American artists were a force in playground design in the 1950s and 1960s, but when patrons began to choose equipment based on whether it would reduce their liability, artists disengaged from design. Architects, landscape architects, and visual artists in Europe, Australia, and Asia, however, have remained engaged. In these locales, artists have fashioned natural materials into play spaces; located play in nontraditional settings, most of which expand public space; and developed play areas and skate parks that have revitalized urban life. In the process, they have shifted play from tightly contained playgrounds with limited play value toward more generalized, interactive playscapes. Their work has led to recently designed play spaces around the world—including a few projects in the United States—that are both artful and fun.

Playing with Nature

Postwar American playgrounds and schoolyards had strong ties to nature. M. Paul Friedberg devised wooden “post and deck” systems in the 1960s to simulate play in rural streams and hills. In the 1970s, landscape architect Robin Moore transformed the asphalt schoolyard at Washington Elementary School in Berkeley, Calif., into the “Environmental Yard,” an oasis of earth and water. These pioneer efforts later gave way to companies who market inert post and deck structures and to seismic retrofitting that ripped out the plantings in the Berkeley yard and returned it to a dead, man-made plane.

Meanwhile, natural playgrounds in other parts of the world—particularly Scandinavia—have continued to thrive. For more than two decades, Copenhagen-based architect and landscape architect Helle Nebelong has led efforts to include nature in schoolyards and children’s quarters of parks. In places like the Nature Playground in Valbyparken (2001), she has created lively, intergenerational public domains, open 24 hours per day, where, she says, “children have to use their full bodies and minds to explore and manage their surroundings.”

“Denmark has a long-standing tradition for letting children play freely using their own imagination,” says Nebelong. “The junk playgrounds—later called adventure playgrounds—that emerged in my country in the 1940s inspired me a lot. Using leftover building scraps, kids have opportunities to experiment and manipulate materials, to socialize, and to embark on fantastical journeys. Children train themselves in dealing with and triumphing over unpredictability. I try to accomplish the same thing using water, sand, soil, stones, plants, terracing, and hidden spaces among natural growing materials.”

Such site-specific commissions eschew manufactured solutions—but they also require an artistic sensibility. According to Tim Gill, play advocate and author of No Fear: Growing Up in a Risk Averse Society, less talented designers might “scatter a few randomly placed boulders or logs around cookie-cutter play areas, thereby insulting our intelligence and aesthetic sense.” Instead, he says, the goal is to shape—as Nebelong has done successfully—an entire ensemble.

Alternative Spaces and Insertions

Many leading play space designers are exploring the location and character of children’s play in interesting ways. Sometimes children themselves dictate where a play space needs to be. Nebelong, for instance, includes children’s spots adjacent to the sensory gardens she creates for municipal nursing homes where most residents have dementia. Reflecting on her first installation, she says she “saw the number of grandchildren and great grandchildren who visited and realized how much they enjoyed playing on the rocks.” Her gardens dramatically improve the daily life of old folks at the same time that the play zones keep children active.

Play can also merge with educational tools. Elger Blitz, from the public art design firm Carve, and Dutch landscape architect Annemieke Diekman won the competition for a revamped entrance to the Netherlands’ Zuiderzee Museum, which is dedicated to cultural heritage and includes the largest number of wooden ships in the country. When people arrive at the proposed entrance, they will find large playful objects to touch, move, or scamper upon. These forms, entitled Garden at Sea, will suggest daily routines of the former Zuiderzee region such as fishing and trading—activities that visitors will learn about inside the museum.

Geopark has a slightly different educational mission. Architect Reinhard Kropf, a founder of the firm Helen & Hard, notes that Stavanger, Norway, lacked a public, centrally located space for young people. When the city was designated a European Capital of Culture in 2008, he initiated a campaign to address that void and simultaneously highlight Stavanger’s role as Norway’s administrative heart of oil exploration. The result is a park composed of equipment left over from offshore drilling, including an oil rig that was being demolished. Kropf, giving an industrial spin to the adventure playground, wanted to “create space that would display the tangible and intellectual properties of the local industry by using its waste to provide a needed, lively public space for young people.” The captivating park, which features play structures in varied shapes, quietly critiques the amount of waste that drilling generates. Adjacent to the Norwegian petroleum Museum, Geopark has no admission charge and never closes.

Other parks serve specific goals for child-play. A masterful insertion in Amsterdam, for example, was designed by the Carve firm to retain older kids at two playgrounds created by the illustrious architect Aldo van Eyck in the 1960s. The play areas, adjacent to each other in heavily used Vondelpark, each contain a giant circular sandpit and a low climbing frame. Carve’s answer was to build two wood slat towers that sit between—and link—the van Eyck spaces. Vondeltuin Towers (2010) establishes a vertical monument that houses intricate climbing and rope devices.

Skate parks, while dominated by mass-produced equipment, are another venue for creative design. Carve, whose principal Elger Blitz was once a serious skater, is one firm that appreciates how carefully designed skate parks can enhance cities. In Koog aan de Zaan, for instance, the A8 freeway divided this small town into two and formed a desolate space below. In 2005, Carve helped the firm NL Architects change that by inserting a large skate park into NL’s A8ernA project beneath the freeway. A multigenerational crowd now comes to skate and watch. This once lifeless space, further enhanced by the addition of a supermarket, a flower shop, and a minimarina, is now a vital, active connector that unites both sides of a municipality and reestablishes a central public hub.

Artists Return to Playgrounds

Like architects and landscape architects, artists provide vital input to creative play spaces. Examples include visual artists in Australia and Japan, where liability issues are similar to, but less severe than, those in the United States. Today, ventures in both countries have drawn artists back into the creation of recreation spaces. Australia’s Urban Art Projects (UAP), conceived by visual artists Daniel and Matthew Tobin, serves as a particularly strong model of how to achieve results. UAP acts as curator, manufacturer, and site and project manager for major pieces of public art. By streamlining the selection and production process, UAP makes it easy for patrons to consider art for public spaces—and Australian municipalities are eager to sign up. “There is general understanding that innovative work leads to heightened economic success,” says Daniel Tobin.

UAP commissioned sculptor and painter Fiona Foley to create a series of play objects with nautical references for Northshore Hamilton Park in 2008. The developers of this mixed-use community, on the site of abandoned Brisbane wharfs, wanted a playscape that would energize the site, promote community gatherings, and increase sales. Foley also designed play features and a skate park for Sydney’s Redfern Park to help revive that venue. Toshiko Horiuchi MacAdam is a Canadian fabric artist and graduate of Cranbrook Academy whose play work is found in her native Japan. MacAdam investigated the connection between her own weaving and human needs in Tokyo, where she lived in the 1970s. She concluded that the Japanese capital lacked the intimate spaces where she had played as a child.

She says that her “creativity came from play and imagination I was able to engage in as a kid.” Feeling a moral responsibility to aid today’s children, she began to construct three-dimensional crocheted objects on which kids can bounce, crawl, and swing. The Woods of Net Pavilion, designed by Tezuka Architects at Hakone Open Air Museum, showcases Knitted Wonder Space 2 (2009), her abstract sculpture for children. There is no charge for kids on Saturday. Her earlier play nets for Toyotomi Silk Village in Yamanashi Prefecture are free for all.

In America Today

There are pockets of playground design in North America that are encouraging. American landscape scholar Susan Herrington has documented how children prefer nature to standard equipment, and natural schoolyards are gaining traction. The “Environmental Yard” may return in Berkeley. Other innovations include architect David Rockwell’s Imagination Playground (2010), which consists of “loose parts” in the form of giant foam blocks. These transportable pieces adhere to safety guidelines and enliven any location.

Stanley Saitowitz remains, sadly, the single notable architect to design a unique skate park. Saitowtiz’s Extreme Park, in Louisville, Ky., displays his refined detailing and benefits from a state recreation immunity law that releases the city from liability as long as there is no gross negligence and no fee charged. The park has enticed people and small businesses back into a formerly industrial district.

The San Francisco Arts Commission, which has promoted public art through a distinguished percent-for-art program, has brought play into San Francisco International Airport. This year, sound artist and photographer Walter Kitundu created Bay Area Bird Encounters in newly renovated Terminal 2. The work is a mural consisting of transfers onto wood of his photos of local birds. He completed the composition by building benches where anyone can use a mallet to sound out the songs of depicted birds. Kitundu reflects that his audience, while controlled, is still sizable. “Creating pieces for airports causes artists to consider what they can contribute to unusual venues or users,” he says.

In Kitundu’s case, the arts commission reached out to him. The time might be right, however, for interest to flow the other way. Artists should consider becoming proactive, bringing ideas for play or skating to any city with a percent-for-art program and even approaching real estate and mall developers. By demonstrating that exceptional playgrounds are flourishing and fostering economic change abroad, artists might finally have a rationale for a comeback in an area from which they have been too long absent.

Susan G. Solomon is president of Curatorial Resources & Research. The author of American Playgrounds: Revitalizing Community Space (University Press of New England, 2005), Solomon consults and lectures on innovative playground design. She received her Ph.D. from the University of Pennsylvania.

Featured in Public Art Review #45.

Purchase original print issue