No, No, You Go First

By Gweneth Leigh, ASLA.

This article first appeared in the Landscape Architecture Magazine January 2015. With thanks to Taylor Cullity Lethlean (TCL) Architects for the use of the photos and drawings.

Down the road from my home there is a simple neighborhood park outfitted with a slide, two swings, a spring rocker, and a faded green climbing structure. It serves a critical function for getting the wiggles out of my three young boys before dinnertime. Occasionally the kids turn the slide into a bark conveyor belt or the perforated platform into a place to post woody mail. However, the equipment is more suited for stretching the body than the imagination. Its design is like an old station wagon – it might not be flashy, but it’s functional.

For a bit of variety, my boys and I recently visited two Australian play spaces that trade the station wagon for a Ferrari with rocket boosters. The Pod Playground in Canberra and the Blaxland Riverside Park in Sydney find ways to dazzle visitors with daring play elements, although for very different purposes. One serves to introduce children to the world of plants, while another embraces the pure physical joy of play.

Both playgrounds have elements that make you feel like you’re Alice in Wonderland, climbing through oversized acorn tree houses or sliding down brilliant purple and pink rubberized hills. Both kept me busy trying to locate my awe-struck children as they excitedly scurried off to explore.. And for a brief window of time, I’m pretty certain that both places managed to surpass the imaginations of my six-, four- and one-year-olds. But if whiz-bang features provide thrills, so does watching an IMAX movie. I wanted to see how these play spaces were more than just my neighborhood park on Red Bull.

To look back at the early playgrounds of the 20th century, it’s interesting to see that thrill-seeking was not a top priority. Rather, play spaces were provided as ‘social training’ for adolescents, where team sports would teach young people ideals of cooperation and group loyalty. It was believed that structured and supervised play would shape and strengthen not only children’s muscles but also their morals, and would prepare them for life as an adult. Playgrounds were outfitted with sand pits, slides and open areas, while playground supervisors were hired to organize team games, track and field events, gymnastics and patriotic sing-alongs as a way to promote children’s emotional stability and instill a team-work ethic.

One hundred years on, public playgrounds of the 21st century still seek to engage people, but often for very different purposes. The mass production of brightly coloured play spaces – originally designed to entertain kids for as long as it took to eat a Big Mac – have proliferated within landscapes that have nothing to do with fast food. As concerns about safety and liability mounted in the 1980s and ‘90s, components like see-saws and merry-go-rounds, initially introduced to encourage teamwork, were some of the first to be removed from public spaces. What often results are playgrounds that can physically exhaust but don’t socially engage – made worse by the accompanying parents with heads bowed over their smart phones. However, thanks to a broader material palette and improved design technology, designers have the ability to create play spaces filled with experiences that can give our kids a visual buzz – and potentially a whole lot more.

The Pod Playground at Canberra’s National Arboretum in Australia was created to celebrate plants but also to challenge comfort zones. Designed by firm Taylor Cullity Lethlean, the space has four main areas: enormous banksia pod ‘huts’ containing instruments that allow toddlers to explore ideas about sound;a series of swings that can accommodate one or many; a large climbing net for bigger kids; and four huge acorn treehouses that spiral into the sky. According to the arboretum’s general manager, Jason Brown, “The children really gravitate towards the treehouses. They are scared before they climb them, and once they come up and go back down they are still very scared. And they do it again and again and again. It’s pushing their limits. It’s a challenging play space.”

Simone Bliss, Taylor Cullity Lethlean’s project manager, thought it was important to create an experience that requires kids to keep coming back and testing themselves rather than immediately conquering and becoming bored by it. Launching the acorns into the sky at varying heights was done so kids could have an opportunity to look out over the arboretum and create a link back to the forest – and back to the acorn. But it was also done as a way to build children’s confidence. “One acorn is stand-alone, so kids can get used to being at a certain height, and then when they feel confident they can go into a taller one,” Bliss says.

Inside the acorn treehouses are unique themes which aren’t for the squeamish. . A storm acorn contains instruments for children to make thunderous sounds; another celebrates creepy crawlies from the garden, where molds of spiders, beetles and other insects are displayed on walls and within windows. Says Bliss, “One little girl went up into the insect acorn and then turned around with this look of complete shock as she exclaimed, ‘That was NOT cool.’

The second-tallest acorn contains a series of kaleidoscopes and ample views to emphasize how high you’ve come. Bliss defines this spot as the next stage of play for the children, where many would either continue to the last acorn or turn around and go back. But to proceed to the final tallest acorn, you need to crawl through an angled mesh tunnel, where you can’t help but notice the ground far beneath you. If you make it across, the final acorn awaits with nothing but a darkened hole, where a black slide spirals you down and discharges you back into the light – and onto solid ground.

My four-year-old got as far as the insect acorn before he decided he’d had enough. [<Funny] My six-year-old watched with a mixture of awe and terror as kid after kid shot out of the black tunnel before attempting it himself. With a broad smile on his face, he strutted up to me and exclaimed, “It was soooo freaky!” Intrigued, I joined the masses of little people and ascended the acorn circuit. Climbing up was made more challenging by the number of children who decided to backtrack. By the time I was descending into the blackness of the final slide, I felt years of adult confidence melt into childish uncertainty (did I mention it was really dark?), and was relieved when I was spat back into daylight.

Of course, the playground isn’t without some challenges. The space is enormously popular; Brown says there’s been an average of 200 children in the playground every hour during school holidays. This is impressive, given the fenced-in play space is a little over the size of one tennis court. Trying to maintain crowd control can be tricky, as the more active older children tend to overflow and overwhelm the toddler area of the banksia pods. The lack of an emergency access door in the higher acorns makes it tricky to retrieve frightened children, particularly when there’s a legion of kids lined up behind them. And while parents can enjoy watching their children push their emotional limits, most need to do it standing up, as seating is limited.

The Regional Playspace at Blaxland Riverside Park in Sydney, Australia benefits from sweeping views that capture fields, forest, and sky. And although the Pod Playground has big nuts, everything about the Blaxland park is big. Big earthworks; big 40-foot-high treehouse; big water plaza (with 170 jets); big play equipment, including flying foxes, enlarged swings, climbing nets, a variety of slides, and a retrofitted roundabout the size of a small satellite dish. Size doesn’t always matter, but it certainly helps make things fun.

The managers, David Martin, Darlene van der Breggen, and Andrew Ferris*, at the Sydney Olympic Park Authority (SOPA), wrote the original design brief for the site. They were determined to establish a play space that was perceived by kids as risky while still being compliant with Australian Standards. “When you’re constantly complying and going with the code, you start to get the same thing all the time,” Martin says. “We wanted to say, if you come and go up our treehouse or climbing ladders or tunnels, they are going to be bigger and scarier than anything you’ve ever been on before.”

Consequently, slopes of the rubberized hills were angled steeply – but not enough to require hand rails. The treehouse thrills kids by suspending them on a mesh floor three stories above the ground, but the structure is also checked daily for safety purposes and locked at night. As a way to put some of the responsibility back onto the visitor, signs across the site also remind parents and children that they use the equipment at their own risk.

During our visit, hordes of children were running like ants up the rubberized climbing walls, while kids went two at a time down the tunnel slides. In fact, most everything was deliberately designed to be done two, three, even four kids at a time, like on the double flying fox installed instead of a single.. The top of all the rubberized slopes have a ledge for people to sit on. A number of swings can easily hold three kids. A flat plateau above the water play area gives teenagers a place to get away from younger siblings and – more importantly – from their parents.

The play space is built on a remediated landfill that was originally designed by Hargreaves Associates as part of the recreational parkland for the Sydney Olympic Games in 2000. James Mather Delaney Design (JMD) was brought on in 2010 to design an all-ages playspace with accompanying facilities as a way to boost activity and interest within the park and the greater Sydney Olympic Parklands. The firm’s primary challenge was to find a design that connected with the giant earthworks next to it of the ‘Millennium Markers’ (‘River Marker’ and ‘Silverwater Marker’ conceived by Peter Walker) and the conical ‘Fig Grove’ mounds and terraces established by the original Hargreaves and Associates master plan.

“One of the keys of the project was finding how to insert something of the right scale,” says JMD Design director Anton James. The inspiration to manipulate the language and size of the existing Hargreaves/Walker work enabled the design team to take an earthworks approach to the play space. “Choice of equipment and bespoke design all flowed from that fundamental decision,” says James.

The enlightened stroke was to take one of Hargreaves terraces and extend it to make a new terrace that could be carved into and manipulated. The result is a 650 foot long and 10 foot high earth berm which runs parallel to the existing terraces. James also took Hargreaves’s raised conical mounds and inverted them within the play space to become voids that contain scrambling nets, water jets, and other fun devices. Tunnels slice through the terrace take kids from one void to another. Dramatic swathes of purple and green rubber cut into the earthwork at steep angles that require the scrambling of hands and feet to ascend. “The design aimed to offer surprise,” James says. “It is not a space that dictates to the child what to think, which way to go next, what to learn.”

One of the main strategies in organizing the park was to place the most active and high-energy elements like the flying fox, giant swing, and slides at the eastern edge of the park; more passive elements such as sand pits and water play are found to the west. The undulating topography and oodles of unfenced open space around the site give kids ample room to run without overwhelming bystanders. I saw this when five busloads of school children arrived. While the park was crawling with children in yellow shirts, the site was large enough for them to disperse in a way that didn’t create long queues. In fact, it made our experience more fun.

Like the Pod Playground, the Blaxland park caters to individual challenges. But it’s also designed in a way that also encourages people to interact with each other. My wariness of the schoolkid stampede quickly abated when I saw how they helped my kids get enough participants to make the Viking swing take flight, while the extra hands helped my four- and six-year-olds spin themselves silly on the enormous satellite-shaped roundabout. Watching young teenagers dare to sit on the largest of the water jets in hopes of blasting off their trunks provided entertainment for onlookers – not to mention some mischievous ideas for my boys. The one disappointment during the summer day were the temperatures – because as the weather heated up in the Sydney sun, so did the metal slides and rubber softfall that blanketed the site, rendering them unusable. Fortunately, the water activity area still worked, and kept people cool.

If creating playspaces that can visually compete with the world of Xbox games and 3D movies means kids are attracted to do physical activity, then that’s great. If it means that they actually engage in face time rather than FaceTime, that’s even better. But this doesn’t mean we have to supersize our parks like we supersize our meals. What we can take away from these projects are those bite-size ideas of creating challenging, confronting, imaginative experiences and re-interpret them into our everyday spaces. I would love to have a black twisty slide at my neighbourhood park, or a Viking swing that could rally some other kids on the street to join in. Heck, even a few fake spiders embedded in the tired green climbing structure would be an improvement. Because there’s no reason why big ideas can’t also come in small packages.

Both the Pod Playground and the Blaxland Riverside Regional Playspace show that making something big can make it more fun. However, making it fun also makes it incredibly popular. During peak days, crowds at Blaxland will surge to upward of 4,000 people; when the Pod Playground first opened, close to 800 children and parents descended on the space. Such crowds are good indicators of the demand for high quality play spaces – and the current lack of supply.