If the playspaces finding their way to the “best-of” lists of publications such as Business Insider, Mental Floss, and Land 8 are a sign of the future, the days of the humdrum platform-and-beam playground are in short supply. Whether found in Copenhagen, Sydney, or Memphis, the world’s best playgrounds are filled with tunnels, ropes, cables, earthen and constructed mounds, pitched walls, and towers that beg to be climbed and explored; there is not one path to take but many, and inclusion, choice, and risk-taking have become core to the play experience.
Often designed by teams of architects or landscape architects with the close involvement of children and civic groups, the best playgrounds add value to the communities they inhabit, not only by fulfilling children’s fundamental need for play, but also by serving as an integral and defining part of the neighborhoods and city blocks they inhabit. Quite simply, the best playspaces are stunning to behold: architectural works as much a part of the built environment as houses, public plazas, bridges, and skyscrapers.
Here are several standouts.
Seattle Children’s PlayGarden, Seattle, Washington
Bringing together principles of adventure play, garden-to-table food cultivation, and inclusion, the Seattle Children’s PlayGarden is much more than a playground. Begun in 2002 by Liz Bullard with the support of the Seattle Department of Parks and Recreation and families of children with special needs, the PlayGarden is designed as “a safe, supportive, accessible and innovative place for children of all abilities.” The urban oasis offers preschool programs, summer camps and open play in a collection of indoor and outdoor spaces that include grassy hills and trails, a fully equipped kitchen with wheelchair friendly stations and a cool-to-the-touch stove, a grape arbor, a tree fort, a basketball court, and a salvaged red pick-up truck with planter beds to grow strawberries.
At the center of the design is a mounded volcano-like structure, which serves as a fun play and performance space, as well as the focal point for the central garden plaza. Accessible to wheeled devices over rubber surfacing, the mound descends to a cement water course and a spherical potager ramp that leads to the kitchen. Euroflex full balls and half-balls, distributed by Goric throughout North America, complement the distinctive sculptural feature and are paired with the Dish and Kalotta swing, graceful, clean-lined pieces that encourage social interaction by accommodating multiple users. Several other topographical playspaces, including Hillside Park in Rancho Cordova, California by the Cordova Recreation and Park District; Roberts Playground in Dorchester, Massachusetts by CBA, the Rotary Play Garden in San Jose, California by PGAdesign, and Cambridgeport School in Cambridge, Massachusetts by the City of Cambridge, feature similar structural elements by Goric. More on these soon!
Van Campenvaart Playground, The Hague
Designed around the theme of a red blanket, with folds and ramps to welcome children of all abilities, the Van Campenvaart playground in The Hague, by Dutch studio, Carve, begins with a simple but profound premise, as described by Erik Schofield in Land 8, a landscape architecture blog. “The secret ingredient that one needs to design a playground for children both with and without disabilities is to eliminate the idea that you are catering to a specific group of children.” By integrating impact-attenuating rubber surfacing and timber pathways to offer access to the playground from virtually any surrounding location, Carve offers near endless possibilities for users of all abilities. Cleverly placed tactile elements— climbing grips, an embankment slide, a hammock— challenge children to take calculated risks, according to their abilities and interests.
Blaxland Riverside Park Playspace, Sydney, Australia
Recognized with Architizer’s A+ Award NY in 2013, Blaxland Riverside Park Playspace in Sydney, Australia, is a structural Leviation that looks like sheer fun. Commissioned to expand the recreational opportunities of a landform originally designed by Hargreaves and Associates, the 2012 update by JMD Design features a massive 200 meter-long berm defined by tilted, rubber-surfaced planes, tunnels, and a giant suspended climbing net. The result is an immersive playspace that challenges children to confront the unknown world lying just over the next hill or through the dim light of a crawlspace.
BUGA 05, Munich, Germany
Viewed from above, the BUGA 05 playground in Munich Germany by Rainer Schmidt Landschaftsarchitekten looks like a topographical map of an adventure game. The bare bones take on the playground eliminates play elements completely, using grass and tartan to form an undulating mazelike play surface of varied textures and levels for children to explore.
Woodland Discovery Playground, Memphis,Tennessee
Among magazine editors and architecture critics and jurists, James Corner Field Operations has developed a distinguished reputation with public projects, such as Manhattan’s High Line. But rather than resting on their pedigree, the firm sought the recommendations of children in the design of Woodland Discovery Playground at Shelby Farms Park in Memphis. One of the first three sites in the world to earn Sustainable Sites Certification, the $3.5 million landmark park and discovery playground is tucked into a temperate broadleaf forest, with an ivy-covered winding walkway curving past “nested” play zones populated by slides, swings, and treehouses. Play areas sit on spongy rubber recycled from shoes and boots and are accessible to children of all ages and abilities: a truly inclusive playground modeled by research on the benefits of nonlinear play.
Belleville Park, Paris, France
While much of the focus here has been the use of rubber surfacing, topography can be created with virtually any material. BASE Landscape Architecture’s tilting shipwreck of wooden beams, concrete formworks, ropes, and handgrips at Belleville Park, in Paris, France, is one of the most visually abstract, and yet intuitively “playable,” sculptural playgrounds we’ve encountered. Begun with a consultation process carried out by CODEJ (Committee for the development of recreation areas) in 2003, the design grew out of public workshops involving children and adults. If it takes a village to raise a child, the same can be said of crafting an extraordinary playground that invites all children to play, and develop.