As early as 1906, President Theodore Roosevelt, a big proponent of children's playgrounds, cautioned members of the National Playgrounds Council to keep in mind what kids want to play on and with. In building playgrounds, "philanthropists often establish such excellent but minute and overprecautionary regulations that nobody will inhabit them," he said.
A century later, responding to what's seen as the overly prescriptive, cookie-cutter nature of many of today's playground structures—the familiar fort, the slide, the pirate ship that present children with limited play options—a new movement in playground design has tended toward the abstract: Give children some sand and water, maybe a few building blocks, and let them figure out what to do. Prominent architects like David Rockwell and Frank Gehry have tried their hands at designing a more imaginative play space, one where children are not pigeonholed into any certain type of play, but allowed to let their creativity guide them.
Studies have shown that these type of playgrounds, which encourage children to create their own distinct play experience, can be beneficial to children's social and cognitive development, but not every town can afford a starchitect-designed playground. For communities with more modest budgets that still want to foster creative play, the recently launched studio Free Play has created a line of structures designed to give children something to explore, without dictating how they might do that. The system will make its debut at a new FIFA stadium in the United Arab Emirates later this month, and it's currently being considered for around a dozen projects across America.
Free Play was founded when Dan Schreibman, a management consultant, noticed that his two young children didn't really like playing on traditional playgrounds. They preferred an empty cardboard box or the pond out in the backyard. So he set about trying to design something that would provide the kind of unstructured, creative play experience they seemed to enjoy most, but that they could eventually find at a local playground.
What he came up with were four modular playground pieces that resemble experimental sculptures more than children's playthings, but that could fit in at just about any park or school. Each is customizable so that their size and layout can be adjusted depending on the playground's needs and budget. The Maze, a boxy blue structure filled with holes, like giant cubes of Swiss cheese, lets kids climb, hide, or do whatever it is they like to do with a big empty boxes. The Ant Farm is filled with suspended crawling tubes, but none like you'd find in a McDonald's playground. You can go through, over or under them. The Weeping Willow consists of a dense thicket of tall ropes, which can be swung on or brushed apart like overgrown jungle plants, or outfitted with wind chimes. The stalks of the Corn Field sway when you touch them, and can be fitted with LED lights.
"There are only so many times you can play pirate ship on a playground," explains Erica Thatcher, an architect at Oculus, a landscape architecture and urban design firm that's working with Free Play to design a playground for a public park in northern Virginia. "People are finding that playgrounds are really overly prescriptive and limiting," she tell Co.Design.
Here, how each structure can be played with really depends on the imagination and whims of the kids. "This is about providing just an endless amount of sensory experiences that the children can engage with in any way that they can imagine," Schreibman says. They can pretend it's a pirate ship, but the architecture of the structures doesn't suggest that that's all it could be. The idea is to give kids not just a physical workout, but a cognitive one, too, as they decide what to do with each structure. "Child-directed play is really what learning is based on, that sort of exploration," Schreibman explains. "It's great for the imagination."
Science shows it's great for other aspects of a child's development, too. A Sydney-based pilot study found that when placed on a school playground, unstructured materials that encourage sensory exploration, like tires, cardboard boxes, and milk crates, have the potential to reduce obesity and even bullying. Playgrounds that provided unstructured play "promoted play between children who had not played together previously—including children who had formerly been excluded," the researchers write. An earlier study noted that "when children played in an environment dominated by play structures rather than natural elements such as plants and bushes, they established social hierarchy by means of physical competence. However, after an open grassy area was planted with shrubs…fantasy play and socialization developed."
Schreibman's goal is to make loosely structured play accessible to a larger audience. Not every neighborhood can afford a unique, $10 million Frank Gehry playground. Free Play's pieces, which can be customized for size and configuration, run a bit pricier than the standard play structure, around $30,000 to $55,000 per piece, but not by that much. (Many traditional play structures cost in the $20,000 to $30,000 range.)
"Play is a time for development and imagination, and people are finding that we are just limiting our children in a lot of ways," Thatcher says. With more abstract play pieces like these, she says, "children can then use their imaginations and approach a playground over and over again and essentially create new games."