September 07 2012

Designing for Play: Children in the Public Realm

Aldo van Eyck playground in Amsterdam post WWIIAmsterdam is one of those places I fell in love with before I ever visited. Architect Aldo van Eyck is the primary reason behind this. WWII left the city devastated with bomb-demolished buildings on many blocks, and the newly brandished professional’s first assignment was to begin designing neighborhood playgrounds – some in place of leveled buildings and others located centrally within neighborhoods.

His playgrounds embody design that is lauded by current childhood development specialists with elements that are abstract, textured, and pliable: engaging the senses and encouraging imagination. Such unstructured play is required for sustainable learning.

Rarely are attempts made to incorporate children into urban planning. When places are planned for children they are prescribed and often quarantined by fences. U.S. school and city playgrounds present one extreme of this situation, mainly caused by a culture of fear dictated by lawsuits. Safety supersedes play, imagination, exploration, and even learning at times.

As in the case of Amsterdam, European cities have, managed to embrace a more comprehensive place for children in the public realm, partially because of different approaches to safety regulations. Playgrounds like van Eyck’s have created pockets of exploration around nearly every corner of the city, specifically for children.

When I arrived to the city this summer, I was excited to see what was left of these abstract relics of playground history. Those that I found, and others that are similar, truly are a great aspect of the historical and modern design in the city, with some in urban neighborhoods and others integrated into the landscape design of city parks.

The problem exists that I’ve only ever seen children playing on these playgrounds once. Such a problem is reminiscent of those combated by Jane Jacob’s eyes of the street solution.

Adults playing exercise playgroundAs captured recently by a blogger at PPS, playgrounds are “staging areas of the cities of tomorrow.” They require some aspect of diversity and mix-use. Contemporary playgrounds should plan for a wide range of ages. Some parks have experimented with installing workout equipment along-side play equipment. Places that successfully attract adults and children make a space that is used more.

What elements and interactions on your childhood playground prepared you for civic life now?

Credits: Images and data linked to sources.

Ellen Schwaller

Ellen Schwaller is a former GRID blogger and graduate of Arizona State University's master's program in Urban and Environmental Planning. Spending most of her life in the sprawling sunbelt, it was a recognized desire for human-centered rather than auto-centered places that drew her to the planning field. With a Bachelors of Science in Environmental Science, she looks for ways to integrate the natural and built environments to create spaces and neighborhoods that matter. A large part of her research has been in the realm of residential perception and attitudes and how this might inform city and neighborhood planning and design.

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This entry was posted on Friday, September 7th, 2012 at 10:15 am and is filed under Community/Economic Development, Environment, Landscape Architecture, Social/Demographics, Urban Planning and Design. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can leave a response, or trackback from your own site.

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