Monday, June 29, 2009

Register at Your Playground Now, 1936

WPA poster, 1936, from the American Memory project at the Library of Congress.

Thursday, June 25, 2009

The Playground War

I'm headed soon to Toronto for a scientific conference, and doing some googling to find any playgrounds I'd like to visit, but apparently June of 2000 one hundred and seventy two school playgrounds in Toronto were razed. It cost the city seven hundred thousand dollars for demolition, with replacement costs estimated at a staggering $27.5 million. But the playgrounds had been deemed 'unsafe', no matter that no money had been allocated, or funds raised for replacements. The kids were sad, and the parents were mad.

Liability concerns run the story of the war at taddlecreekmag.

An excerpt from the media response to the tear-downs:

The only logical thing to do is have lawyers to design the playgrounds,” wrote...parent, Linwood Barclay, the Star’s humour columnist. “Here are some pieces of equipment our kids will soon be playing on,” he continued. “The Litigator Teeter-Totter: As soon as children get on the equipment, they are tied up in red tape so they won’t be thrown off… . The Paralegal Bars: Similar to parallel bars from which kids can hang, but with much lower standing. Children will have to scrunch down to get under them… . Contract Bridge: Before children can run across the hanging bridge that links one side of the climber to the other, they must sign a waiver… . The Remand Rink: Kids won’t fall and hit their heads on the ice here. At this rink, there’s always a sign that says it’s closed …”

Wednesday, June 3, 2009

Kate Greenaway School Playscape, Islington London, Wendi Titman, 2007

[Apologies for the lack of posting in the lab is very intense at present!]

The last of the playgrounds from my London trip is the yard of the Kate Greenaway Nursery School and Children's Centre in Islington.

I absolutely loved this playscape; even now in remembering it what comes to me is the feeling of the place--gentle, affectionate, welcoming. Its very nature seems to make a playground fight unthinkable and Headmaster Julian Grenier spoke of the marked improvement in outdoor behavior since the playground was renovated with the assistance of playground designer Wendi Titman (much more about Wendi's work later).

I don't think I've ever seen a playground that was so much for the children. It seems a given, but in reality playspaces often have too much of what grown-ups would like to do and see. Even the viewpoint at a playground can be too high, with design elements placed well above a child's eye level.

At Kate Greenaway virtually all the detailing is low to the ground. Borders, edging, and surfacing on the ground plane change frequently, so there is alot to look at from three-feet and under. Intriguing found objects are set into the bike path that weaves through the entire space. Kate Greenaway promotes the use of small two-wheeled bikes without stabilisers (known here in the US as training wheels); more information in a column at the Guardian.

Changes in height were also subtle and scaled for a small child. There were several lawn areas a foot or less above grade, long low steps led to the veggie beds, and the used brick section of the bike pathway above went up and then down in a slight swell that clearly delighted the children.

A gate to no particular place is included, because children just like to open and shut gates.

The narrow vegetable planting boxes were specified so that even small children could reach into their center. Measurements were taken of the arm lengths of the children at the school to determine the dimensions. There is also a small green house; the gazebo-like structure visible in the topmost photo.

There are numerous 'quiet' places tucked away for solitary imaginings. Bamboo is used effectively as a durable screen, but one not so dense that it can't be wiggled through or crawled under.

Titman's solution to the complaint that 'the sand always gets tracked out of the sandbox' was simply to surround the sandbox with sand. The bike pathway edges the entire area.

A new addition to the playground, just started before our visit, will be a chestnut and larch climbing frame by Touch Wood Enterprises. I was most impressed by the fact that the children participated in preparing the wood for construction. According to the Kate Greenaway newsletter:

" Children, parents and staff all worked together to make the monkey bars in an amazing workshop day...the children were incredibly impressive, using real woodworking tools and concentrating for long periods of time to strip bark, split wood and shape the bars."

Few children get to experience such a close connection with hand tools in our high-tech life; what a memorable addition to the construction of a playground!

Kate Greenaway is a case study for natural play at PlayEngland, and Tim Gill has written about the school in his column at the Guardian.