Consider the playgrounds around the area where you live for a moment. Do you ever notice one where it is quite usual for there to be no children playing? Of course the weather, or the time of day, or whether the location just serves a limited local catchment are all factors that affect patronage. But some play spaces just don’t get used. Why would this be?
Underutilised play spaces may just be a sign of a flaw in the basic playground design. Not always – but most likely. We talk about ‘play value’, and the ‘number of play activities’, and the ‘intended user group’ and quite rightly so. All these are important and need to be addressed, but they are not the whole story. To get real value out of a playground facility, it must attract and maintain the interest of both children and parents. And that means that it not only must have good play value, but it must attract the eye, it must suit the space, and it must complement the environment. This can be sometimes difficult to achieve because it is somewhat subtle and often needs some interpretive design skill. However, it is no longer good enough just to plonk a standard playground package into the middle of a bland paddock! Play spaces give us the opportunity to bring focus to a broader environment, and there is so much at stake in getting the play space design right.
Play space design needs a holistic approach – the designer needs to look at factors including access routes, pathways, car parking, shade and ease of supervision. Appropriate seating for carers, safe and easy access for prams and spaces that promote social interaction, if properly planned, will all contribute to patronage. So, a play space must not only have play value, but it must suit the environment, and must complement and work with the surrounding park infrastructure.
It is fundamental to select the right location. While the individual play elements may be well designed, if they are placed in the wrong location the play space will not be used to its full potential. Aspects like noise, busy roads and pollution must be considered, but play spaces in pockets that are hidden away or secluded can also be a problem – the location must have a safe atmosphere and be open enough for easy adult supervision. But going along with this, the playground must just look right – it must look as though it is meant to be there, it shouldn’t clash with surrounding colours and styles, and it must beacon and invite.
So, how do we do it?
Understand the space, local area and history
It is important to understand the genius loci – meaning the ‘spirit of the place’ or in other words the qualities and atmosphere already present. This could be a building, a tree or something that has happened at the place, an old structure.
Grab the theme, work it into the design and run with it.
Take this example: Waverley Park
Situated right next to the Waverley Park football stadium so the designers wanted … – wait for it! – a football theme! Well you can’t exactly make a play space that looks like a football, but instead they cleverly incorporated elements of the stadium into the design. This included a feature that evoked the stadium carpark, as well as a representation of the players’ entry point to the playing field. Lots of play value – but the structure themed to the local environment.
And here’s a different example: Colac Otway – Apollo Bay Foreshore Park
Predictably, since the playspace is in the foreshore area, a huge timber ship was used to coordinate with the local industry.
So what else should we do?
Use the correct materials
Take an example: Tintern School
Here was a treed setting that absolutely demanded the use of symmetry+timber as the main structural element. The rustic feel in the landscape (large rocks, informal plantings, and treed setting) required something with a natural, softer feel. Can you imagine a gaudy, bright red steel structure in this setting? Schools demand robust design and the ability to cater for large volumes of users. In this case, the solution from the play space designers satisfied all these criteria.
It’s very important to identify the dominant characteristic of the play space. Clearly a timber structure may suit a rustic or landscaped setting, but a more urban environment may require a more contemporary look. Here, a designer will explore the use of powder coated steel elements for a bolder, more dominant effect. Or quirky plastic components can be used to add individuality. Playground structures can be topped with an impressive variation in roof styles, ranging from pretty conventional gable roofs, to distinctive slatted, twisted, or multi-faced components. There’s lots of variety available, but it takes some design flair to get it right for the space.
Use the right colours
Gone are the days where playgrounds are confined to simple primary colours. Of course, there may still be a setting where this suits, but powder coating can be done in any colour of the rainbow ranging from subdued pastels, rustic earth tones to bold and bright pinks, purples and oranges. Does every colour work in every environment? No of course not. But the designer has to get it right, because a change in colour scheme can make an uninviting play space suddenly look interesting, but it can work the other way too.
Steel is the ideal medium where the designer needs to bring in co-ordination through colour. There is also an impressive range of plastic colours available these days so it is important to pick a supplier that has the range and expertise to get this right.
So if you have the good fortune to be involved in a play space design – just remember there is more to it than meets the eye! It’s great fun, but a bit of experience can make the difference. After all, what‘s the point in designing a space for the kids that kids aren’t interested in using?