"Play for All"... The Next Playground Movement?

Two approaches to urban playground design move in opposite directions: while ‘playground typologies’ evolve at a granular level to address age-specific needs in response to new research, an expanded definition of “playground” includes the entire space of the city and every user, child and adult.

Why expand the definition of “playground”? Signs point to a new truth: high-functioning urban landscapes require playspace for all. Chinese cities easily inspire explorations which see the larger landscape literally as a playground for everyone.

Play is coming to prominence in an age when critical thinking and creativity are growing in importance. We know that play is critical to a child’s optimal brain development because it exercises social and problem-solving skills (and much more). Conventionally design for play ends well before 20 years old, when the brain is more fully mature. But play itself is a process of learning and lays the foundation for innovative problem-solving long after childhood into adulthood.

It is not accepted that adult play in the public spaces of our cities should be addressed with the rigor that we apply to playspace design for children. And yet, creative cross-disciplinary solutions cannot be achieved without the foundation of play. Urban overcrowding and traffic, human migration and global refugees, reduction of greenhouse gas in the atmosphere; a city’s ecological, technical, and cultural systems all require highly creative solutions from myriad fields of expertise—made by adults.

Playgrounds can fit inside a much larger cultural context of “play in the landscape.” Landscape is everything outside of the building, not only green areas. The Chinese city has long supported play of all kinds, for all ages, in every conceivable occupiable space outside of buildings. We can agree that simply because a landscape appears playful, colorful, and expressive to the eye, in no way does this imply that it is meant solely for use by children.

Walker Talks About Playgrounds In Terms of “Art as Play”

How might cities address adult play?

“The assertion that art and play are closely related and in fact may be the same thing is not commonly considered,” says Jake Walker, co-founder of Ballistic Architecture Machine. “When examining art and it’s relationship to creativity, play is rarely considered in the equation.”

Walker sees art as “one of the purest embodiments of creatvity” and finds that “when discussing the importance of being creative, it is difficult to avoid the topic of art. The creation of art was much more associated with discipline, structure, and decades of refinement and practice to achieve mastery of craft.” For Walker, all of this appears “counter-intuitive to play.” “On top of this, institutions built around the way art is talked and written about do not lend themselves to be taken lightly.”

As Renaissance-period work transitioned to Modernist, more visceral and intuitive art emerged. Not only was work being created differently, how we are intended to interact with art is called into question.

With roots going back to the early 20th century, installation art gains prominence in the 1960’s and ‘70’s with work like Kurt Schwitter’s Merzbau (1933). In Marcel Duchamp’s New York installation, Mile of String (1942) (part of Andre Breton’s exhibition, First Papers of Surrealism), he instructs children to play. Six boys and six girls dressed in sport attire throw balls and play hopscotch or jax.

Land art, part of the installation movement, not only resisted being bought or sold, it resisted the spaces intended to house art, forever changing discourse about art.

Installation art allowed boundaries bewteen art, design, architecture, and landscape to blur. In effect, installation work is not only prevalent in art museums and gallerys, but also seem to be anywhere: in design institutions, urban parks, music festivals, product launches, shopping malls, airports.

"The prevasiveness of installation art is in part because it invites exploration, physical movement and interaction, problem solving and contemplation together with socialization," Walker suggests. "I think the sustained popularity as a method of expression is due to our ingrained desire to play regardless of age. Quoting Friedrich Schiller, 18th century German philsopher, ‘Man only plays when he is, in the fullest sense of the word, a human being, and he is only fully a human being when he plays.’ In essence, installation art has become the method by which adults play.”

Are BAM playgrounds a form of installation art for Walker? “We didn’t establish our practice with the desire to make installations or to design playgrounds,” Walker responds. “It seems both have come to us because our work appears playful. Our work might appear playful because of our unique relationship to and interpretations of art, particularly installation art. It’s strangely fitting to talk at the UCCA, a foremost comtemporary art venue, about the topic of play.”

“At BAM we are not architects; we don’t design buildings. Nor did BAM begin with the mission to design urban landscape. Nor have we considered ourselves artists making art. We try to make work that encourages interaction with each other and our environment, so we notice, question, test, move... BAM wants people to play. Creating work, BAM plays too.”

Play in the Landscape: China-Inspired

Play led BAM to determine that the urban landscape was the most relevant and critical design focus in China. “Far more relevant than architecture,” Walker says. “The way Chinese people use the city landscape is full of play. Compared to how people use urban landscapes in places like the United States, the Chinese urban landscape is a significantly fertile ground.”

In China, people dance, play music, fly kites, play chess and board games, exercise, meditate, paint, write calligraphy on the ground, and much, much more. This kind of play in all spaces of the city is what drew BAM to China and working in the landscape. Playgrounds are a relatively new manifestiation of a culture in which play in the landscape has not only been commonplace, but seems to be a necessity.