Co.Design

Three Keys To Creative Kid Design, From The Creator Of High Line Playground

Cas Holman brought playtime to the High Line for one important but overlooked constituency: kids. Here's how she did it.

The High Line’s newest feature is designed for kids, who have, until now, been its most overlooked audience members. “The weirder and harder it is, the easier for me,” says Cas Holman, industrial designer, toy inventor, and the creator of the Workyard Playkit, a crate of toys and parts for playing, or, as she calls it, a souped-up grandpa garage.

Designing playthings for children around the High Line’s core principles of Simple, Quiet, Slow, Wild was certainly not easy. Nowhere was “fun” a basic tenant, but Holman knew it had to be that too. “Rowdy play is important, but not all play is rowdy,” says Holman. She knew it couldn’t be a play ghetto, sectioned off into some unseen part, but it couldn’t impede the flow of traffic either, another High Line basic. So Holman started by asking some questions, like, what do urban kids really need? How can we have moments for kids that highlight what only kids can see?

In approaching this project Holman drew on many experiences both personal and professional. She built on her understanding of loose play from the years of research and designing for the Imagination Playground, a Rockwell Group project that resulted in a highly acclaimed reimagined and redesigned playground in a box, that looks nothing like the playgrounds we all grew up monkeying around on. That work in turn heavily references the Adventure Playground, a post-war, Danish play structure actually constructed entirely and exclusively for and by kids with raw materials and hand tools. Because of liability and safety concerns, there is, of course, no way anything like that could be built in Manhattan, but Holman was trying to get as close to that kind of hands-on construction as possible. She also drew on her own childhood, growing up in rural California, raised by a Montessori educator and a tinkerer father.

“I was raised with sticks and mud and maybe that’s why I can see what city kids can’t do at home. This is all about giving them control and letting them build their own environment.”

To work through the varied and numerous constraints in designing not only for urban kids in a public space, but for one of the most highly venerated and acutely designed places in the city, Holman created three of her own principles for the Playkit:

Honest Materials

Originally used primarily for the transportation of food, the High Line’s last freight load was carrying frozen turkey. The materials for the kit had to be made entirely from materials that related to the High Line historically and industrially – wood, metal, plant materials. The result is a combination of off-the-shelf items and designed pieces, everything from wooden planks and grommeted canvas for making forts, to cooking pots from the 1920s. Holman spent hours perusing hardware stores looking for stuff that looks like other stuff, “like a doorknob – oh look, now it’s an eyeball.”

Keep it simple

“In furniture, the difference, at least as I understand it, between systems furniture and modular furniture, is that with systems like Herman Miller makes (who Holman worked with for a while) for example, there is a specific part for every purpose. With this kit, as with modular furniture, there are like three pieces that you can do everything and anything with.”

Constructive, flexible and open to interpretation

“Kids are generating their own identity of what they are making and working on creating their own story, not working from a story we are giving them. It has to have the ability to transform. A piece of wood easily mutates from an arch to a dinosaur head, because everything is a clue, not a rule.”

Emily Pinkowitz, School and Youth Program Manager for the High Line summed up the result of the Playkit perfectly, “Kids who didn’t know one another are playing together; it’s exactly what we had hoped for.” The High Line is clearly committed to innovation, because the Playkit is innovative design creating community. Kids are clearly engaged and families are greeting each other like old friends. The 4- to 12-year-olds are now fully integrated into scene.

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2 Comments

  • environment psy

    reminds me of good old meccaono ;-) I like the keep it simple approach of the designers.

  • PR

    Hopefully constructive criticism: Took me two readings to understand what this article was about!  Perhaps an opening paragraph explaining what the High Line is (not everybody lives in NY...).  I spent my first read hoping to find the "High Line Toy Kit" that I could buy and build in my yard (assuming the wooden pieces in the pictures were the "high line toys".  2nd read: "oh.. right, that new high line park thing in NY that I've never seen... let me re-read and see if it makes sense this time."