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Swings and Roundabouts

By Fiona McWilliam
Children’s roaming range has shrunk by 90% in the last 30 years, making designing for play more important than ever. We look at history and current trends.

Coram’s Fields, the setting for this year’s  Landscape Institute Awards, has a significant role in the history of play. Named after the 18th century merchant and philanthropist Thomas Coram, Coram’s Fields was London’s first public playground. It opened in 1936, following a lengthy campaign and much fundraising by the local community, on the site previously occupied by Coram’s Foundling Hospital.

The public provision of designated play space has evolved since the 1930s, thanks in no small part to the emergence of a play equipment industry now worth (according to play surfaces and equipment suppliers’ trade organisation, the Association of Play Industries) in excess of £125m a year. Yet many involved in the provision of play areas, including a number of leading landscape architects, dislike the prescriptive approach to play that such equipment frequently represents.

Theresa Casey, president of the International Play Association, acknowledges the negative approach to play adopted by some local authorities which is based not just on how they think children want to play, but also on ‘the demonisation of children in public spaces’. Mick Conway, play programme manager at Play England, blames the dominance of the car in both the design and use of the public realm, as having ‘led to a focus on designated play space, segregated from other areas of the built and natural environment’.

Shared KnowledgeYet with the help of social media, says Casey, providers are now recognising mistakes made in the past and there has been a lot of positive sharing of ideas between the UK and, in particular the US and Scandinavia, she says, citing the work of pioneering play experts such as the late Danish landscape architect Carl Theodor Sorensen, inventor in the 1940s of the ‘junk playground’ (the first adventure playground, filled as its name suggests, with junk rather than manufactured equipment); his compatriot Helle Nebelong, who is passionate about designing natural-looking places for children and how to adapt the city for everyday life; and Sue Gutteridge, an associate at play consultancy Playlink, who, together with colleague Judi Legg, ‘is at the forefront of natural playscapes in the UK’.
 
These include the much praised Waverley Park, in Stirling, and the recently opened David Marshall Lodge play space at Queen Elizabeth Forest Park, Aberfoyle, Stirlingshire. 
 
Building on current Forestry Commission thinking, Gutteridge explains, the client for the latter, Forestry Commission Scotland, removed an existing fixed-equipment play area to make the entire site more ‘playable’. It incorporates six specific ‘nature play’ spaces along an existing one-kilometre waterfall trail. These include a brushwood maze, ‘Hobbit’ houses, water channels and a rope swing tree.
 
Even on a site such as this, says Gutteridge, such an approach always takes much longer and is not necessarily cheaper: ‘Log bridges and fallen climbing trees all have to be individually identified, transported, adapted and made safe – a much more arduous and demanding process than ordering equipment online, but so much more satisfying and with so much better results.’
 
Shrinking World
It’s interesting to note at this point, that children’s roaming range in this country – the distance from their homes children are permitted to travel unsupervised – has shrunk by a staggering 90% in the past 30 years.
 
Our children have never been more disconnected from the natural world, argues David Bond, who recently launched the Project Wild Thing campaign and a film of the same name, which takes an entertaining look at the increasingly disparate connection between children and nature. Time spent playing outside is down 50% in just one generation, he says, despite study after study indicating that time spent playing outdoors increases happiness, health and well being.
 
LI president elect Noel Farrer, of Farrer Huxley Associates (FHA), believes there’s a fundamental problem in the UK with society’s approach to play: namely that children don’t want to play in traditional, dedicated playgrounds. 
 
‘Children like everything but playgrounds,’ echoes play designer Jerry Cooper, of London-based playground and playscape designers Theories Landscapes, ‘yet as a society we duplicate them again and again, often in the wrong places’. While swings and roundabouts can, he admits, be ‘useful’, he’s more interested in creating ‘a place that’s comfortable, exciting and safe in which the child can develop his or her own way of playing’. 
 
Children want and need to play near to where they live, says Farrer, but many local authorities still prefer to locate playgrounds in open green places, usually in local parks. This, he says, is entirely for the authorities’ convenience – to ease maintenance, to avoid complaints from intolerant residents and so they can be closed to the public at night.
 
Along with a fast-growing band of designers and play experts, Farrer believes that all landscapes, including our towns and city centres, should be made ‘playable’ and inviting to the children who inhabit them: ‘They’re as much children’s as they are anybody else’s,’ he says.
 
Such an approach would, he argues, help to prevent ‘the honeypot issue’, where a popular, dynamic play area becomes the victim of its own success. He cites his practice’s creation of an ‘entirely playable’ park at Broadley Street Gardens, in a densely populated, poor residential area of Westminster, London, a park that had been boarded up for years.
 
The gardens were soon inundated with local children, Farrer says, which attracted complaints from some residents, and FHA eventually had to remove the play equipment, in what he dubs, ‘an example of our complaints-driven society – and a familiar cycle’.
 
He urges councils and developers to consider establishing multi-purpose outdoor areas; dispensing with fences and incorporating parking and service areas, within the areas deemed playable and adopting a risk-benefit assessment approach to play space design. (‘Children will, after all, play just about anywhere.’).
 
Farrer praises the forward-thinking approach taken by his client the Peabody Trust at its Abbey Orchard estate, also in Westminster. It was an approach that required a great deal of working through with managements and residents, he admits, but one that was ultimately worth it when one sees the well-used, multi-purpose, unfenced public realm at the centre of this development.
 
Sea Change
While the 1989 UN Convention on the Rights of the Child article 31 (which states that all children shall have full opportunity for play and recreation) marked a sea change in attitudes to children and play, says Casey, ‘the UN has since recognised that the right of play is still being widely overlooked and/or misunderstood’. 
 
In April this year, it issued a general comment noting that, where investment is made in play, it is usually in the provision of structured and organised activities: ‘But equally important,’ this document states, ‘is the need to create time and space for children to engage in spontaneous play, recreation and creativity, and to promote societal attitudes that support and encourage such activity.’
 
The document also notes the difficulties particular categories of children, including those with disabilities, face when it comes to enjoying the rights defined in article 31.
 
‘We know that children with disabilities don’t want to play away from other children in separate places,’ says Casey, which is why, she adds, she welcomes the current trend for incorporating natural features in playgrounds and parks. 
 
Features such as long grasses, play equipment with an ambiguous (non-defined) use; and sensory elements (‘such as planting, topography, natural objects to climb on, moveable materials and especially water’) are all, Casey insists, extremely helpful in addressing inclusiveness.
 
‘We need to move away from the idea of segregation,’ she says.’ It’s all about populating public spaces together, co-existing without the need for fences.’

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