a \‘shȯrt-rēd’\ piece
We tend not to sit down for a meal in the laundry room, or take a bath in the garage. Yet, have you ever really considered why we don’t do that? It’s a useful question to answer when it comes to designing a playspace but the answer might not be the obvious one.
Significantly, the two classic, and absolute must-have-on-the-shelf books for anyone interested in providing space for children to play are not actually about the design of space. They are about understanding how children use space.
When ‘The Child in the City’, the first of these books by Colin Ward, was published in 1978, it was nothing short of a revolution in the understanding of how children make use of their environment - the word ‘revolution’ here being deliberate considering Ward’s roots in the world of anarchist theory.
As the Times Educational Supplement said of the book at the time, “ ... [It] tears down the walls and brilliantly highlights a culture which extends from Battersea to Bangladesh; the only true international culture ...”
His writings were not the first to describe this separate culture of children’s play but it was the first to tear away the tidied up, romanticised vision of it and replace it with the gritty reality. What his book reveals is a culture of play that was, and still is, completely alien to most adults in which the desire for children to take ownership of and adapt their playspace often leads them into conflict with adults.
More importantly, perhaps is his revelation that movement forms an important part of the way children use their space. In fact, it becomes clear that children do not see their play as being restricted to just one space and that movement around the wider environment becomes a key part of how they use it, constantly travelling between one space to another.
The second book, ‘Childhoods Domain: play and place in child development’ by Robin C Moore published in 1986 is often, quite rightly, seen to be part of ‘a set’ with Ward’s book. It takes the very general picture of children’s use of space and the importance of movement from Ward into more detail as Moore actively explores the individual spaces children use in partnership with the children who actually use them.
What Moore’s book shows is that the various spaces that children value in their environment are not just seen as different because each provides a different set of possibilities, but more significantly, each is easily identifiable as being a different ‘space’. What makes these spaces clearly different is the existence of tangible, physical boundaries between one and another and the journey that has to be taken to reach them.
Moore says at one point how, “... a strong sense of enclosure and physical differentiation [can] stimulate the use of a small portion of an otherwise large, underused space.” (:146). In other words, a large undefined space may be ignored but an enclosure or boundary within it creates ‘a different space’ which may be usable.
Which brings us back to our laundry room and garage analogy.
You might think that the reason we would not take a bath in the garage is because this space has a different purpose allocated to that of a bathroom and is equipped differently, which is true. Yet, the real reason is a combination of that defined purpose and the fact that all the various rooms in the house have solid walls dividing them into distinct spaces and doorways that have to be travelled though to get to them. This is what makes each room a different space in our overall reading of 'the house'.
Confused? Try moving in to a new bedsit and watch how the living space and the sleeping space gradually start to merge together and the dividing line between each becomes fuzzy. That is because a bedsit with areas for separate functions is effectively one single space and our head interprets it in that way.
First, we have to consider that when constructing a playspace we rarely have the opportunity to create it within a much wider environment. We are constrained with an often quite tight and rigidly designated area with little opportunity for this important element of moving around.
More importantly, when we create the playspace this point about separate ‘spaces’ is often missed and so we create what is effectively one large singular space. We might within our larger playspace provide separate elements for playing: the mud kitchen, sandpit, swings, a sitting place, climbing frame, etc., yet without a significant boundary between each, these elements are all still within a single space; and with no obvious 'door' there is little to differentiate them.
Try this: stand in one corner of your playspace and take a look across it. If you can see every one of the separate elements in that space, even if they have what appears to be a separation from each other, then what you have is a single space with separate things in it rather than a series of spaces.
What creates the feel of those separate spaces is this combination of tangible ‘walls and doors’ which enables a real sense of movement around the wider space. It means, in short, that the beginning of designing space for playing is not in creating a space but in creating a series of distinct, physically separate spaces which you cannot cannot fully see until you open the door.
The playspace is dead; long live the playspaces.
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4th March 2020
Photo taken by Marc at West Lakes Shore Kindergarten in Adelaide SA Australia in November 2019.
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