The Story Of Playgrounds
During the last week I have been going round a variety of play-spaces in Stockholm together with my 18 year old son to evaluate them, primarily from a risky-play perspective, but also from a general playability. My son helped me because he is a whole lot closer to childhood than I am, and I also fully trust that he will not tell me things I want to hear, but his truth about the play space. Many, but not all, of these spaces I have visited when my own children were young and also as an educator with a group of young children - so I have my observations and memories of those play experiences. I also have the opportunity to reflect on how some of these spaces have changed over the years.
This post will be the first of many as I explore different ways of looking at them. My son, Michael, and I gave ourselves the challenge of seeing how children could play in these spaces rooted in the 8 categories of risky play by Sando, Kleppe and Sandseter, 2021.
Dangerous elements Dangerous tools
Rough and tumble/play-fighting
Crashing into things
We quickly realised that vicarious could occur in all play spaces, so we stopped thinking about evaluating that one, as this was dependent on children observing other children. What we did discuss though was the lack of an important category - the risk of breaking rules, and we actually started to reflect on how can we safely allow children to break rules as part of their play? Now this might seem like a strange thing to permit - climbing onto roofs is an excellent example of this. Many structures, such as play houses, storage etc have roofs - and getting up on top of the roofs have been an important challenge. Throughout my son's childhood play the kind of roof he has wanted to get on has changed - it has got higher, harder and more against the rules. He has encountered many times adults yelling at him, or his peers, to get down.
I have also seen in some play areas (not the ones we visited this time) having signs informing people not to climb onto the roofs.
For some of my preschoolers getting onto the roof of a play house after observing some older children do that, became a year long challenge and goal, which when they were tall enough and strong enough the eventually managed.
My son said it was thrilling to be able to get up there... not only from a height perspective, or disappearing perspective (he liked being able to get away from others) but also the thrill of maybe getting caught was also there...
Can play-spaces be designed with the knowledge that the roofs of storage, play houses, climbing structures and even staffed buildings can be constructed in such a way that they continue to offer a challenge throughout a child's life (so up to adulthood and maybe early twenties too) without being dangerous. And also without overtly encouraging children to climb the roof... because if it is too easy, then there is no point, and if it is included in the rules of what to do, then where is the thrill? The design should simply be, if children do get on the roof how do we ensure a fall is not fatal or negatively life changing? Michael also values hide and seek play a lot, as well as tag. We could often see spaces designed for tag, but seldom for hide and seek - as adults being able to see the children seemed to be prioritised.
Our favourite spaces incorporated nature into the space. Most seemed to have some round the edges, but a few of them had bushes and trees as part of the play structures. One in particular (Vårby Gård) had some fabulous bushes centrally located where tunnels and spaces had been created inside them. it reminded me of my ow childhood and the amazing massive rhododendron bushes that was like a maze we could get lost in, with spaces like rooms here and there - and so many different kinds of play occurred together with other - tag, rough and tumble and war games, so many different kinds of role-play, hide and seek and more... Michael also had fond memories of bug hunting in bushes too.
What was also interesting talking with Michael is that he was so surprised that adults were saying that fixed playgrounds were boring and stifled play. He did not think this was the case at all. But when we visited a playground that he had played in a lot as a young child he thought he understood why adults might say that. He said looking at the space with his now 18 year old eyes instead of the 6-12 year old eyes he had when he played there almost daily, he felt it was much harder to see the magic of the space... he also said he didn't want to visit anymore of the special playgrounds of his past, because it felt like it ruined the magic of his play memories. Yes, the space was still filled with nostalgia, but that he was also a little sad he could not longer see the magic that once filled the space.
And maybe this is what playgrounds are in a way?
A space one has a relationship with. Not just a space that can be played in.
Maybe our role as parents and educators is to support that relationship.
And the role of city planners and playground architects/designers is to create spaces that children of all ages to interact with.
Another thing we noticed is that lots of spaces are designed for young children and the very young (12 and under) and then there is play for adults - but there seems to be few opportunities for play for the 12-18 year olds. We thought that maybe this is because this age range needs a play that is similar to that of the younger children, but so much more challenging, and that this is often then seen as too risky for the younger ones... and keeping them safe comes first instead of designing ways that allows EVERYONE to play.
In some play-spaces the rungs of the ladder up are spaced differently - especially the first step is very high, meaning younger (and shorter) children are physically not capable of going up that way. This can be a great way to create spaces that provide enough challenge for everyone and keeping the younger and less experienced members safe (as long as adults don't start lifting up children, and accept that their child being frustrated they can't get up, is a natural part of growing up, and the day they are tall enough and strong enough and wise enough to manage will come and they can feel the joy and thrill of that)
I also think that society has a general problem with how play is viewed - so that there comes a time when older children pretend they don't like play, because it is "childish" and they are striving to be seen as adults. We really need to normalise the joy, thrill and value of play. And acknowledge how we play will change over the years, but we still need access to that joy.
The bigger, higher, longer slides that we saw would be great challenges for older children - but often the internal steps up were designed in such a way to keep young children safe with platforms and small openings etc that it made it hard work for adult sized bodies to use... all three of my children were as tall as some adults by the age of 12-14, so there needs to be consideration about the shift in height of children - who are getting taller. And as a tall person - rescuing children who start to panic mid way up is extremely hard when playgrounds have been made in such a way. Even If I usually verbally support children down, I usually use my body like a safety mattress behind the child so they feel less scared. Another things we noticed is that structures can be built for different reasons... to train the body, to challenge, to play tag, or for role play etc. Sometimes role play coding was placed in the middle of a structure that encouraged chase games. And while I am all for multiplicity, sometimes I think it is hard for these two kinds of play to happen in the same space without unwanted crashing, or other frustrations. At the Adventure and Story park in Vårby there was a clear focus on challenge and training rather than play in the main part of the space, with some random spherical things to climb in and hide or admire the view - to the side was a small forested part which felt more role play like. This kind of thinking allows a space to have multiple uses, but does not have to have multiple play types in the exact same cubic meters at the same time. As an educator, parent or playworker it is hard to protect multiple play frames if the space does not provide the cubic metres for these to occur simultaneously without interfering with each other. it is much smarter to create small islands of play that connect with each other so the children can flow in and out of them and minimising play destruction my some children's quiet play slowing down others, or some children's wilder play annihilating others play etc. The play space at Crow-Mountain (a part of the Årsta Mountain* Park) uses this principle - in the forest there are various islands of play connected by a network of pathways (that have their own play potential) and can allow different kinds of play to happen in these areas, with different needs being met. There were some signs of thinking about making spaces inclusive - but I didn't feel that there was a full understanding of what play inclusivity means - random ramps and some supportive swings does not mean the space allows all children to fully participate in play.
And as for the metal slides... I did a whole load of research into finding any incidents of children being burnt by metal slides in Sweden, and found none. I also went round feeling all the slides, and while some got very warm, and one was hot, but not too hot to touch, it was not stopping any children going down the slide like I have observed when in Australia and USA (and those were plastic slides). In fact the same slide could be warm on one side and cold, yes cold, not cool, on the other. Here in Sweden we have a very short summer, with cool nights (its going up to a warm for Sweden 25 degrees C during the day at the moment, with just 10 degrees at night). Also our 7 month winters need slides that are durable - plastic slides are often worn by the gravel stuck in boots and on clothes and from children scooping it up and placing it on the slides (as is a regular play experiment I have observed). There was one newspaper report on hot slides, who went and investigated more, when a person complained about the temperature of slides being dangerous - the results were the slide was not too hot, the children thought it was warm but not enough to put them off sliding, and when the reporters tried to fry and egg on the surface it didn't come close to even cooking. I write this as some people were commenting on my social media about metal slides. I do think it is important that Swedish authorities and parents and teachers keep an eye on slide temperatures, as the increase in global temperatures might mean there is a need to adjust the kind of slides that can be safely used here.
Now for a few images before finishing for today - and then I will start a series of posts connecting to the 8 categories of risk starting with speed.
It was certainly impressive looking. There were many levels inside to prevent falling being too far... and this one didn't seem overly tricky to get up even when tall, as some others were. The ladder style way of going up is a clear indicator that very young children either should not be doing this, or need support of a parent behind them, as it requires a level of strength that does come with size and experience. I will explore this more in the post about heights and speed.
Pathways and walls that are pathways dividing the space into different areas of play yet still open for the play to flow into each other - Kråkberget (Årstabergsparken)
This space also had different kinds of play - a big grassy area separated a climbing frame that was more about gymnastics and training and challenging and then a bee inspired playground - Enkehusparken (Vasastan)
There are several parks throughout Stockholm that are designed like a mini museum - they actually reflect the local history of the area - this one for instance is located on Kvarnholmen (The Mill Island) and is where the world's most modern mill (in 1923) was located. If you are interested in the history of the area you can read this (in Swedish). These spaces have lots of parts that might seem a little dangerous at first glance - bits of engines and replicas of historical kitchens. All for the stuff is pinned down (in the first of its kind park there were loose parts too, but they all disappeared sadly - probably stolen). As a tall person I band my head, and have had big scrapes on my back trying to navigate these spaces while supporting young children.
here you can see what it's like in one of the indoor spaces - some things do move, as in rotate, but cannot be moved from place to place.
Some spaces have had splash pools... and different kinds... there will come a different post on that when it comes to dangerous elements. (Skytteholmspark)
some parks are staffed and have loose parts available - including bikes, trikes etc... I will have a post all about this later too.
Now for some random images - more images will be coming in future posts... and more reflections
*its not actually a mountain, but a hill, but languages are strange and berg is used for mountain and hill - fjäll is used for the BIG mountains - like in my native Yorkshire we use the word Fell.