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Guest Column - March 2016

Playgrounds

The Intersection of Play & Sculpture

By Michael Laris


In urban areas, you typically don't have to look too far before encountering a sculpture. They can be found in city squares, the corners of large boulevards, in parks, at busy shopping centers or on the campus of a local university. But if you're searching for playground equipment, you'll likely head to the park or schoolyard. But what if there was a way to combine the two to create play sculpture?

Simply put, play sculpture is large-scale art designed to be both played on and interacted with. It provides different experiences than a traditional playground structure and fits well into a variety of locations.

Play sculpture can help bring wonder back to the playground. In recent times standardized playgrounds have come to lack visual interest and physical challenge. They have all become very similar, often causing children to see them as boring. Play sculptures incorporate a one-of-a-kind adventure with the appeal of sculptural art, providing strong visual impact and a unique play experience. A bold move like this is needed to keep today's children and teenagers engaged in and excited about free play.

The freedom to choose how you are going to use the equipment is key. In play sculpture there is no right or wrong way to play, simply a diverse set of options and opportunities. How you move on the sculpture is completely your decision. The beauty is in the freedom of interpretation and movement. When children have the ability to control their own play narrative—deciding with whom to play, how to play, what the story line or rules are—they experience heightened self-esteem, build problem-solving skills and increase their ability to communicate.

As designers, we must continue rethinking play design to make it challenging, enticing today's children to get outdoors and play. Recognizing playgrounds as an artistic medium and creating spaces where individuals can gather, play, discover and enjoy being together on their own terms is critical to keep our industry thriving. Beyond being fun, keeping kids engaged in play can benefit them academically. Research shows that the skills associated with play ultimately lead to better grades, and countless articles tout the benefits of play on cognitive and social development.

We see, especially today, that skills like critical thinking, creative problem-solving, collaboration and compassion are critical to a child's full development into a healthy, well-functioning adult. Play sculptures subtly support these attributes by providing an environment in which children think, "What is that? How can I use it?" (critical thinking); "I will try it this way" (problem-solving); "I will need the help of another" (collaboration); and "I will have to help them try" (compassion). Play sculptures are innovative and relevant play objects that break from the norm and create interesting environments, encourage adventure, trial and discovery, improvised games, friendly competition and social interaction.

Merging play and public art, a recent play sculpture was introduced that is meant to get people thinking, talking, sharing ideas and engaging in outdoor spaces in new and meaningful ways. It uses public art as a means to unite communities and creates an intriguing and interesting backdrop where everyone can gather, play, discover and enjoy being together on their terms, in their own way. Instead of watching their kids from a bench in the park, parents and grandparents can engage with ease. This is what is happening at Singapore's Marina Bay, near the

Merlion, a favorite spot among tourists and residents alike.

The play sculpture establishes a shift in playground design and provides a strong visual impact. The structure's open design with more than 20 play elements allows nearly 60 users to play on it at once. Adults and kids can sit, stand, climb, hide, balance, crawl under, or lay within the collection of deconstructed spaces. The equipment encourages movement, improves climbing, is spatially challenging and invites exploration.

In a world where outdoor play is endangered and there is a pressing need to rethink play design, play sculpture offers a refreshing new take on play. In my mind, there is no doubt that children are drawn to sculpture. They like to touch it, crawl underneath it and explore its myriad of possibilities. But, more often than not, sculptures aren't designed for play. As a designer and play advocate, I believe it's vital that communities and landscape architects nationwide strive to merge play and sculpture to form "play sculpture." Diversity is needed on the playground when it comes to play equipment and play sculpture offers an exciting, viable option.



ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Michael Laris is director, Product Development and Strategy for Playworld, where he focuses on creating systems and processes that lead to innovative outdoor recreation products that respond to the needs of today's children and adults in a meaningful way. For more information, visit www.playworld.com.

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