What would playgrounds look like if children could build them themselves? Maybe something like The Baui, an adventure playground in Hamburg, with its huts, towers, bridges and ladders that the children had created from scratch. I’ve just got back from a study trip with Meynell Games, looking at play and playwork in Germany where I’ve been inspired by some truely great practice. At these construction playgrounds children are given wood, tools, nails and free reign to build the playspace as they chose. The concept is not unique to Germany. There is one, The Big Swing, not far from me in Eccleshill, Bradford, but its the only one I know of in West Yorkshire whereas in Hamburg and Berlin there seems to be one in every neighbourhood. Thousands of children and young people are able to spend all their free time hanging out in these freeform playgrounds that they’ve made for themselves.
We visited a wide range of play settings and saw the importance these city cultures place on quality play opportunities. The school playgrounds we saw were not designed by children, but the landscape architects had consulted with them first and incorporated their ideas into the plans. What results in an exciting space that offers engagement and challenge; 7ft walls to jump off, steams to play in, hillocks to roll down and secret hiding places where the teachers can’t see you. It’s enough to send the Health and Safety Officer into meltdown, but its actually had a positive effect on accident rates; there are more accidents but they are a lot less serious i.e. bruises and grazes not broken limbs and concussion (a fact duly noted by their insurers). When you think about it, when all you have to play in is a rectangle of tarmac you’re more likely to climb the walls that surround it or run across it at full tilt to find some level of challenge. As may people are now recognising, taking managed risks is important to gain an understanding of ourselves, stretch our abilities and consequently learn to challenge ourselves in other areas of our lives. If children are wrapped in cotton wool and don’t learn to manage their own risks, as young adults they may play it too safe or take unacceptable risks through a poor awareness of danger.
There are some brilliant examples of exciting and challenging playspaces in the UK but the ubiquitous primary-coloured swings/slide/climbing frame combination is all too familiar wherever you go in the world. Having grown up with these we might ask ourselves ‘what’s the harm in fixed equipment and safety matting?’, but the trouble is we also grew up with playing outdoors, building dams and dens and generally running free whereas today’s children are much more supervised. The school playground or the park offers the most free play many children get, so we need to make sure it offers variety, risk, challenge and flexibility. We need a wide range of materials, heights and surfaces, we need loose parts which can be arranged and rearranged according to the game and most of all, we as adults need to feel confident in allowing children to managing their own risks. Its time to stop playing it safe.