Play Spaces as basic social and cultural services

“Good spaces for playing and experiences are part of basic social and cultural services.”

Play is a basic element of our society. During play we develop our personality, learn to take risks, to tumble every once in a while and then get up again. A society that invests in education also needs good play spaces. For everyone. We spoke to Peter Hohenauer, play space planner, specialist author, board member of the Info Spiel e.V. association and inclusion expert from Munich, about the ideal playground, risks associated with playing and about why a playground is not just for children.

Interview: Anja Koller

Mr Hohenauer, where did the idea of a playground actually come from?
PH: The classic playground came into being in the course of industrialisation, and also as a result of the densification of cities. Playgrounds had to be created “artificially”, so to speak, because many children could no longer play in the open air, on wastelands or on roads with little traffic.

What is the purpose of a playground?
PH: Put very simply, the purpose of a playground is to lure people – and I’m deliberately not saying children here – out of their homes so that they can come into contact with other people, discover the outdoors and develop their own nature while playing, while communicating.

When one thinks of a playground, children immediately come to mind. You just avoided the term.  Which user groups do we have to think about?
PH: A playground must work for all generations; young and old, big and small, people of all sexes, people with and without disabilities must feel equally at home there. In other words: a playground must be thought of as inclusive. It must also offer pleasant spaces for parents, grandparents, and caregivers who accompany the children. And on top of that it should also appeal to people without children, young people and those seeking relaxation.

Is there an ideal playground that meets all these criteria?
PH: I really like the recreational park in Munich Grünwald. I was entrusted with the planning of an intentionally wide range of offers for this park. People sometimes accept a trip of up to 50 kilometres in order to play and stay there, because they know that even as an adult you can spend many hours there very enjoyably.

What is special about this playground?
PH: There are no prohibition signs. There are also no restrictions as to who should and may use it. Everyone is welcome. The playground works for every age, every time of day, every weather and every season. This inclusive character is achieved through atmospherically designed, appealing subspaces as well as flowery, staggered planting and lively seating arrangements. The latter may be a glacial erratic or a group of woody plants, behind which you can retreat – always within observation distance of the children. This of course has great added value and recreational value for adults.

What is the planning of playgrounds based on?
PH: As a planner, I can’t design a playground from my desk. I have to be on site and capture the atmosphere of the landscape. What are the wind conditions? What about natural shade? What are the lighting conditions? What is the topography? What social benefit does it already offer? What deficits does a site have? The planning of a playground is always very individual. The concept must fit the location, the terrain. All this must ultimately form a unit, as strong in character and identity as possible.

What information and considerations are included in the planning?
PH: I have to know the residential environment the playground is situated in. What type of housing is predominant here? Which user groups should be predominantly addressed? Which age structures? How accessible is the playground? Which landscape features should be included in the planning? I am thinking for example of a stream, an old stock of trees, existing important connecting paths and similar. How can the playground be designed in such a way that it will be attractive for users for years to come? How can reasonable maintenance and care be achieved? It is important not to overload the playground. There must also be free areas. I'm not talking about areas that are not designed, but rather areas that allow for a variety of uses and are not too prescriptive. I also never plan based on playground equipment, but always according to needs. The central question that guides me is: What should be offered for which needs?

How do you choose the playground equipment? According to which criteria?
PH: materials, construction, sensory appeal, character... I try to combine the playground equipment, and also everything else, with an individual design of the terrain.

How should playground equipment be designed in order to promote the desire to play?
PH: It is important to give preference to natural elements over artificial ones. I prefer wood as a material. I use plastic and synthetic materials as little as possible, only where it is really necessary, such as for swing seats. I try to avoid the use of impact protection slabs or artificial surfacing. The playground equipment must have a workmanlike character, a kind of carpenter’s style. I pay a lot of attention to the design, dimensioning, technical implementation and quality of bridges or tower structures, as well as to how many children can use it at the same time. There shouldn’t be any kind of constraints. Children must be able to develop. Conflicts, bad moods and boredom can be avoided with the right planning and the right playground equipment. In short: the craftsmanship of the playground equipment must be of a high quality, but criteria such as durability, ease of maintenance, and safety also play an important role.

Speaking of safety? What kind of risks are acceptable?
PH: Of course parents must and should express their safety-related concerns. This is my only chance as a planner to respond to this issue and explain to them why risks are an inevitable part of the play value. I use relevant standards and landmark court decisions as orientation, but these do not restrict my planning. I plan in such a way that athletic challenges and playful risk are incorporated into a playground to ensure a child's self-protective behaviour can be promoted. However, children must always be able to recognise risks, which must be able to be assessed and manageable. And, there definitely shouldn’t be any concealed dangers. However, the essential safety of a playground is not created by the individual pieces of equipment. These must of course meet the safety standards according to DIN EN 1176; they must be tested as safe. That is the basis. But safety is rather the result of children getting fit through varied and imaginative play. They learn how to climb and fall, develop their motor and psychomotor skills, learn to get along with each other, learn to resolve conflicts. During play they experience that there are situations in which risks can and must be taken, in other words, they are encouraged to take risks. And they learn to behave in such a way that things turn out well. This creates safety and self-confidence, because they are able to assess and overcome challenges themselves. We need a generation of young people armed with personal responsibility and courage. After all, our planet currently faces many challenges that must be met with a strong character.

This courage to take risks varies around the world...
PH: ... exactly, in the USA, for example, people are very reluctant when it comes to taking risks. Only in recent years has it been discovered there that the classic European adventure playgrounds are particularly conducive to learning and development. Americans have come to acknowledge that child development, self-determined play, and risk belong together. Natural landscape design, glacial erratics, water, exciting climbing structures, irregular rope connections and “wild” balancing trunks made of wood... All this is part of positively formative play. At first, many people think that these can be sources of danger. It is indeed the irregularity of natural materials and wooden constructions that demands and promotes the sensory and motor skills to a much higher degree. A demanding terrain design takes care of the rest. Accident statistics have shown for decades that risky, adventurous play and sophisticated playground design have not increased the rate of accidents – quite the contrary: play that involves risk creates safety. This is also important in the context of inclusion. Children – with or without a disability – need play spaces that include incentives and challenges of various degrees and intensity.

How does one actually plan for inclusion? There is certainly more than one solution...
PH: In order to create an inclusive playground, you can’t approach things through equipment. We were able to gain experience in this area in the 1990s. Numerous “handicapped accessible” playgrounds, as they were called at the time, were built – none of which worked.

Why not?
PH: Because the designers of these playgrounds simply did not think in terms of inclusion. At that time a “handicapped accessible” playground was almost exclusively designed for children with physical disabilities, especially (and only suitable) for wheelchair users. Yet wheelchair users are only a small group among people living with disabilities. The concepts of the time did not allow for all children, with or without disabilities, to play together there. Boundaries were artificially drawn – in planning and also in people’s minds – while failing to talk to the users and to find out about their core needs. Of course a playground does not work this way. The implied suggestion to children with disabilities is: “This is a separate special playground – you need it because you are not able to play on a normal playground...

From a present-day perspective, this is no longer understandable. This way of thinking is rather frightening and discriminatory. How do you plan properly?
PH: thinking about barrier-free playgrounds, playgrounds for all children. The central aspects are meeting each other, togetherness, belonging. Not because everyone can do everything, but because everyone contributes in their own way and is valuable and provides joy for themselves and others. The playground must also be very appealing and people must be able to enjoy spending time there. Furthermore, it should offer a variety of possibilities for play, not only pre-defined ones in a “climb here” and “slide there” style, but “open” opportunities that can be interpreted individually. The most important thing is that children and, of course, adults with a disability are enabled to go beyond their limitations so that they can present themselves at the level of their positive abilities, wishes and qualities and can actively act and interact.

Can you explain this in more detail?
PH: A “handicapped accessible” playground is already defined by its name through the type of restriction. However, people, whether grown up or young, do not define themselves by their limitations, but by their many different facets, talents and possibilities. A playground must support this. Be it with natural design, with natural materials like wood or elements like water, varied spaces, areas for meeting and interacting with one another. If a playground promotes the children’s own activity during play, if children who are completely different in their inclinations and desires can play side by side in harmony, not necessarily with each other, but in an open, inviting atmosphere and despite all differences, then the inclusive space works. Children have a much stronger emotional ability for inclusion and connection than adults do, because they are usually more frank and open – and for this they need the right play spaces and atmosphere.

What are the trends in play space design?
PH: The important aspect is indeed that playgrounds are no longer planned just for children – even if the central offers are still intended for them – but also for accompanying persons and visitors with or without children. This is all about good seating; there should not just be classic benches. As we know now, they no longer have to be placed right next to the play area, because children do not have to be supervised. They deserve a respectful independence when it comes to space and their own actions. Supervision is also possible from a distance, and too much control prevents development.
A modern playground also needs areas for retreat, places for rest and communication, pleasant shading, multifunctional areas with greenery, playing fields, flowering plants, fertile shrubs and good pathways that can also be used by people with restricted mobility as well as the elderly and sick. Fitness equipment can also be useful. The central aspect, especially when it comes to large-area facilities, is not to exclude any user group. This also protects against vandalism.

How so?
PH: Of course, you can’t rule out the odd tantrum in urban areas, but if a facility is accepted by all age groups, there is hardly any vandalism. I have never had any negative experiences with well-planned systems. And when I plan a playground, then my desire is that not only children, but also teenagers and adults feel at home there. It’s a fact that if somebody feels comfortable in a place, then chances are very high that they will protect the place, that they will neither commit vandalism themselves nor accept it there.

Now I will ask you quite provocatively: What about homeless people? In our society, they are often marginalised, nobody wants them around. And yet these people need a place where they feel safe and comfortable. Sometimes this is a playground...
PH: Homeless people are part of our society. I have seen homeless people in playgrounds that were very caring. I know of situations in which a mother had to go to the toilet briefly with one child and a homeless person offered to look after the other child. I have experienced homeless people who keep the playground clean because it is their environment. This makes it clear once again that a playground is not just a place for children to play, but a multi-levelled and socially relevant space – a living space with a distinct identity and protection factor.

Mr Hohenauer, let’s conclude our conversation by taking a look at the topic of urban development... Our cities are becoming ever denser, we have little space that is still unused, more and more people live in the city. What will the playground of the future look like when there is less and less space left in urban environments for personal development?
PH: I am a member of the City of Munich’s playground commission, and I vehemently oppose the extreme and short-sighted urban consolidation that is currently taking place. In my opinion, fundamental mistakes are being made here which the municipalities will regret because this kind of urban consolidation will clearly lead to social problems with negative economic consequences. For people to be able to develop positively, individually but also within a community, in coexistence, they need width, depth, space, height, not “animal husbandry”. In a democracy, where people should be allowed and enabled to think and feel the way they want, there is a need for freedom, atmosphere, openness in space and time, multi-tiered, structured intermediate zones and transitions, places for meeting each other, for contemplation and inspiration. They don’t need locked-in outdoor facilities and “run” bays – also and especially in times of strong virtual worlds. Good spaces for play and experiences are an essential part of meeting people’s basic social and cultural needs. And that’s why the playground of the future must not get any smaller. For me, the playground of the future is one that offers wide spaces, a multi-generational place, a space in which one feels comfortable, perhaps at home, where one can relax and be part of a positive, vibrant, mostly joyful life.