The story of speed.
Yesterday I started to write about my week of exploring playgrounds in the Stockholm area with a focus on the 8 categories of risky play. Today I will share some of my thinking about speed.
Firstly I want to share that what I think is important in all of this is to create a safe space for children to play freely and make mistakes. Some of those mistakes might come with bumps, bruises and scrapes, and this is a part of the process of learning, understanding and being able to make informed decisions - the wisdom coming from practical knowledge as well as theoretical (being told, instructed, read etc).
In previous posts that I have written I have shared my thinking about the complexity of risk and play, and that I am not of the opinion that risky play is only physical, but also cognitive, emotional and social; but in these posts about playgrounds I will be first focusing on the physical play.
My reflections are based on my 30 years of visiting play-spaces with children, as well as my recent week with my son, Michael.
What strikes me first is that playing with speed requires space. There needs to be enough space to both be able to pick up speed and also to slow down to a stop without crashing (unless the crashing is a deliberate part of the play of course).
I have actually manipulated space in my indoor environments to prevent children achieving speeds that could lead to more serious accidents - so instead of saying no and policing the children, I would place furniture in such a way that prevented the children from picking up speed. Fortunately, this has never been something I needed to do much outside, except for bikes and trikes close to where other children are playing that might lead to an accident with zero learning benefits.
I noticed in some of the playgrounds that have trikes and other play-transport, they also had lines on the surface to indicate roads, and what direction bikes should go in. Over the years I have found this to be a sensible way of providing for multiple kinds of play in the same area without having to compromise the speed. Another way to reduce/encourage speed in certain areas is the surface material - tarmac, and rubber surfacing are nice and smooth and allow children to pick up speed, especially if there is a slope; while gravel can slow them down, as the softer surface is harder to cycle across. Grass is also softer, but bikes and trikes will churn that up in no time on wet days until there is no grass left and the surface is very uneven when dry.
Rålambhovspark. This is a busy park, with lots of wheeled play-things of multiple kinds that are able to achieve high speeds on days where there are less people milling around - during term time there are less adults as children come with their preschools/schools. This is, though, one of the few spaces that actively welcomes adults to come and play with signs saying play is for every 0-150years. This is a staffed park.
Slopes are great ways to increase speed. Whether these be grassy hills to run, roll or trike down, or ramps, bumps or slides. Again thinking about how much space there is to slow down at the bottom is also essential - so that there is physically enough space, and also so that it does not disturb the flow of others at play. That there is the occasional crash is inevitable, but ultimately I think it is smart to avoid regular ones. This brings me to weather and seasons. These slopes and ramps will change depending on the weather - I have seen children fly down slides when they are the very first to go down a wet slide on a rainy day, only for subsequent children to get stuck - how much water makes a difference on the speed.
Clothes makes a difference - some children wear clothes that seem to maximise the glide, while others seem to just stick and slow it all down. This could be used to your advantage if you design special cloth mats in different kinds of materials that created different levels of friction - then children could decide how fast they wanted to go down a slide and choose the appropriate mat. I recently used a tote bag to get a better speed down a slide
As you can hear, I am scared at the beginning, and I place my feet apart to act as a break in order to get a sense of the speed, and then I put them together when I see it is far from fast. This experimenting with speed is something that I have done with a group of preschoolers - my motive had been exposing the children to maths and science without it ever being a lesson in those subjects - but basically we visited LOADS of playgrounds in Stockholm to find the longest and the fastest slide. We measured by using string and then comparing the lengths os string with each other, and we timed the children going down - they soon noticed how clothing and weather made a difference!
In winter in Stockholm we used to get a lot of snow, and the ground was frozen from late October to April - but these days there is less snow, and we have days of mud throughout the 7 months of winter. There is plus and minus with this - the plus is that muddy play is an absolute favourite, and the plastic spades and bucket don't shatter as they do when the temperatures go below zero - but it does mean there is a lot of grey, wet miserable months, and the opportunities to explore ice the way we used to is less predictable - and for shorter periods of time. Sledging down hills, sliding on ice, skating - all of these things were once a daily reality of picking up speed during the winter. Some playgrounds have slopes for sledging on, where they wrap crash mats around any trees close to the area - they also lend out sledges and other things to slide on. Some have helmets too, but they always need to be properly adjusted, because they are only safe if they are well fitted, so most preschools ask parents to supply a helmet and make sure that the parents fix the helmet to work on top of a winter hat for their child. I have also worked at places that supply the helmets and at the start of the season we assign a certain helmet to each child and make sure it is properly adjusted to work of that child's helmet hat (a thing kinder of beanie hat that keeps ears warm but is not too bulky). Simply wearing a helmet is not what makes it safe, it can be more dangerous to wear a badly fitted helmet than none at all. I have worked at one preschool where a child in another group crashed badly in a sledging accident and needed to go to hospital, where they were told that the helmet saved the child from being seriously injured. I have not personally witnessed any serious accidents on sledges despite seeing many children fall and crash - myself included.
Here are some slopes we saw in playgrounds
There were also grassy slopes next to parks for sledging and running down - and tiny bumps. I was fascinated by the bumps at Aspudden Playground (seen in film below) as I saw lots of young children (1-3yr olds) running up and down them.
Speed could also be achieved through swinging and spinning - and we saw plenty of examples of swings and spinners for single and multiple users - see the images below
I will actually go into swings, slides and spinners in another post in more detail - as they can offer so much more than just speed. We actually checked out spinners to see how easy it was to get a decent speed. Some were surprisingly fast - while others were disappointingly slow.
Very slow and heavy - even with two of us trying (and Michael is almost 2m tall!)
I have played with preschoolers on this actual equipment - and have seen children fly off, without any injury and a hurry to get back on. We developed all sorts of different strategies for how to keep safe, how to hold it best, or how to intentionally fly off. When there are children on it, I can assure you it is very hard for it to pick up the same speed - and even harder when the children are doing it themselves.
What I have noticed indoors is that long corridors encourage running... and I saw something similar outside too.
This was a really long ramp going around almost the whole park - on the left you can see that the underneath part has planks going down - and this is because that areas has been converted into a playhouse like area - underneath closest to the right you can see ropes that can be climbed, and they swing slightly. Behind me is a slide - and off screen to the left there is another slide. The wooden surface made a good sound when run on, and the slight incline meant many ran back and forth (and yes, I hang around to try and get as few children on camera, or wait until they look the other way as much as possible - but as they are public areas it is legal to take photos)
There is a park with a large labyrinth like series of corridors that has encourage many a chase game and speed - I realise I did not take any photos of it, because I thought I already had some, but I can't find them at the moment.
Corridors can be created with coloured lines or pathways on the ground too.
But talking of chase games - some climbing equipment is designed for speed. My friend, Jay Beckwith designed equipment to meet the needs of chase games - so multiple entry and exit points that can be quickly climbed, entered and slides and jumps to get down and run around and under. Here are a few photos of such equipment
Other similar equipment seems to be designed for a mix of speed and role play, or simply to physically challenge children. I will go more into climbing frames in a later post. But what I think is important is to look at the equipment and consider what it might be telling the children. So many of the groups of children I have worked with have instantly seen the chase game playability and entered a fast paced game together - sometimes to the enormous frustration of others playing there - especially where role play is one of the features the equipment is also messaging right in the middle of the chase game sentence. I think it is always important to try and design spaces that allow many forms of play to co-exist - that does not necessarily mean on the same equipment.
Many of these images might come up in future posts - and this is because often children experience multiple categories of risk at the same time, or a piece of play equipment or landscape can offer multiple categories depending on how the children are interacting. So while I might be just focusing on one category at a time, I am aware of the multiplicity of play. The point of these posts is to encourage thinking about how can we safely engage with the risky play categories.
A slope does not have to be steep - a young child will not cycle as fast as an older one. And also we need to always think about how inclusive are these space. If we are adding gravel to the ground to slow down bikes, we will also slow down wheelchairs, and make it much more hard work for a child to access autonomous play and more likely to need assistance. Some of the natural wooden safety surfaces say that they are wheelchair accessible, yet when my daughter did a accessibility evaluation of public spaces a few years ago together with others (her autism, together with people in wheelchairs, a person who was legally blind and others) they discovered that this kind of surface was not so easy to navigate and required much more energy. There are wheelchair swings in a very few places, where the swinging action is not particularly thrilling - the basket swings can mean children that struggle to support themselves in a normal swing can lie down, and also together with others, and these kinds of swings can offer the thrill of speed, but they might require help to get on.
When I have observed preschools at public spaces with a child in a wheelchair, very often the child is just there, sometimes being moved from place to place, but relying on vicarious play as the only access to thrill and adventure is not enough.
I will close with a film of my son going down a long slide