I went on a walk through the park yesterday and saw the remnants of last Monday’s giant snowballs standing alone on the grass. They looked like lost and melting meteors. A group of children were clambering over one and trying to see how many could stand on the top without slipping off, and it was clear that the snow is continuing to offer play cues to children, even if adults have for the most part returned to their daily routine.
Ways of injecting play into the city’s veins came up at the Play England Research Network a little over a week ago when Bruno Taylor and Vincenzo di Maria of Common Grounds Designs presented their ideas for a bouncing park bench. They also showed their video of a swing which they had covertly hung in an Islington bus stop, before retreating to a cafe to film the consequences. The video is available here and has already gathered over 50,000 hits and a caliber of comment far beyond the YouTube usual.
With their guerrilla tactics they are experimenting with the same ideas that many saw in the snowfall. Sometimes external forces, whether climate conditions or clever designers with a simple idea, startle us out of our daily routine assumptions. They make us question the world in which we live, and how we live in it, even if we only register this questioning in a moment of levity or a story to tell people at the office. This is play.
When people talk about playable space they are not just talking about making room for children and play in the public sphere (though there’s no ‘just’ about that goal). They’re talking about making places where people can be playful together, where they can be lighthearted and fully engaged at the same time. Playability is about making space in our cities and our lives in which something surprising might happen. It’s about inviting surreality into our daily interactions with people and with the built environment.
Living playfully is something we need to re-learn how to do, and we need it badly. The transformational force of the snowstorm is still being talked about – how quiet it made the world seem, how friendly people became when forced to walk slowly and reach out for support, how the act of simply getting to work was made a triumphant adventure, and how those who found other diversions met a world that looked entirely different to the one they’d seen the day before.
Articles such as this one lauded the changes as inspiring a joyful anarchy, while this one speaks to the wide uncertainty felt by adults when it came to reactions. How to respond to a snowball thrown by a child? Ring the police? Apparently hundreds did, and I’m sure far more hesitated and wondered what the consequences of throwing one back might be.
We have a strange relationship to children and young people these days, one which both fears them and fears for them in equal and dramatic measure. I think this confusion is linked to our issues with play. Play for adults is complicated and rather than develop new ways to play many cling to the ways of their own childhood, and nostalgically collect the objects they longed for years ago. At the same time, grownups roll their eyes at the noise of children playing, fight the location of football pitches and play areas outside their front doors and say quite baldly “I hate children”. All of them? Have you met them?
For many adults all it takes is reminding them of the children they used to be for understanding to develop. Play memories are visceral and profound, and small changes such as a swing at a bus stop, or one day in which throwing a snowball at a stranger will most likely be responded to in kind, can make enormous differences. These experiences go a long way towards healing the rifts caused by lost playfulness in our own adult lives, and making us see that children’s play is necessary for their enjoyment and development, as well as that of the community as a whole.