Designing Parks for Play

It’s almost a right of passage for each generation to smugly look down at the one below them and claim

‘children these days don’t play anymore.’

A case closed response that places all the responsibility on young people. Yet I’ve never seen a teenager install skate stoppers. Neither have I seen them put up no ball games signs. I am yet to witness a child campaign for less free time and more homework. These are the same ‘adults’ (I am generalizing here) that complain about the ludicrous levels of health and safety, don’t play and, the most irritable of all, design shit play parks. The finger of blame is consistently aimed at the youth but the finger is pointing in the wrong direction. A lack of play in our society stems from foundational issues. Caused by those who came before us.

Defining Play

‘Engage in activity for enjoyment and recreation rather than a serious or practical purpose.’

English Oxford dictionary

It’s easy to apply this definition to play parks, a play arena we all experience, and see a perfect fit. Riddled with slides, roundabouts, seesaws, and swings we end up spending more time sitting down than moving our bodies. Then to access these limited experiences we must ascend a small set of steps rather than being presented with any kind of climbing or challenge. Of course, for a brief time, this can be fun but just like all things that give instant gratification they are nutritiously void.

Time Shits on all our Slides

As soon as our young people hit the teenage years (often way before) they are fed up with their local park. The attractions such as the big swing, for example, carries far less weight or mystique once you have done it a few times. Another folly to single-function pieces of equipment is that they can be disused by a community simply through the weight of a single action or urban myth. Take the big slide in Bridgeton, Glasgow for example. When teaching some locals parkour in the area I asked why none of the young people use the slide and was told that they had heard someone “took a shite” on it and that was that.

Back to our generational angle on improving play parks, a clear issue is that no one passed a certain age really cares. There is a fleeting moment in early life that playing in a park is a fun thing to do and that’s a problem. If we think about play parks in line with our definition of play then they lack ‘a serious or practical purpose’ then it’s easy to see why they quickly become redundant.

Playing out used to be a feature of every child’s day, children now spend
just four hours a week playing out. (UK)

Children’s Commissioner, Playing Out, 2018

How to Play Better

A few simple changes can be made to challenge this. To change the image of ‘play parks’ and redefine them for all ages they need a meaningful purpose for everyone who steps in them. The popular phrase ‘never leave the playground’ is more important than ever to create a healthy society but to keep that playground interesting we have to implement more logic like this;

Callum Tips no. 139 – If you’re ever in charge of designing a gym or a Parkour park make an absolute mess with random angles. Don’t design sections with specific moves and challenges in mind. If you make an interesting mess it’ll inspire interesting movement.

When commissioned to create a park the client often wants you to primarily focus on parkour. This is great, especially if your a traceur, but in order to create something truly useful try not to think about it as a parkour park. Remind the client that literally no matter what they build people will jump on it and that you can aim for something higher.

Take Things One Step Further

Callum’s tip applies not only to Parkour but all aspects of the parks you set out to create. Your goal should be to create environments full of opportunities for play and activity rather than prescribe specific activities or actions. The play park should be a liminal space in which different disciplines and activities co-exist and overlap to allow for innovation and promote imagination from the users. It should be a puzzle that can be completed in more than one way, every section should be for both everyone and no one.

The recent trend of calisthenics parks, plastic play arenas, and parkour parks are well-meaning and a step in the right direction but they are exclusive to the communities that use them. Before parkour parks were built we jumped on regular parks, before we could use a dipping station at the calisthenics parks the corner of a rail or bike rack would do and when we out in our formative years the most exciting play spaces for us are the ones we found as a community and not the ones defined for us.

Bollards in rotterdam, not a park

Into the New

So next time you are in charge of creating a park remember it doesn’t need to be designed for a specific function. This doesn’t mean you shouldn’t look at places where people move purposefully and creatively and extract what is useful for your design. It just means thinking more openly about the potential needs of the users and how those needs can cross over.

Want to get in on the conversation? Here at Ukemi, we are thinking about the future of play. To get in on the conversation join our community group.

Ukemi - park designers