• Suzanne Axelsson

The story of a Play-space

I often find articles and comments about how playgrounds and play-spaces limit children, often in connection with the promotion of loose-parts...

I am all for loose-parts... but I also don't see the play-space as the limitation. I see that it is the adults relationships with the play-space, the rules that they then impose based on their fears of accidents...


If adults were able to back off, then the children would be free to explore the space on their own terms... and challenge themselves. I do think, though, careful designing is required so that the challenge is size, strength and developmentally appropriate (notice I avoided the term age appropriate... this is because children evolve at different rates... and what is suitable for one 3 year olds might not be for another, so we should not be basing decisions on the age of the child, but on the competence and ability of each child).


I have read articles where playgrounds were described as "Victorian training gyms" as if the only purpose of the design was to exercise the body... while gross motor skills are put to good use in playgrounds, I have also seen how children develop elaborate and create play in and around the fixed structures... from chasing games, to role-play to testing theories...



How often have you seen a child told off for attempting to climb up the ramp of a playground slide, rather than descending demurely down it?


Which brings me back to my original statement, it is not about the design but about the adults that are with the children at the play-space who are unable to use their imaginations and can only see a totally prescriptive equipment designed to be used in a single way. In my observations of children they have little problem exploring the equipment in many different ways as longs as adults step back and give them space. In fact, I have also actively encouraged children to think about how many different ways they could use a slide, or a hopscotch, or get across a climbing frame... to challenge the whole idea that there is one story narrating how a play space should be used.


I have been visiting play-spaces and photographing them and observing how they are used for many years now - and seriously it is not the design that is the biggest problem, it is that there are too many adults in the play-space... it has been conquered by adults and their perception of play...

Rarely do I visit a play-space where children greatly outnumber the adults... and only once have I visited a play-space here in Stockholm where I have been the only adult while there are children there that are not with me... 

Weekends are the worst when parents come out en masse with their children... I have been to play spaces where there are more adults than children...!!! This has been one of the reasons for shelving my summer adventure of photographing play-spaces in Stockholm again (as many have changed since I last took photos) - there have just been too many adults in the space and its been hard to get a sense of the true play...


Parents are way too interested in their children being happy and seem afraid of frustration or maybe unable to distinguish frustration from sad... and therefore lift up their children and help them too much and therefore further feeding the children that they can do things before they are ready... taking away their sense of own personal achievement and increasing the need for cheap thrills... it is also taking away from the children the ability to learn how to deal with frustration - a very important life skill, and a part of the self-regulation toolkit. Also by lifting your child onto a climbing frame etc that they are not capable of getting on themselves can put the children in a hazardous position... it is no longer risky play, as in play with uncertain outcomes... it is risky play, with a real risk of injury, as often the reason that they cannot get on the equipment is that they have been designed that way to prevent children getting into situations before they are physically ready.


Rules in play-spaces are important, but they don't have to be traditional rules e.g. up the steps and down the slide (as "correct" use of equipment) - but rules that allow everyone to play/participate (a democratic and inclusive approach to play).

Play, where just one or two children dominate a slide as they use it for both up and down, making it impossible for others to use it, and therefore becomes exclusive if it stops other children from being able to use it...

then it is not about going up the slide that is wrong, it is about not sharing the slide with others, or even being aware that others want to use it and are waiting... So there needs to be some kind of balance that allows children to fully engage in their play that does not prevent others from also engaging in play.


 Children often need scaffolding when it comes to their social play, and discussing potential play-space rules can help with that... making sure that there is time for all the children to go up the ramp, ensuring there is no danger but still allowing for the element of risk, so the children can learn risk management...

Children sort of need to fall when they are small, to learn the consequences when the falls are small, their bodies heal fast and the risk for serious injury is little... both my daughters have had fractured arms... once while balancing on a log and fell off, the other while ice-skating, and then a week after the pot was taken off she slipped on the ice while walking home from school and fractured her other arm, one daughter has been concussed while skiing and vaulting (by accident) landing on her head... my son has a scar above his left eye from slipping on ice while walking across the school yard...

accidents happen... my children have learnt from them... they have also learned that they heal. I have not made my children stop skiing, skating or playing because there is a risk. I would also like to point out that most of the accidents my children have had, have been in adult organised sports, or walking to and from school... less often during their own free play. 


Risks don't have to be about getting hurt... they can be about getting cold and wet...

My job as educator, as a parent, is to inform my children of the risks and then to let them make their own decision (if it is a danger then I intervene as an adult) but  experiencing risk allows them to understand that I am not just saying things for the sake of it... stuff REALLY can happen, and they get to feel HOW that happens and decide for the future whether that risk is worth taking again, or whether they want to learn new skills to avoid the risk all together... On cold days I don't mind the children getting wet if we are close by to home or the preschool... as I know I will not be exposing them to the danger of hyperthermia... I can allow them to experience the sensation of how cold it gets when wet... so that when we are further away and there is an excellent puddle (but not the right clothing) I can remind the children of how it felt (and how they whined) when they were cold. I don't mind a bit of whining... sometimes it has a real purpose to serve. I remember once that I prevented children from going on the swings at a play-space due to the enormous puddles under them (a small puddle I would not have minded)... I pointed out that it was too big and that they would get too wet and we were too far from preschool. A group of children decided not to heed my words... and while my back was towards the swings and I was busy with another child they hurried over and went to the swings... I was alerted of this by their noisy struggles due to how hard it was to get on the swing with such a big puddle underneath... they did not see me coming over, as they were fully engaged in getting on the swing ( I don't like to shout at children, I go over to talk to them.. unless I see imminent danger)... and suddenly it happened... one child fell and she completely disappeared into the puddle, totally submerged... the children were terrified... again, one of those slow-motion moments... it felt like she was not coming up... I waded in, stuck my hand in and found her and pulled her out spluttering, it must have been seconds but felt like an eternity. That puddle was much deeper than I had thought (this was a public play-space). All of the children were terrified. I knew I could not be cross about them going on the swings when I told them not to... it would serve no purpose... I had to swallow my own emotional reaction to the situation and calmly hug the child until there was calm enough in the group to talk. Then I simply pointed out that now they had learned the hard way why I told them not to use the swing (of course it was the wrong child to get totally wet... you know, the one that has the parents that overreact and not just by a little either... ). We emptied her boots, wrapped her in my jacket... and the whole group had to head back to preschool which felt like an extra long ten minute walk when cold...

The whole group learned something though by all of this... as they had all seen it, so we all talked about it, to give time for the children to process it (I also contacted all the parents so they knew what had happened so they could help their children process it at home if they still had need of it) - the whole group learned that I would only say no if I thought there was a real risk of something bad happening... and that everyone gets impacted, not just the one child that falls; play gets cut short at the play space... because we needed to return to get the child out of wet clothes. Next time they listened. We also returned to the play-space and we all filled the hollow under the swing so that such deep puddles would not happen again and so that rainy days would not prevent us accessing all the play equipment. Getting children involved in risk assessing is also important.


On the whole adults tend not to give children the space or freedom to play, really play in their own way. Too many are not empowering children to choose their own play... it is a kind of play dictatorship where adults have decided how and what play looks like. If we are to have democratic learning in preschools and schools then we should be learning about play from the children... and harnessing that play-power to fuel the learning. To be play-responsive educators.

If we fail to understand their play, if we as adults are dictating their play how are we ever going to create a democratic classroom? How are we ever going to truly make learning meaningful... we have missed the essential link.


 I feel that people have a too black and white approach when it comes to play-spaces it is so much more nuanced than that... what we need to look at is our own personal attitudes to the play-space... are we limited by our imaginations? Why are those "one way to use equipment rules" being imposed? How many of you have had a dialogue with the children about rules in the play-space? why they are they exist? what rules actually exist, are they written down anywhere that you go up the steps down the ramp? If not, why do so many adhere to this rule? What rules would the children have for the play-space and why?

have you ever taken a piece of equipment and challenged the children "how many different ways can you use this"?

Unwritten rules... find out what they are when it comes to play... and how they limit and/or enable.

This is one of the things I admire so much about the educators at the AnjiPlay kindergartens... that they have taken time to really explore their own attitudes and fears and how they limit children's play and learning. And to also work on strategies to change this... it is not enough to know your weaknesses, you also need to take the time to devise strategies of change and put them in action. To walk the talk...


I also like how play-spaces have been evolving here in Stockholm, when my own children were preschool age most play spaces were almost the same... the same kind of equipment in every one... but now there is so much diversity, that it allows a choice... and these choices lead to different kinds of play being inspired... whether the play-space has a story inspired theme, or technology inspired theme, or encourages role play, or engaging with nature... or chase games or...

I found myself actively choosing which play space based on the needs and interests of the children I work with... as some would act as a third teacher for social engagement, other for fine motor skill (hand strength training) other for running, or cycling or team games... it was exciting to see how the space impacted the children's play. So yes, designers need to think about play, and design spaces that create complex play potential, rather than rule following play. I also got the children thinking about their play in the different play-spaces... as we would take special evaluation weeks where we would visit several play-spaces in Stockholm and rate them for playability. The children shared their different opinions and they learned so much more about the play potential of each space... which they put to use next time they visited.


Now a few images... quotes, risky play... loose parts and fixed equipment... this is not a post saying play-spaces are the best... it is a post explaining that we need to re-evaluate our own attitudes towards them... and also that taking loose parts to public play spaces can enhance the play even more... (fabric and pegs, buckets and spades, balls and planks, paper and paint... so many options and so many possibilities)




My aim is to allow the children to help each other, rather than me... if they want to get onto something that needs me to lift them, I will refuse... either they help each other, or they work out a way themselves. This way they are not going to be getting into places they are not ready for (although there are still a few times that some children are good at climbing up but not so good at getting down again as height fear kicks in)


I really enjoyed seeing the risky play in AnjiPlay kindergartens... you could see it was safe play... but there was room for imagination, challenge and uncertain outcomes. Also the educators had a hands off approach that allowed the children to fully engage in their own play. There was a mix of fixed features and loose parts. I would often take loose parts with my to play-spaces to enhance the play potential. I see the hole in the ground as a fixed feature... instead of climbing up on a structure... the children climb down or in...


not a playground... but still giving children access to risk... an icy sloping path... has so much playability.


Here I took paint and paper to the playground so that we could create playground art...


How many different ways to get across a hopscotch... encouraging the children to think creatively about the play space


for two years this play space had been a place of social play... until they were finally large enough and strong enough to get on the roof (something they tested frequently for two years). In their third year they managed to get up... and the play space continued to offer social play, but also much more challenging fears, strength, technique, risk management... making new rules to keep each other safe (such as no jumping off the roof without ensuring there was no-one coming out of the house door (or going in) and also checking if someone was on the roof before going in and out of the house... responsibility needs to be in both directions... They developed a whole series of rules to keep themselves safe as a group... they also shared strategies of getting up to those that were the last few learning how to master getting up... This is obviously not how the play space was designed... but I feel that play spaces need to be thinking about the hundred languages of their spaces... and understanding that getting up high and on the roof is going to be a much desired aim for many children... fears to be conquered...


I really cannot encourage you enough to back off and let the children play. To experiment. To struggle and get frustrated and feel the joy of succeeding... to be able to help each other out... learning about how to ask for help, how to give help and to understand that adults are not the only helpers.. children have power. They can...





Interaction Imagination

© 2017 Suzanne Axelsson. Interaction Imagination. Stockholm, Sweden.
suzanne@interactionimagination.com 

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