The kids are alright: Delving into playground design

It’s all fun and games (until someone loses an eye), and balancing the need to be challenging with the need to be safe is the Catch-22 facing today’s playground designs. Jihee Junn takes a visit to one of Auckland’s newest and most ambitious play structures and slides into the strange world of modern play. 

Toshiko Horiuchi MacAdam  – artist, designer and serial crochet knitter ­– has made a name for herself with her creative and interactive play structures dotted all over the world. But it wasn’t always like that for the Japanese-born artist, whose works were once confined to the installation spaces of fine art establishments. Until one day, when she was exhibiting a 3D open-work textile sculpture, some children had come to the gallery and – children being children – climbed up into it.

“Suddenly the piece came to life,” she told ArchDaily in an interview back in 2012. “My eyes were opened. I realized I wanted just such a connection between my work and the people alive at this moment in time (not a hundred years from now). I realized I was in fact making works for children.”

From there on in, Horiuchi MacAdam and her Canadian husband, Charles Richard MacAdam, have been making larger-than-life textile installations for more than 25 years. Colourful, bespoke and entirely handmade, Harmonic Motion – as it’s now known as  – has been delighting architectural enthusiasts and hyperactive children now for years: in Okinawa, in Hakone, in Sapporo and now, in West Auckland.

Peeping out over the drab, grey skyline of Henderson – WestCity mall on one side and Great North Road on the other – Harmonic Motion sticks out like a sore thumb. Loud primary colours bloom beneath a weatherproof structure and astroturf grass as children swing, weave, climb and tumble through a playnet that’s equal parts enjoyable for kids, equal parts Instagrammable for adults. 

Going West

The elaborate crochet playnet is all part of a wider, more grandiose scheme of things called Whoa Studios. As the brainchild of tech entrepreneur David Sutherland, Sutherland quit his job as chairman of IT company Cogent Limited and invested his millions into kick starting his creative dream. Part playground, part film studio and part restaurant, the studios are an ambitiously multifunctional entertainment project that, four years later, finally opened in Henderson to an unsuspecting yet delighted public. 

When it came to designing the Urban Playground, which takes up much of the facility’s grounds, the team had put together a look book of interesting ideas from the internet to help get their creative juices flowing. One of these ideas was a colourful playnet installed in Japan, which caught Sutherland’s eye almost immediately.

A year and a half later, with the help of her husband and just two other assistants, Horiuchi MacAdam hand fabricated the structure and shipped it all the way over to Auckland from her studio in Nova Scotia. After modifying the frame (designed by the artist but built in Auckland) and approved by playground certifier Tina Dyer, Harmonic Motion was ready for the public.

But as the team at Whoa Studios soon found out, importing a handmade, bespoke piece of equipment that still ticked all of health and safety’s boxes was no easy feat. In fact, the playnet was originally commissioned for the Museo d’Arte Contemporanea in Rome, but was called off when the artist and her team were faced with a brick wall.

“It's a major engineering process to sign it off,” says Whoa Studios’ art director Daniel Blanshard. “They had a playground for Rome, but they made them change it so much that it actually compromised the art and it ended up costing a lot more money in modification than they deemed necessary from an artistic point-of-view.”

Feel the flow

Beyond the colourful and potentially very rare installation (now 76-years-old, Horiuchi MacAdam expressed this may be her last playnet as she battles with arthritis in her hands), the Urban Playground also features slightly more conventional, yet nevertheless carefully crafted, elements for play.

“While Whoa Studios took almost five years to complete, the Urban Playground – from conception to opening day – took about five months, so it was a very rapid process,” recalls Blanshard.

“The theme was for it to be retro, textual, bespoke and role-play oriented. We wanted to design a natural flow that would allow children to run around from one area to another, play hide and seek, tag and other games around the playground,” he says.

Further influenced by the box and crate theme of Minecraft, no rock was left unturned when it came to the tiniest of details. They went for stainless steel instead of plastic for the slides, and sourced locally instead of importing from Europe. They planted trees throughout the area to later provide natural shelter, and customized the exact speckle and shade of the rubber flooring that covers the grounds. They even handpicked the rocks, scrutinizing every aspect of its formation before carting them all the way in from Whangarei.

All work and no play

When it comes to anything to do with kids, bureaucracy and regulation are always close by. Brightly-coloured, cookie-cutter, prefabricated play gyms have long replaced the rickety yet thrilling playgrounds of past: metal slides that seared hot on summer days, worn-out monkey bars that left calloused blisters on soft hands, see-saws that made you feel like you were soaring, and merry-go-rounds that went faster than the average stomach could handle.

While smooth curvatures and bouncy plastic have made play safer, others have argued that it hasn’t necessarily made play any healthier. Back in 2012, health journalist Alice G. Walton argued that restrictive safety guidelines have made playgrounds so uninteresting that kids are becoming less physically active, arguing that newer, safer equipment would often become boring due to children mastering its limited capabilities so quickly.

The potential drawbacks of overly safe playgrounds aren’t just physical either – they’re intellectual as well. One 2011 study from a pair of Norwegian psychologists concluded that taking risks (and overcoming them) during play is an important part of child development, and that preventing children from encountering risks may increase a child’s chances of developing anxiety.

But as much as people love to wax lyrical about the Good Old Days when scraped knees were all part of the harmless fun, it’s important to note that last year, more than 9,000 people were injured in school playgrounds, with 8,300 of them aged between 5 and 14, according to ACC statistics. Upper and lower arm injuries were the most common complaints, followed by hand and wrist injuries. ACC statistics also reported that more than 5,000 were hurt from losing their balance or personal control, while almost a 1000 were injured from either a collision or from being knocked over.

In Timaru, a 14-year-old boy broke his leg playing on the hamster wheel in Caroline Bay, while in Takapuna, a similar hamster wheel was fenced off to the public after someone had reportedly broken a bone (it was later reopened after an investigation ruled that the equipment complied with standards). Last year, the ‘Tower of Terror’ – Margaret Mahy Playground’s new eight metre spiral slide – was forced to temporarily close and later employ a safety supervisor to make sure kids weren’t trying to climb up it instead. And at Whoa Studios, health and safety concerns meant its inflatable ‘monstromental’ water slide, which was scheduled to open this summer, was forced to be put on hold.

Margaret Mahy Playground (Source: Christchurch City Libraries)

Risk/reward

As Walton wrote in her piece back in 2012, today’s playgrounds are presenting a bit of a Catch-22 because while safety guidelines aim to protect children from hurting themselves, they can end up defeating the very purpose of having a playground in the first place. Ultimately, it poses a difficult challenge for designers, builders, regulators and schools as they need to provide the right level of safety, but with a dose of creativity as well.  

“We only had a few compromises – we mostly stuck to our guns,” recalls Whoa Studios’ art and graphics director Alistair Gillies. “We wanted them to work for us and show us how we could achieve what we wanted, rather than the other way around. We had to meet in the middle.”

“For example, with the rocket ship, we made sure we had an engineer on board. He calculated it based on eight children being in there and jumping around. So we established the look and then they told us how to go about it.”

Safety, of course, does occasionally take over the reins when it needs to, such as when a drawbridge for the castle was forced to be abandoned.

“We wanted to have a drawbridge but we were told the fall heights were going to be a problem,” recalls Gillies. “But we just weren’t allowed to do that because it would be a solid bit of timber. So there’s some battles you can’t win, but you’ve just got to find another way around it.”

Margaret Mahy Playground (Source: Christchurch City Libraries)

Fun and games

While making a playground challenging yet safe is more than enough to satisfy most parents and officials, a number of playgrounds in New Zealand like Whoa Studios’ are demonstrating that they’re not just a source of entertainment, but a standalone example of innovation, artistry and interactive design.

Down in Christchurch, Margaret Mahy Playground is perhaps the country’s most exemplary structure, boasting a ‘story arc’ pathway with narratives and imagery from the tales of Mahy, Elsie Locke and Maori tribe Ngai Tahu. Landscaping and water features serve as a backdrop to an array of bespoke playground equipment, while the area is divided into four zones which reflect Canterbury’s varied landscape.

Serving as a way of beautifying and regenerating the quake-bruised central districts, the project also tackled playground design with a uniquely inclusively method when a competition was held asking students to submit their ideas for the ultimate play park, an initiative which attracted over 7,000 submissions. The winning concept, by a team of four Christchurch students, was inspired by Mahy herself, with the original design (now much evolved) featuring a dragon-tongue slide, rainbow-colored mulch, witch-in-the-cherry-tree swings and a giant castle of creamy yellow brick.

Further up north, Frank Kitts Park in Wellington boasts an impressive lighthouse slide inspired by the nearby seaside promenade, while the park itself exhibits moving sculptures by renowned artists such as Len Lye. Back in Auckland, Takapuna Beach playground opts for a more natural look by using products such as timber, sand and artificial grass to blend into its surrounding coastal environment. And recently, in Tauranga, a relic from one of the worst tragedies to hit the region has been given new lease on life as a lifeboat from the sunken Rena has been transformed into a space for children.

Playing to the environment

When Horiuchi MacAdam was teaching in Tokyo in the late 1960s, she began to observe the play situation Japanese children were faced with. For the next three years, she visited parks and playgrounds in central Tokyo on the weekends, and she realised that what she found was a depressing situation.

“At the time the country was narrowly focused on economic development; few were considering the effects on children growing up in cramped, high-rise apartments, watching television, often an only child without brothers or sisters to interact with. I was very worried about this. After all, children have no choice in this matter.”

Luckily, in New Zealand (and a more progressive Tokyo), children do have more choice in the way they play. And while designers, parents and authorities still grapple with the Catch-22 of safety and fun, playgrounds across the country are proving that ultimately, despite the occasional scraped knee or broken bone, the kids of today are going to be just fine.