The German Playground Designer Peter Heuken traces the beginnings of his world-renowned work to the age of five. That’s when he received his first real tool kit. It is not usually recommended to give sharp blades and other adult tools to someone barely past the toddler stage of life. Luckily, Mr. Heuken was not your typical child. Even at such a young age, he was already exploring and adapting the spaces around him for excitement and fun. His family still tells the story of a damn he constructed in a creek at has Grandparents’ farm that was effective enough to flood the barn. Today, that story evokes fond memories and laughter (at the time, perhaps not so much).
Focusing on the Play Environment
Just as with his own childhood constructions, all of playground designs Mr. Heuken develops today remain focused on inspiring children to interact with their environment.
“You can’t grasp a piece of land by looking at plans,” he says. “You have to see: Where does the sun come from? How is the canopy of leaves? How can we use this space for play?”
His commitment to each space’s environment extends beyond the immediate area and informs the creation of the playground equipment itself. Not only does Mr. Heuken feel it is important for children to interact with natural materials as much as possible, he also enjoys their challenge.
Most of the playgrounds that Mr. Heuken designs features playground equipment predominantly made of natural materials. The wood in his playgrounds needs to be conditioned so as not to give splinters. The ropes must be smooth enough to feel comfortable in a child’s hands, while remaining strong enough to support safe climbing. Any metal is used sparingly and must be thoughtfully constructed to avoid the emergence of sharp corners and edges. All of the playground equipment must easily survive mother nature at her worst, as well as the precocious abilities of legions of children.
Inspiring Today’s Designs
As Peter Heuken’s work has demonstrated, we cannot push our abilities beyond their present form by remaining safely within our comfort zones. Increasing a child’s mental and physical dexterity, along with the many other benefits of regular play, requires an element of risk to be present. As Mr. Heuken puts it,
“Nobody uses a car because it has brakes.”
Of course, that never means you build a car without breaks. That would certainly be unwise. However, it does mean there must be a balance. All playground equipment must remain as safe as possible while encouraging active exploration. A wobbly bridge placed high in the air can create exactly the excitement a child needs to become engaged, while remaining completely enclosed by ropes, and therefore perfectly safe.
Designed by the City of Cambridge’s Landscape Architect Robert Steck, with equipment supplied by Goric, the Alexander Kemp Playground in Cambridge Common, MA reflects the increasing influence of Peter Heuken’s work. It is designed to facilitate hands-on exploration of sand and water-works and to integrate those activities into a cohesive play environment. The natural elements of sand and water integrate with a custom built boat-looking structure, the Rodeo seesaw, hill slide with rubber palisades, climbing nets and the Integration Carousel (in addition to swings, tunnels and a custom designed hedge-labyrinth). The resulting playground has become one of the most highly used in the Cambridge area.
A Growing Legacy
Just 50 years in age, Mr. Heuken shows no signs of slowing down now. Today he is as dedicated as ever before to creating playgrounds which provide children a sense of freedom while increasing their physical and mental abilities. His growing legacy of focusing on the space’s environment and including natural materials as much as possible is fast becoming a trend in playground equipment design. Though it is unlikely that the safety features, playful malleability, and colorful designs of hard plastic playground equipment will ever be replaced, they need not always be our first instinct when developing new playgrounds. As the steady march towards sustainably designed playground equipment continues, Mr. Heuken’s work will only become more influential to young and emerging playground designers around the world, as well as the children and parents their work serves.