Sharp visions for vague and loose materials

, , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

In our sketches for a new city park in Falkenberg we took the starting point in creating a family area – a playful place where both children and adults can enjoy themselves, playing and relaxing.

What features are needed for different ages to enjoy the same environment? In Falkenberg’s new city park, high school students and SFI students will share the space with elderly and young children. How do you design a park “for everyone”? During conversations with some older inhabitants of Falkenberg earlier this spring, we found that they did not really express the desire to blend generational boundaries, rather expressing concern about the teenagers who would hang out in the park. But are these views actually an expression of an even greater need to really try to plan for different generations to meet?

Psychologist Eva Norén-Björn is a great source of inspiration in the play environment area. With a background in developmental psychology, she worked many years for the government authority Lekmiljörådet (the Play Environment Council) and Barnmiljörådet (the Children´s Environment Council which later became Barnombudsmannen, the Children’s Ombudsman). She is active in Lekfrämjandet (IPA, the International Playground Association) and has written several books on the topic, including the first (and only study?) of children’s actual use of various play tools in playgrounds (Lek, lekplatser, lekredskap : en utvecklingspsykologisk studie av barns lek på lekplatser, 1977) .

We asked Eva Norén-Björn if she thinks there really is a special value in creating site-specific children’s playroom environments, instead of those pre-fabricated ones? What should a good playground contain from a child´s perspective? And how are decision makers most likely to want to put down some longer processes in designing these environments? How can we convince them?

Byggstudio (B): What has driven you in your work around play and play environments?

Eva Norén-Björn (ENB): The play is the children’s own internal driving force, I have an enormous  respect for the play, what the child plays is what matters to them. You can learn a lot from what they focus on and are interested in in their play.

That’s what I used in my observations, I followed them and saw what they were looking for: leaf hills, water pools, nature. It is not what we adults have arranged for them. They just use the environment as it currently feels interesting.

B: But do you really need designed environments then? What can they bring?

ENB: Yes, absolutely! When I started observing children (in the 1970s), there was a false belief that some play tools would favor a certain development in the child and that they could tag them with different “playing values”. But what is important is the whole. The play tool is the interaction between everything – the children, the environment and the adults.

One way to design is NOT to make the asphalt completely smooth – it can be messy and knobbly! So that it collects water as it does in nature – if you want to see things from the children’s perspective, who have different ways of looking at the environment than this orderly and neat perspective that adults usually have.

That’s what one fights all the time when play environments are designed, adults want order and a clear overview. But children want to hide, find shadow and be at ease sometimes.

So it’s not that design is bad, it may be something for the children to bounce against. Children have different needs as well. Children with strong imagination, they do not need playgrounds that resemble something recognizable, it can be something that gives shadow that you can crawl over or over. To decide if it’s a bridge or a cave or whatever it is is up to each child. But often adults make perfect interpretations – sea cruiser ships, for example, and then the whole imagination has already been done to the children. However, there are children who do not have such strong imagination or a disability, which may require more clear control – “this is a boat”. Therefore, in a play environment, one should have the full scale – from ambiguous to more abstract designs. Both parts are needed.

B: Is this adult the need for order bigger now than when you started working, do you think? That the play environments should be more orderly.

ENB: There are different orientations now, some playground designs use natural materials and so on. But if you look at the cities, some environments are so boring that the bells stop. I do not understand how to play there. First, it is cleared from all loose material, and the underlay is very stiff. There are very few places in Stockholm, for example, where there is still regular stamped clay – which you can draw on with sticks! It shrinks,  the free play space in the cities. But then there are lots of such space in the countryside of course.

B: Prefabricated playground tools often have similar color scales and materials in themselves it seems. This is certainly due to some extent to sustainability, economy and function. But are not just the surfaces, the sensory and tactile experience, variation in materials and surfaces really incredibly important for children and their development?

ENB: Well yes, to feel a really worn, soft wood, for example, it’s something one always remembers. And to see all the shades of nature.

B: Playtool surfaces are often smooth?

ENB: Yes, adults are afraid that children will scratch their knees if it’s rough. But the children, they adapt and understand that I have to be careful here. In that way they learn. Making environments too safe makes it unimpressive for the children, and they go elsewhere to discover. So yes – you have to make it rough as well, especially in the cities where the environments are limited and monotonous.

B: What values can a site-specific designed play environment actually enrich the children with? Compared with just ordering some finished tools. Is there a value in itself that the play area has its own expression, its own identity?

ENB: Yes, that’s it – because then it’s an idea to go there instead of somewhere where everything looks the same. In Malmö, for example, they have theme playgrounds – like space and music, among other things, and maybe it’s good. But at the same time, the playground must be open to the children’s own interpretation, it must be possible to build or change them. All different features need to be available, even if it is a specific theme that you design from.

When designing a play environment, one can think about it like when creating a home I think; one place to gather, one for making a mess, one for resting and so on.

The prerequisites are different if it is a closed place – as a pre-school environment or in a public place that will work around the clock. With on-site staff though, you have so many more options – to handle loose materials and tools, for example. But I think it’s truly fun for the kids to know that you are going to a specific kind of place.

B: Why is the site-specific fun?

ENB: Think of Astrid Lindgren’s stories, she dubbed places clearly, waking up the children’s imagination! ”The Dark water”, ”The Sea Shell”, children can spun on their own imaginations by such names.

Same with shapes – half-abstract play sculptures to self-interpret are exciting. “Tuffsen” (Egon Møller-Nielsen, 1949), is an example. Each user has its own interpretation of the shape and its own name, and it is not designed to be figurative. But again, the balance between the figurative and abstract is important for different types of children.

B: How to create a place that is attractive for both children and parents? As a parent, I really feel that many playgrounds are not made for the well-being of the parents, and you do not want to stay for so long.

ENB: A sunny corner – the weather line is important, it should not be a windy space for example. It should be cozy and nice, to feel that there is a place to relax, to sit down while the children run freely. It’s really important! If the adults are comfortable, the children may stay longer and play. Coffee, fika, is a simple element that makes the parents feel comfortable. In the Rålis park (Stockholm), the adventure playground staff began to bake Kärleksmums (cake) and then noticed how the parents stayed longer. In Holland there are playgrounds where parents can buy beer, like a bar! And those parents were really enjoying themselves well of course. But that would never happen here.

B: Young children and teens, how can you mix different age groups in one environment?

ENB: For teens, you need to plan in particular, maybe with stairs to sit in for example. In a teenage gang you get different positions, some want to be seen and others pull themselves away. Preferably beyond the families of children – as a teenager you probably want to do your own thing.

B: In the remade Drakenbergsparken playground at Södermalm in Stockholm, I sometimes feel the atmosphere of a public square/meeting place during weekends when there are many visitors. In the middle of the area there are seating places and barbecue areas where parents can meet while the children play all around on large spaces. Playgrounds could have the potential to become the new public square, the gathering place in a community, with the right content and design.

ENB: Yes, and animals are always good. They tie together all ages and people from all cultural backgrounds.

B: We return to the fact that it is difficult to create a public playground with loose material (and for example, animals) without personnel. Previously, were there generally more staff working at playgrounds?

ENB: There are still adventure playgrounds with staff, which is really brilliant. For little  money, their salaries, you get so much in return to the community – they take care of, create and do things with the children. But if there are no staff, you could still have that stuffed box with play tools. Those who use them place them back again after use. It may feel awkward, but if you really want to create better play environments, that’s what makes it fun. Work on how a corner of “junk” – loose material can be framed nicely in and closed.

B: Water is also a material that children can play with themselves forever and “change”, I perceive it as. The ultimate element in a public play environment?

ENB: Yes, water attracts! And children who are messy will be calm by playing with water. You just have to keep in mind that it does not stand still and it’s not too deep, and it should murmur, bubble, behave, change.

B: In the 1990s, did the new safety regulations of playground tools change the conditions for designing play environments?

ENB: The rules actually were not that changed just because the EU adopted them, but a lot of change has been falsely blamed on that EU standard, in my opinion. Removed and moved play tools that pre-school staff built themselves, etc. The rules has to be sorted out and clarified better.

B: But why has there been change of security measurements then?

ENB: Because the landowner is guilty of something happening.

B: At the same time there may be a rock a little further away that is part of “nature” and it can stay. My view is that these rules are not really such a big obstacle to designing varied and exciting environments. It has more to do with an ignorance of those who order the playgrounds. That it feels simple to just order prefabricated tools. But then actually not much cheaper than creating  something site-specific.

ENB: Yes, the fear of the rules becomes a bigger obstacle than the rules themselves.

The playground equipment company Hags, with economic interests, educates the play safety inspectors themselves and gives them totally the wrong perception of what the EU safety regulation is about, according to me. Which has resulted in the removal of many play equipment from playgrounds. In some places, there is hardly any remains of a playground anymore, which in turns leads to the environment being built with housing. As a result, the play environments decrease.

B: The inspectors from Hags inspect all playgrounds, ie not only those with Hags´ own tools?

ENB: Yes exactly, they call themselves certified inspectors.

B: If this was the case of a business other than the children’s and play industry, do you think there would be more discussion and attention paid on this issue?

ENB: Yes, the whole thing is totally sick in my opinion.

B: What are the shortcomings of the prefabricated play equipment product range according to you? You have criticized them for the tools the children do not really play with?

ENB: It is based on the study we made in 1977 where we measured how many minutes the children played with different tools. Numerous tools, like obstacle courses, they almost did not play at all with. On the other hand, we noticed that “carousels”, which were at the time ”looked down upon” by us, were widely used. Now research has shown that it is very useful for the balance and brain development to spin, swing and slide. Go sledding. The breathtaking experience. We have learned more about the brain since our study in 1977…

B: Did your study really change something? The view on playgrounds and play equipment.

ENB: It may have affected the play equipment companies’ range slightly. Later, there came more combined tools, climbing tools, which worked better. And some tools were removed as well from the product ranges.

B: Tell us about the work of Lekmiljörådet (1970-1993).

ENB: At that time our mission was mostly about informing and educating on children´s play. We had a lot of study visits all the time by educators and architects, all interested in designing children’s environments. Now it has instead turned into the Children’s Ombudsman, which is a more bureaucratic authority than Lekmiljörådet.

B: How did you educate on children´s environments and needs?

ENB: We worked a lot with slide shows, presenting good examples of exciting and inspiring environments. Pictures of children playing in grass that were higher than themselves, the forest, the meadow and the beach, we had as an ideal and showed it in contrast to boring environments. We had a real revival movement in the play environment area at that time! Officials came to us from the local municipalities themselves, but we also traveled out in the country and informed.

B: You produced touring exhibitions as a way to influence decision makers and others who design play environments.

ENB: Yes, screen shows that could easily tour around, where we once again worked with footage, photos and drawings, to illustrate good play environments compared to bad ones. An example was a picture of a sad play tool meant to represent a tree next to a picture of a real tree. From that, you learn that a real tree is more exciting, it swings! To show concrete visual examples of good environments I think is very educationally effective way if you want to convince someone of its values.

Another exhibition called Leklådan, the Box for play – about the loose material that is so important. A box that everyone can come to play with and share. A box that does not need to be locked if it says what it is on the outside.

The exhibitions were shown in lobbys and at libraries in different local municipalities. People called us like crazy to get a share of them, and get advice on how to make better environments for children! There was a whole different climate about child play environments back then. They knew we were there to help and it became natural to come to us with such questions, we were a state authority which gave us power and resources.

B: An official corresponding function is not available today? How has it affected the local municipalities’ work with children’s environments you think?

ENB: No, first Lekmiljörådet changed into Barnmiljörådet in 1993, which also got a major mission for children´s safety, in addition to the play assignment. Today, the Children’s Ombudsman is not tasked with informing and communications around play environment issues. I think it has been devastating. Movium received a smaller amount to continue our education work, but that was a fraction of what we had. A loss for the children, I think.

B: How do you think your work has influenced the design of children´s play environments in the long run?

ENB: Pretty marginal, since there are always other strong forces that seem to be against our ideals. They are hard to resist, one is a small actor in that context. We who worked in the Lekmiljörådet really had a fighting spirit, we were those fought for the the alms in Kungsträdgården, you know. The general idea of children back then was that if we enrich them, they then will enrich the world, they will become cooperative and grow up as creative adults. Those who work on Barnombudsmannen, the Children’s Ombudsman, today are lawyers who do careers… There is another way of working with this field.

B: Do you feel pessimistic about the development of play environments and the respect of children’s perspectives today?

ENB: Yes, in a way. We fought like crazy but what did it change?

There are such strong forces elsewhere today, the demand for profitability. But the children are still here luckily! Haha, who still has all that play inside of them. And there are talented educators obviously, that allows children to pick leaves and sticks and to change their environment as they like.

B: My view is that it’s very much up to individual enthusiasts to create, fight for, a genuine solution for children’s play environments. For example, the outdoor environment at a preschool often seems to be planned late in the process; it seems to become a kind of random mix, purchases, of various tools that are placed in the outdoor environment, instead of thinking about an overall design from the beginning in the planning. How can this attitude, this process be changed?

ENB: Yes, it takes time to change this kind of processes, you can set yourself up. There are many who struggled for it – Anna Lenninger, for example – who fought for longer processes, that it must be a proper process when creating a new environment for children.

B: A longer process may cost a little more, but maybe it will not be more expensive in the end anyways. Prefabricated play equipment is expensive. How do you get those who decide to understand this?

ENB: Visions! You have to dare to invest, don´t saying that it won’t work.

Even if something gets vandalized once, two, three times, it can be rebuilt and eventually you win. If there are people who want to destroy things, you should face them and involve them, instead of losing your visions. What do we want to achieve? We must ask ourselves. Well, we want the children to be creative and happy, hoping for the future. That must be the starting point. And that means giving them such an environment, such existence.

B: Where public sector is a role model and leads the development.

ENB: Yes, and importantly those who work with this field in the municipalities, must have that vision themselves, not the feeling that their area has lower status or they that are not genuinely interested in the questions.

B: Have we lost the sense of play? In the design of public environments for adults, like parks, there is a lot of investments made in sports equipment, “utility” it seems to me. Tools with a clear and ”useful” function.

ENB: Play is approved if you can ”learn” something from it. But play has a value in itself! Challenged, excited, curious – what can I do here? That´s how I as an adult would like to feel in a park, as well.

> Eva Norén Björn - litterature
> Lekfrämjandet