Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Numen Netscape, Belgium, 2011

Austrian/Croatian design collective Numen, whose cocoon-like constructions of sticky tape have been featured on the blog before, expanded their exploration of flexible space into nets for a contemporary art space in Belgium earlier this year.  I love the way these provide for both bouncy activity and calm contemplation.

Nets aren't new on the playground.  But like Toshiko Horiuchi's creations, Numen's work creates a fully three-dimensional space to be in, not just a piece of equipment to stand or climb on.  That's why they feel so special, for children and adults alike.  

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Friday, November 18, 2011

Playground Crochet by Toshiko Horiuchi

 Toshiko Horiuchi MacAdam, who orders yarn by the ton for her creations, is the textile artist behind the oft photographed net constructions at the Hakone sculpture park in Sapporo Japan. 

I love the story of how she came to be engaged with children's play:  "It all happened quite by accident. Two children had entered the gallery where she was exhibiting 'Multiple Hammock No. 1' and, blissfully unaware of the usual polite protocols that govern the display of fine art, asked to use it. She watched nervously as they climbed into the structure, but then was thrilled to find that the work suddenly came alive in ways she had never really anticipated. She noticed that the fabric took on new life - swinging and stretching with the weight of the small bodies, forming pouches and other unexpected transformations, and above all there were the sounds of the undisguised delight of children exploring a new play space."

From that point, her work shifted out of the gallery and a subdued, monochromatic pallet into a riotous rainbow of colors for children's playscapes.

Rainbow Net was produced in close collaboration with structural engineers TIS & Partners and landscape architects Takano Landscape Planning and opened in July of 2000 after three years of planning, testing, and building.

Note that the project began with a brief not for a playground, but simply for 'public art'.   Wouldn't it be great if when we heard 'public art' we automatically thought 'play'?

But innovative playscapes require an enormous commitment:
"...endless cycles of discussion and approval, with meticulous attention to detail...[including] an actual scale wooden replica of the space in Horiuchi's studio and accurately scaled crocheted nets using fine cotton thread. Even then, it was difficult to assess many things. What difference, for instance, would the weight of the real yarn make when everything increased in scale? All of these factors had to be calculated in order to arrive at a scientific methodology that could eradicate any risk of unacceptable danger."

During final assembly, Toshiko crocheted ten hours a day, often on her knees, until the installation was complete.

With the current revival of the textile arts and yarn bombings everywhere, I'd love to see more crochet on the playground!  

Wednesday, November 9, 2011

Playgrounds Designed with Bullies in Mind

The playground bully is a classic villain in children's lives and literature alike.   Playgrounds don't create bullies, of course, but could design adjustments help prevent acts of bullying?

I recently came across a great vintage document by Gary Moore, Uriel Cohen, Jeffrey Oertel, and Lani van Ryzin of the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, entitled Designing Environments for Handicapped Children:  a design guide and case study, published by the Educational Facilities Laboratory in 1979.

Its advice on play spaces for handicapped children is likely dated now, and in any case I am no expert in that field, though it should be noted that the work is replete with remarks on the importance of natural elements and the need for loose parts, lesson we still haven't learned.

But I was most intrigued by its discussion of "Retreats and Breakaway Points" (p. 68 of the doc, if you're following along).

'Retreats' are places that individuals or small groups can be away from other groups.  As the authors note, the placement of these areas is critical; they should be located out of the flow of, but still connected to, the general space of the playground, much like a nook or window seat in an interior space.  This allows a child to withdraw without having to completely cede the playground territory.

I'll add to the authors' analysis the further requirement that a retreat should be an attractive designed space in its own right.  A mere bench doesn't qualify.  In this way, a child who needs to utilize the retreat isn't surrendering their own enjoyment or involvement.  They're just moving to another attractive, though less active, part of the playscape.

A 'Breakaway Point' provides a face-saving exit from an 'unfavorable situation'.  Though the context of the authors is that of a physical challenge that a child might not be able to master, the idea is also relevant to the unfavorable presence of a bully.   Providing breakaway points also promotes increased exploration of the playground space by reducing the fear of an upcoming challenge.

The inclusion of these design features has no downside; even if they didn't reduce the potential for bullying they would be sensitive and attractive additions to any playscape.  As a quieter child myself, I usually hung out on the concrete steps of the school away from the vigorous play.  I would have welcomed a more inviting retreat. And having once felt trapped by a big kid on the climbing equipment, I just stayed away. 


The entire document is available online; it's definitely for the serious playgrounder but is full of vintage yet still relevant thoughts.  Highly recommended for your further reading!