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When designing is child’s play

By Ruth Slavid

Photo ©: Agnese Sanvito

When the College of Fellows held its inaugural meeting at the start of September, one of the issues discussed was how fellows could help spread the idea of landscape architecture as a profession among school children, to encourage more entrants at undergraduate level. Landscape at first glance sounds a rather dull subject for typical teenagers. They are just at the age to complain about their parents taking them on country walks, and they are likely to have lost any childish enthusiasm that they had for growing things.

The environmental argument is of course immensely powerful, that landscape can be a way of enhancing  ecology locally and at a larger scale, of working with the environment rather than against it. And it can be sold as a way of reshaping the cities that they live in – architecture, after all, is notoriously oversubscribed as a career choice, and there is no reason why landscape could not be even more appealing.

One argument that could help should be close to the potential landscape architects’ own experience. Many of them may have been lucky enough to play in the spaces that landscape architects have helped to create – the areas that have fostered a sense of adventure and excitement, and that are a million miles from the sterile fencing enclosing a few swings and a slide that have been the lot of too many children in the past. These environments were not just designed for winsome infants. When I went to the North hub at the Olympic park, there were elements that were challenging enough for quite large teenagers to enjoy.

Of course there is the danger that since the best play landscapes rely on serendipity, the children may not even realise that some of them have been designed. Pointing this out could be one of the ways for professionals to explain the great contribution that landscape architecture can make to the world around us.

Play, it just so happens, does not really feature in this year’s crop of awards, showcased in this issue. But there is an exception. Jono Burgess, winner of the student dissertation prize, has chosen as his topic an examination of how play can foster independence. What is particularly interesting is that he has not just looked at good play and bad play surroundings, but has developed a system of measurement and appraisal. He has found that where it takes children longer to become immersed in play they tend to stay immersed for longer, and that risk is very important as it gives children many more affordances. In addition, self-directed play is, he finds, more valuable than that directed by play leaders.

The great play spaces of the last few years have been designed largely by gut feel.

Jono Burgess’s research just might help the next generation to become even better.

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