Wednesday, June 01, 2005

Most playgrounds suck

Here is an idea that's been sitting on the backburner for a couple of years. And it will probably stay there. I hope someone reads it and develops it and makes a billion dollars with it. I just have too many of these ideas to pursue…

Large Scale Play Equipment Concept

By Josh Foreman

Critique of current playground paradigm~

Playgrounds are without a doubt a fantastic concept. Condensing a variety of play options into a limited area serves many purposes that are immediately obvious. Social interaction, easy observation, and safety are the main benefits. My problem is not with the concept, but the execution.

The proliferation of homogonous playground equipment is easily assessed by a quick perusal of your local parks and playgrounds. I contend that there are numerous deficiencies in the current stock of design elements that are utilized today. And that these deficiencies can contribute to a less than optimal play experience. Beyond serving as a mere distraction for children, playgrounds have the potential to teach a multitude of skills, and build psychological pathways. ->Insert supporting quotes from child development expert or two assuming they exist.<-

The current play areas are not designed with certain key play-elements and mechanics in mind. The equipment choices made will inevitably shape the psychology of the future, as they encourage some play patterns while discouraging others. One need only to look to nature to find many elements that are missing from the current stock of designs. Think about what activities and play-patterns children engaged in before the advent of the modern playground. Climbing is certainly at the top of the list. And today’s playgrounds provide plenty of that, but only on a superficial level. The strictly regimented and evenly spaced apparatuses that are provided today are no substitute for trees, boulders, rock walls, etc, that the children of yesteryear used. With a lack of abstraction and unknown modifiers, the sterility and predictability of the current structures retard growth in several areas of child development. For instance, the development of a spontaneous reassessment of one’s situation comes with unexplored, unexpected, uneven terrain. Features that are severely lacking in today's equipment. Children today must bring their adventures to the equipment; imbuing it with properties its physicality does not support. While this does promote a healthy imagination, nothing would be lost if the hardware were more receptive to the child’s representation of an engaging play space. I submit that facilitating the imagination only leads to greater imaginary scenarios. -> This is where my intuitive knowledge of what is fun becomes hard to quantify. <-

Another element currently lacking is that of exploration. A quick glance at a playground is all the survey a child needs to know exactly what is in store. No mystery, no exploration, no chance for a decent game of hide and seek!

Wasted space is another problem with the current conception of the playground. Consider the insular nature of the traditional pieces; the swing-set, see-saw, and merry-go-round. In the last 20 years we have seen an increasing tendency to incorporate multiple set pieces into one large structure that includes monkey bars, slides, bridges, and steps. This is a positive trend, but could be carried much further.

And let us not forget who we are creating these areas for. Where are the flights of fancy, the bizarre, the intrigue, and many other attributes of childhood? The lack of aesthetic concern in modern play equipment is abhorrent. There is no direction, theme, or style. Only utility. I will admit, there is the occasional flair; a crenellated roof, a spiral ladder that resembles a snail, a rocket tip, or some other hodge-podge of conflicting elements. The aesthetic dimension of playgrounds is almost completely ignored. A generic setting would seem to be conducive to a broader set of imaginary scenarios. i.e. “Pretend we are on a boat.”, “Pretend we are in a castle.”, etc. But the same can be said of rocks and trees. And while the generic template may be large, it is unconvincing. A more directed design could facilitate deeper game-play scenarios for those who are attracted to the theme. Children less drawn to the theme can still exercise the same amount of creative effort that they would to project their fantasies onto a generic playground.

Proposal~

The current playground paradigm is propagated for several reasons. Those are budget, modularity, known and simple installation procedure, wear and weather endurance, safety, and tradition. I believe that I can design a new kind of play area that can address most of these issues, while retaining expanded and superior play-pattern facilitation.

Concept~

I will look towards two references from which to pull aesthetic inspiration. The first is the natural world, which was the original playground. (Mainly rocks and trees.) The second is the archetypal themes of childhood play. (The book, Peter Pan, provides a fairly comprehensive list.)

The first unique element of this design will be its non-uniform dimensions and surfaces. While a grid based interior structure will ensure modularity, the outer surfaces will resemble rocks and trees. Not a literal interpretation, but an accommodating, play-centric abstraction. The natural theme will extend to every level of the design, bringing a more coherent, and natural look.

The second feature will be the surface properties of the equipment. A steel interior will be coated with a rigid cover that defines the gross shape. Then, a thin coat of -> Need to research soft, durable materials<- is applied and painted using fast, but effective surfacing techniques. Several of these techniques can be seen on modern action figures, indicating that they can be mass produced efficiently. Convincing stone, wood, and many other surfaces can be achieved, bringing a beauty and subtlety not seen in current play equipment.

The third distinctive element will be a concept found in video games known as level flow. Working in virtual space with limited resources gave birth to this concept. It involves maximizing play features by utilizing the reuse of negative and positive space. A simple example of this is the bridge/tunnel. One piece of geometry provides two play experiences. One travels above the ground going over the bridge, and under the ground as they go under the tunnel. This concept can be taken much further than it is seen currently in playgrounds. I believe I can produce 3 to 10 times the amount of play space than is available in the standard playground setup.

And finally, this system will incorporate and facilitate many styles of play that are discouraged, or not supported well enough by current playgrounds. Some of these are climbing abstract surfaces, jumping from island to island, crawling, hiding, balancing, and swinging on ropes.

->Put concept art here.<-

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