Thursday, June 17, 2010

The Power of Tinkering and Risk

Gever Tulley, founder of The Tinkering School, presents two short lectures on imaginative play, creative problem solving, collaboration, risk, and 5 dangerous things for kids to do.

Tulley, the author of, Fifty Dangerous Things (You Should Let Your Children Do) is trying to encourage society to revisit the curious and adventurous nature of our childhood, and loosen the tight grasp we have placed on risk mitigation in play and development.  While overprotective parenting is a personal scale issue, society as a  whole has become obsessed with limiting exposure to both risk and hazard in the playscape, which can promote debilitating side effects.  Don't we all learn some of the most enduring lessons from close calls, near misses, burns, heartbreaks, and meltdowns? It's messy stuff - why should we stifle the curious mind and provide false senses of safety and ease?  Shouldn't we be encouraging the exposure to self taught risk management and personal limits and boundaries?

It's important for us to remember that there is a difference between hazards and risks. We should avoid hazards, but the opportunity to experience risk should be provided. Developing an ability to contemplate and assess risk is important to our development, and to prepare us for life. Potential risks, and the feedback we receive from attempting risky things, is something of which children are being deprived.

Unusual Playscapes

An interesting collection of playscapes from around the world can be found here: 10 Unusual Playgrounds From Around the World by David K. Israel

What is so promising and intriguing about these playscapes?

Materiality - Or more specifically, the use of materials that are usually not associated with playscapes, or are used in an exaggerated manner. The suspended woven structure is not only an interesting playscape, it serves as an interesting exploration into the sectional properties of dealing with inhabiting space. What kind of spaces / landscapes could be fabricated with similar ideas? Perhaps there are varying levels of porosity, rigidity, and expandability. Could pockets of growth mediums be established and sustain plants, gardens, habitats?

The reciprocal nature of material investigation - informing play - informing design potentialities speaks to the necessity of play being integral to the way we live, think, and dream.

Reuse - The use of castaway materials poses many issues in dealing with responsible design methods, material efficiency, life span, and the American movement toward for excessively sterile (but safe) play environments. Sterility by nature is lacking and deficient. We must question what is at stake and neglected through an obsessive nature towards playground 'cleanliness'.

Adaptability and Metamorphosis - The ability for spaces to serve as a blank canvas for interpretations to unfold on them over time makes for a potentially successful space. The old adage 'Less is More' has great resonance in this situation. Perhaps, often times we offer too much, prescribe too much, and define too much so that we effectively stifle any potential for growth and expansion.

Adventure Playgrounds

The Berkeley Adventure Playground was established in 1979 and is one of three Adventure Playgrounds still in existence in the US (see this link for more history on Adventure Playgrounds). The concept of Adventure Playgrounds was introduced by a Danish Landscape Architect in 1931 after realizing children preferred to play everywhere besides the playgrounds he designed. Seeing how children enjoyed interacting with a movable and rich environment, he envisioned a "junk playground in which children could create and shape, dream and imagine a reality". The first Adventure Playground opened in Denmark in 1943, and others followed suit in London shortly thereafter. Currently, there are over 1,000 Adventure playgrounds in Europe, mostly in Denmark, Switzerland, France, Germany, The Netherlands, and England.

If liability fears and a litigious society have pushed us away from such 'organized' opportunities, what do we learn from the successes that we can apply elsewhere? Perhaps fundamentally, one of the lessons is how compelling it is for us to be able to create and rearrange our environments... to make our own mark.

The endless possibilities of cardboard boxes, wood pallets, appliances, scrap metal, and a little ingenuity and exploration should never be underestimated.

Audio Excerpt - NPR - 'Adventure Playgrounds' a Dying Breed in the U.S., March 9, 2006 -

Berkeley Adventure Playground -

Adventure Playgroud enthusiast Lia Sutton, has produced a booklet on Adventure Playgrounds and it can be viewed here-

Imagination Playground

We have an intrinsic desire to manipulate and create our surroundings. This shows itself early in our development, and continues through life. Valuable lessons are encountered through 'tinkering' with space, team work, role playing, and failed attempts at crafting structures and relationships. When given the choice between a loose pieces, and a pre-fabricated play structure, children and youth will migrate toward the parts that they can assemble on their own terms.

Providing such a 'kit-of-parts' within a play environment allows for uninhibited exploration and growth. As a designer, one of the lessons learned is that perhaps we need to let go and leave more to the users of our spaces. You can't help but think that such an approach would lead to compelling possibilities in considering urban infrastucture, public space, and environmental design. We're contemplating this anyways...

Specifically for the loose parts playground, the "Imagination Playground" is a new model for unprescribed play and illustrates the effectiveness of simplicity when young mind are provided the opportunity to give form to their own playspace.

The Rockwell Group, a New York City architectural firm has produced a new model for evolving playscapes. The concept of Imagination Playground is closely related to the ad-hoc adventure playgrounds that blossomed in post-war Europe. Imagination Playground is comprised of mobile boxes that contain a kit-of-parts that can be deployed and assembled in an any fashion that the child-designer so chooses. The nature of the Playground promotes collaboration, creativive play, and a sense of accomplishment. Stationary playsets are hard pressed to offer such adaptability and morphological attributes.

Imagination Playground - http://http//

Isamu Noguchi - Playscapes

On a recent trip to the East Coast, I visited the Isamu Noguchi Museum in Long Island City, just across the East River from Manhattan. Of special interest was a room of playscape models developed by Noguchi for various projects.

A pile of earth holds latent opportunities that offer exciting design opportunities, for both physically and mentally engaging landscapes. Several years ago, I was working on a residential project for a family with three young boys. The excavated fill from a sunken patio formed two large 'mountains' of dirt... and became too much of a temptation for the boys to stay away from, and provided hours of entertainment. I proposed a design to integrate culvert pipe sections, rock climbing walls, and plantings into the earthen berms - transforming the vast expanse of backyard into an interesting landscape of topography - for play and seasonal interest. Sadly for me, the desire for the quintessential American green lawn outweighed the boys' need for a stimulating playscape. Eleven truckloads of fill material were trucked away from the site, making way for an irrigation system and 22,000 square feet of sod. In a similar tone, many of Noguchi's sculpted playscapes were only realised as models and were never constructed. What is it about these particular landscapes / playscapes that prevent them from being realized?

Noguchi (1904-1988) was a sculptor who worked with stone, metal, wood and clay, and produced models for public projects, gardens, and dance sets. Noguchi's Playscapes were explorations in topographical manipulation that foster a sense of wonder and exploration. The landscape proposals provided unrestricted Play opportunities and possessed the ability to transform one's imagination, supporting creativity and timeless adaptation.

Noguchi Museum - http://http//

Why Play is Vital - No Matter Your Age

Play expert Stuart Brown, of the National Institute for Play presented a lecture at the 2008 "Serious Play" lecture series at TED. His studies have shown that Play, or a lack of, can have long-lasting affects on one's life. He presents an argument that Play is not only for the young, and that maintaining an active pursuit of Play throughout our lives is important

As a profession that orchestrates the interactions between everyday life and out outdoor environments, what responsibilities do we have for ensuring that we create stimulating, engaging, and enlightening places? How do we encourage play, investigation, and speculation into often banal situations (not every design is a playground), captivating the imaginations of all ages, and ability levels?

Often, design solutions become diluted through repetition, like an anticipated plot line sequence for a worn out story. To what level must we commit to producing new situations versus relying upon prescribed and expected solutions? How can we better promote a lifetime of play?

National Institute for Play - http://