in my childhood influenced my creativity and risk-taking.”
Part of the reason to explore playscapes now, Aquillano says, is that a growing body of research links lack of play to problems such as increased mental disorders, low self-esteem, low confidence and risk aversion. At the same time, surveys of top CEOs reveal that the qualities they want to see in their future workers include creativity, risk-taking and overcoming adversity.
“So the more play — and the more challenging play — the better,” he says. “Swing sets are great, but we’re trying to show opportunities for unstructured play, where you build something.”
The featured playgrounds are displayed in large poster format with photographs and a description of each site’s history, unique elements and size. The scale ranges widely, from the compact 650-square-foot indoor “Infinity Climber” at Jersey City, New Jersey’s Liberty Science Center, to downtown Chicago’s “curvilinear, topographically dramatic” Maggie Daley Park, whose 27.7 acres would cover 20 football fields. Most are outdoors, with varying degrees of wildness from rustic nature parks to urban lots with colorful PlayCubes. The ever-evolving set of found objects at the 15-year-old St. Louis City Museum spans the inside and outside of a former shoe factory.
Emerging ideas noted in the exhibition include the use of pop-up play equipment, such as Imagination Playground’s blue foam blocks, and the infusion of whimsy into everyday city structures, as in Vancouver’s “Whoopdeedoo” bike path ramps.
Barriers to free play in recent years include an overabundance of screen time for typical U.S. children, reduced school recess time and safety concerns. The exhibition’s timeline shows how fears of head injuries and liability in the late 20th century sparked the adoption of the ubiquitous post-and-platform manufactured play structures seen across the U.S. today.
On the bright side, improved safety surface technologies are allowing 21st-century playground designers to break free of these guardrail-heavy structures. Curator Amanda Hawkins says that as she and the exhibition’s advisory committee began seeking out innovative and engaging play spaces, she uncovered a surprising wealth of examples internationally and in the U.S.
“And this is just a snapshot,” Hawkins says of the 40 sites featured. “We are seeing communities and designers really coming together, making an effort to design spaces that are more creative and better than what came out of the ’80s and ’90s.”
Hawkins notes as a promising sign that Boston’s nonprofit Rose Kennedy Greenway Conservancy recently hired a play coordinator charged with concocting engaging experiences for youngsters and grownups along the 1.5-mile string of parkways that emerged after the dismantling of an elevated highway.
“It doesn’t have to start with government,” she says. “The community can activate play, and maybe then the government will catch up.”
A number of the featured playgrounds were funded with a combination of private and government funds. Private funders and citizen advocates can be a factor in inspiring playground planning in the first place, and swaying the design toward something more innovative than a municipal government might think of on its own. In Cincinnati, a public-private partnership was a crucial factor in furthering a highly interactive playscape for Smale Riverfront Park, according to Kate Tooke, a landscape architect with Sasaki Associates, the firm that designed the playground.
Sasaki is conducting an evaluation of the Smale playground’s use and maintenance to learn more about what works for playground visitors and what cities need to consider in terms of maintenance planning, Tooke says.
Incorporating vegetation or highly interactive features like sand or like Smale’s “water-play map” will require additional maintenance attention, Tooke says, but if properly planned for, the payoff is rich.
“The water feature is tremendously popular,” she says. “In the post-occupancy evaluation we heard children saying things like, ‘I’m an engineer!’ There are so few opportunities on traditional playgrounds to actually manipulate the environment and shape something new.”
“Extraordinary Playscapes” runs at BSA Space through September 5 and will include a series of related events over the summer. The exhibition then travels to Portland, Oregon, San Francisco, and Chicago through 2017.