April 19, 2010

Designing playgrounds for challenge and risk

Kate Becker, our VP of Program Management, and Darell Hammond, our CEO, recently returned from the UK, where they were touring innovative playspaces. Here is Kate's follow-up from her first post, What the UK is doing right:

For whom are we building playspaces? If we’re building them for the parents, it makes sense to minimize risk at all costs. After all, having access to an extremely safe outdoor environment where kids can expend energy would give any parent peace of mind.

But I hope we’re building playspaces for the kids. And if we are, don’t we want a space that ignites the imagination, presents adventures, and challenges children to take on new tasks?

If we are buillding playspaces for the parents, aren’t we missing the point? And if we are missing the point, what are our kids missing? In the words of Phil Doyle (see below for more on Phil), "A playground isn't doing its job if it can be mastered by most any child in their first go-round. A playground should present challenges that a child needs to work up to."

While touring roughly two dozen playspaces in the Tower Hamlets borough of London, we talked to a little girl who was seven or eight years old. She was thoroughly enjoying a hammock swing with her friends, who were competing with one another to see who could jump the furthest from the swing. When we asked her about her new playground, she told us it was loads of fun. The rolling log was very difficult, she said, and she could not yet walk on it without falling. But she is not giving up. She is learning that not everything comes easy and she has to work for her achievements. There will be a few bumps and bruises along the way. And her accomplishment will be that much more rewarding when she finally walks the entire log.

When you think about it, don’t children and adults alike have more to learn from our failures, our mistakes and our challenges than we have to learn from mastering something on the first try? Are we working too hard to protect our kids from failure? And in removing the potential for failure, are we taking away the wonderful opportunity to achieve and overcome? What sort of character-building can we foster by creating playspaces that cannot be conquered by even the most skilled seven year old in one fell swoop?

Phil Doyle was our "host with the most" during our time in London. He is one of the authors of Design for Play: A guide to creating successful play spaces, published by Play England. He has dedicated 30-plus years to play work. And yes, play work is a career, and a respected one, in the UK.

safety, risk, london, united kingdom