The history of playgrounds is generally one of architects and community activists, of urban planners and town councilors, advocates and funders. It has only rarely been a history that includes the children who live and play there or, rarer still, designed and built them.
Most conventional UK playgrounds are variations on a theme – flat surfacing, metal climbing frames, geometric shapes and a palette of bright, flat colours. They look more like parking lots than parks, and the emphasis seems to be on making them explicitly amusing places. They seem more like educational toys than anything else, as if play is something that has to be jollied along, made fun. Adults trying so hard to be helpful place that feels like very hard work.
All of this is so far from the aesthetics of children at play, of the splashes of colour and movement that blur into one another, used and then discarded, objects placed ‘just so’. Play has an internal logic to it that can baffle some adults. They may not hear white snow crying out for blue glitter, or see why a bucket belongs up a tree, or understand how a collection of small grey stones can be considered treasure. Their attachment to external definitions of use and value obscure the satisfaction of play’s surreal and magical decision-making process, of the perceptions of ‘belonging’ and ‘rightness’ that can emerge through a playful engagement with one’s environment. The closest adults come is perhaps through art, through Pollock’s paintings and Miles Davis’s jazz solos. Purposeful improvisation, this is adults being playful. It is the immersion of self in action, what Csíkszentmihályi calls ‘flow’ and it resonates with the audience on a basic level.
But in play we must defer to children, the only true experts in the field. Documenting play through our observations, photographs and the scraps we salvage at the end of long busy days, we can try to represent the beauty of play and the remarkable worlds children create if we only let them.
To help with this, Penny at Play Times has very kindly let me use some of her images below from a local play session we ran recently. They are more eloquent about play than I could ever be.