A family company in Germany shows how fixed equipment can rise to the challenge of play
To some play activists, the playground equipment industry is a bête noire; to blame for the poor quality of children’s play areas that became the norm over the last 50 years. The play movement has rightly decried the “kit fence and carpet” (KFC) playgrounds that came to typify the risk averse, mass-produced approach to what should be a design challenge to fire the imagination. Manufacturers, many argue, must shoulder their responsibility: providers, after all, can only procure what is being offered by the industry.
The equipment companies counter that they only supply what their customers, mainly local authorities, demand and that, in any event, swings, roundabouts and standardised climbing frames (if not springy chickens) have stood the test of time.
“Local authorities argue that they have little choice but to erect cost-efficient, low maintenance kit”
Local authorities, for their part, argue that except for a brief period during the latter part of the last Labour administration – when there was a national Play Strategy and ring-fenced government funding for play –their limited budgets and lack of any national guidance on play left them little choice but to erect cost-efficient, low maintenance kit.
As usual, there is validity to both sides of this argument; and there are those who also say that the benchmark for public playgrounds, the Six Acre Standard, has tended to encourage this approach; reducing the spatial standards per capita for play to a quota of fixed equipment installations.
Add the perspective of playworkers – who know that the best play affordance is not found in fixed equipment at all, but in the opportunity to construct, manipulate and, yes, destroy the play environment in the organic, place-shaping co-creation that is most possible in adventure playgrounds – and the manufacturers were always going to come in for some stick.
“when did we decide that the best outdoor space for children should be a flat, fenced-in area, covered with synthetic material?”
In truth, whatever the conspiracy of different factors, the poor state of our children’s playgrounds – which have improved since the Play Strategy, but still have some way to go – betrays the lowly status of children’s play within the general discourse about the public realm and what constitutes “liveability”. It is hard to think of anything else which so clearly needs a societal response (children not having access to the market), yet which has received, until recently, so little attention from social policy. It is equally difficult to imagine any other category of public space that so frequently dispenses with a proper plan, let alone a design concept, and moves straight to the selection of fixtures. When did we decide that the best outdoor space for children should be a flat, fenced-in area, covered with synthetic material and erected with a limited variety of immovable, single-function apparatus?
“real adventure playgrounds … were always out of reach to all but a very small minority of the child population”
Sadly, the much better response to children’s need to play, real adventure playgrounds (staffed with playworkers and animated with loose parts, the elements and self-built structures), even at their most prolific, numbered probably less than 250 across the UK, which means they were always out of reach to all but a very small minority of the child population.
The Play Strategy set about creating 30 new ones in a pathfinder programme that would have seen the best of these replicated across every local authority area … had it survived the coalition’s cull. But now, of course, they are being torn down – or at risk of being so; and the attempt to raise the bar for un-staffed play areas (I dislike the “term fixed-equipment playgrounds” as it perpetuates the notion that play areas are all about kit) through guidance, professional training, monitoring and evaluation has also been binned along with the rest of the Play Strategy.
“sadly for children, they get the playgrounds that we deserve”
Market forces will always move to fill gaps; and when the demand side (local authorities) has no incentive to discover and respond to what the end user (children) really need, the result is inevitable. Sadly for children, they get the playgrounds that we deserve.
But, just as we can’t blame the equipment industry for the dearth of policy or the lack of revenue streams that would allow adventure playgrounds to flourish, it would also be a mistake to think that there are not equipment manufacturers with a real passion and commitment to children’s play, with products to match.
One such is the Richter Spielgeräte company in Bavaria, Germany. Founded by the charismatic Julian Richter in the 60s, the company (now partly managed by his son, Julian Junior) is built on strong principles that reflect a real love of the beauty and energy of playing children. Richter’s strong belief in engendering self-determination has seen it buck the trend for low-risk, low-affordance equipment in favour of designs that respect children’s need to take risks, make choices and manipulate their play environment. More than this, the company’s espousal of traditional craftsmanship means that every piece is uniquely fashioned by carpenters, whose expertise and respect for the wood they use – Mountain Larch from environmentally sustainable forests in the Austrian Alps – is evident in the finished product.
“natural materials, better landscaping and a disavowal of rubber surfacing”
Richter’s sole UK distributor, Timberplay share their partner’s commitment to play value and were one of the companies happy to embrace the new design principles published by Play England as part of the Play Strategy. Natural materials, better landscaping and a disavowal of rubber surfacing and unnecessary fencing were far from alien steps to this UK company. Its MD, Paul Collings had seen in Richter’s use of unshaped logs and hand-planed beams, a quality product that responded to the nature of play more than the highly machined, brightly painted metalwork that had become the norm.
“the talk is of play with the elements, of risk and challenge, play value and play types”
Collings is quite happy to acknowledge that a good play space need not involve equipment at all. This is no mere reverse psychology or part of a simply more sophisticated sales pitch. The company organizes study tours to Bavaria and other places, which are joined largely by landscape architects, designers and students. Here the talk is of play with the elements, of risk and challenge, play value and play types. The playgrounds visited are, of course, animated by Richter designs but the company seems genuinely to see itself as promoting the cross-pollination of creative thinking in architecture, landscaping, design, traditional craftsmanship and manufacturing: all in the service of creating great places to play.
The business of creating playable space shouldn’t begin or end with playgrounds – and certainly not with equipment – but as things stand they are the main type of provision, and likely to remain so until play services receive revenue budgets more equivalent to those enjoyed by schools, and we have a sustained play strategy that really does transform the built environment and its access to open space for children. When that day comes, perhaps we will see the likes of Richter and Timberplay animating not just our playgrounds, but all our public places.