Children in the Landscape: The Alternative Playgrounds of Denmark

Lindsay Chandler-Alexander (MArch I)

Project Overview

The aim of this research was to investigate the way in which children interact with their environment. To keep with the GSD’s current initiative to bring a social agenda to design, I was interested in the historical and contemporary counterparts to the ubiquitous synthetic playgrounds of today. The alternative playground movement is being met with resistance in the United States. The focus of this research is to understand the history behind this movement, its current state and the potential for bringing it to this country. The study entailed a hands-on analysis of two playgrounds in Copenhagen, Demark. While the city is home to 129 public playgrounds, I chose to focus on two; Skrammellegepladsen, the first adventure playground in the world, and Valbyparken the largest Nature Playground in Copenhagen. With the destruction of World War I as the backdrop, the Danish landscape architect Carl Theodor Sørensen developed the idea of the adventure playground and revolutionized the way children’s play was viewed. Over sixty years after the first adventure playground was opened it continues to flourish and to inspire, as the development of the nature playground attests. Together these two playground types represent the goal of reconnecting children to the outdoors, something desperately needed in our digital age. My intent was to compare and contrast these two types of play environments and gain insight into the way children function within given surroundings, and ultimately glean what we as designers might be able to contribute to combat the growing threat of preventable childhood conditions like obesity. My research and observation took place over one week in Denmark in the summer of 2011. The results are comprised of photographic documentation, drawing investigations and interviews.

Project Information

INTRODUCTION:

The case studies of Skrammellegepladsen and Valbyparken stand out amidst Copenhagen’s extensive playground network, for the crucial role they play in the alternative playground movement. They are representative of the first and the most recent examples of Landscape Architects taking an interest in the effect of environment on children. The undeniable success of both playground types validates the relevance of this area of design on the future of the discipline, while the reluctance of the United States to incorporate them highlights the unique and multidisciplinary design challenge and opportunity.

Our ability to learn and discover, and to develop our imagination and senses begins in childhood, building the foundation for becoming well-adjusted adults. Playgrounds are essential in this stage of development providing the environment in which children can develop these skills among their peers. Playgrounds represent the beginning of a child’s physical and mental well-being. Yet sadly, in our country almost 20% of children and adolescents are obese. The National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey found that between 1980 and 2008 the incidence of obesity in children between 6 and 11 years old increased from 6.5-19.6%. This is the specific age group targeted by most public playgrounds, and yet it is clear they are failing to peak the interest or the heart rates of children. This upsetting trend is coupled with the loss of the natural world from childhood. The digital age of computers, video games and television has replaced physical activity. Playing outside, in the street or in the woods and building 3dimensional things with their hands are seemingly a thing of the past. The purpose of this research trip was to directly engage with this discrepancy and examine first hand two essential examples in the discourse on children in the landscape.

The exploration of these two progressive yet different approaches aided in my overall objective, of understanding the way children interact with their environment. It was only through this experience that I was truly able to understand the concept, philosophy and implementation of the alternative playground, and to document how these specific playgrounds achieve their goals. As a designer, my specific interest is in whether or not design can impact, encourage or enhance the development process. Through this multidisciplinary research, I was able to bridge the social sciences, psychology, landscape architecture and design in order to address my question.

BACKGROUND:

In the wake of World War I, the Danish landscape architect Carl Theodor Sørensen was the first to envision what would come to be known as the adventure playground. The densification of the cities with new social housing resulted in the need to specifically design space for children’s play. Sørensen designed sensory environments believing children should have access to the essential landscape components of beaches, meadows and forests. After observing children playing in junkyards and construction sites Sørensen widened his criteria and proposed to incorporate his new findings into his design and create such spaces for children.

During the German occupation of the Second World War Sørensen designed and implemented the first adventure playground. Skrammellegeplasden provided an enclosed space in which children were challenged to manipulate their surroundings and create their own areas of play. The underlying principle was to bring urban children into direct contact with the elements of the landscape inherent in rural play, earth, wind, water, etc. The adventure playground stood in sharp contrast to the highly aesthetisized postwar playgrounds of the architect Aldo van Eyck in Amsterdam. While both van Eyck and Sørensen had the best intentions of providing children with a specialized space of play, it was Sørensen who designed with the inherent understanding of play rather than strictly on the basis of formal composition. Sørensen himself said, “Of all the things I have helped to realize, the junk playgrounds is the ugliest; yet for me it is the best and most beautiful of my works.”

Sørensen’s ability to see opportunity in the environment around him was echoed by the landscape architect Lady Allen of Hurtwood who visited the playground and brought the idea back with her to England. She proposed to build the adventure playgrounds on bombed sites throughout England. The fact that not only Skrammellegeplasden, but many of the playgrounds throughout England still exist today is a testament to the enduring impact of this type of design.

The development of the nature playground is the next great movement in alternative playground design. Following in the footsteps of the adventure playground the goals are similar but have a different implementation. Where the adventure playground sought to utilize what was around, the nature playground seeks to directly reconnect children to their natural environment. A prime example of this trend in Copenhagen is the nature playground at Valbyparken that only uses organic materials in its design and execution. Valbyparken was designed by Helle Nebelong, a contemporary Danish landscape architect and purveyor of the nature playground.

The underlying principles of the nature playground are the same as the adventure playground, to introduce children to certain possibilities, but to encourage them use their imaginations to bring the park to life. Valbyparken is Copenhagen’s largest park and was completely renovated from 1996-2004. It is 20,000m and from the outset, the original woodland and meadow outside the playground were considered it genius loci and were essential in the design. Instead of incorporating areas of prescribed play on prefabricated structures, Nebelong programmed Valbyparken with areas for wild flowers, carved tree trunks and willow huts. Nebelong’s desire is to improve children’s relationship to the landscape by having them work directly with it, rather than play on coated plastic and rubberized flooring.

When dealing with children the discussion of safety is integral, but it should not dictate the atmosphere of a playground. The current ubiquitous multi-colored standardized ‘risk-free’ playgrounds not only limit children’s contact with the natural world, but are harmful in other ways. As Nebelong says “Standardization is dangerous because play becomes simplified and the child does not have to worry about his movements. This does not prepare him for all the knobby and asymmetrical forms he is likely to be confronted with outside the playground and throughout life. The ability to concentrate on estimating distance, height and risk, for example, requires a lot of practice and is necessary for a person to be able to cope successfully with life.”

With the current focus of the media and academia on the rise of childhood obesity and attention deficit disorders it begs the question, what can be done to help? As designers we want to know what can we contribute to the design and implementation of play spaces that will actually benefit children’s development and well being. An investigation into these successful types of play environments is necessary to shed light on what our role as designers will be in the future.

EXPERIENCE:

My experiences were definitely different than expected. No matter how much planning goes into a trip like this there is a lot left up to chance, and other people’s schedules. Both of my experiences at Skrammell were exceptions to the daily routine. And although I went there excited by the “daily routine” I was still blown away with the environment I saw, even though it was not being used in a typical way.

I was lucky enough to have my first experience of Skrammell be their annual Sommerfest. I arrived on Friday night August 19that 6pm to a party in full swing. Every August they invite the families of all their members to the grounds to eat, socialize and spend time with their children in the place they love so much. They also sell candy and try to raise money for the program. It was an amazingly welcoming night and a great first impression of the grounds. They filled the large open field with picnic tables and the children preformed on “stage.” We were able to wander around the grounds and investigate the different areas of play. Though most of the children were focused on their families and the special festivities.

After experiencing Skrammell in the evening with all the children’s families I knew for research purposes I wanted to make a return trip to observe the children interacting with their self-constructed playground. Jannie was gracious enough to invite us back the following Tuesday. Although Jannie, like most Danes spoke English amazingly well, there was still a lot lost in translation. While I was interested in experiencing the “typical day” in the playground, she was excited about having me there for the “special days.” So after the Sommerfest the next visit was on “Store Day.” Having the picnic tables on site from Sommerfest the children always have one day where they bring in old toys, games, etc. from home to “sell” to each other. Each child brings in a small amount of money and is allowed to “shop” amongst their friends. They LOVE this day. They each got their with their bags and buckets full of toys and spent a long time setting up shop. Then they proceeded to spend the next 4 hours buying and selling things to one another. While it was not at all what I had come to see it was hysterical and unique to see this special day.

Although that was the main focus for the children that day, we were able to get a much better understanding of the grounds and through interviewing Jannie a better understanding of how the adventure playground program works. The facility is run by 9 Pedagogs, including Jannie who is the chairwoman. Pedagogs are a cross between teachers and social workers, and generally specialize in a particular age group. Unlike like any position I have seen in the United States. The grounds are approximately 5000 sq meters and host 150 children, ranging in ages from 6 to 14 years old. Just around the time kids get “too cool” and other social opportunities begin to present themselves. Depending on the age group the children can either be there starting at 1pm or 3pm and generally stay until 5pm when their parents come to pick them up. It is provided for the members of the community with in a zoning range and the fees are based on a sliding scale, though if you are not working it is free.

It’s very much like an after school or daycare program in the states in terms of function but wildly different in implementation. The first thing to note is that it is a play based learning environment, 100% self directed by the children. One of my first questions for Jannie was “can you please tell me about the daily schedule for the children.” She looked at me like I had 6 heads. I repeated my question using “daily routine” instead and still got no response. She said “the children arrive between one and 3 and play until their parents pick them up at 5.” There is absolutely no top down involvement from the Pedagogs, they are there as facilitators. That is not to say that there are not activities. The adventure playground is base on the idea of connecting children to nature through the hands-on building. Children as young as 6 are able to use hammers and partake in the building, though power tools are reserved for the older children under the supervision of the Woodshop Pedagog.

At the beginning of each spring season the children naturally divide themselves into teams and discuss, design and draw their envisioned play structures. Then with the help of the woodshop Pedagog and begin to build. This can take weeks. The remainder of the summer is spent playing in the structures they themselves built. As the fall approaches they are responsible for dismantling the play structures, removing every nail and re-sorting the wood for use the next season.

In addition to these temporal structures are the fixed houses that have been developed over the years. Groups of 3-4 kids get keys to a house at the beginning of the season and it immediately becomes their responsibility. They must tend the garden, fix anything that needs repairing and in general care for their property. It’s taken very seriously and you are not allowed to enter another’s home without being invited. If they have done a good job taking care of their “house” they are allowed to have it again the next season.

In terms of arguing or fights among the children, which of course there are, no true form of punishment exists at Skrammell. There is no “time-out” or privilege leveraging. The pedagogs just simply talk to the children. They give them space and time to calm down and relax. They even give them candy occasionally. There is a general understanding that children are on the same level and deserve the same respect as adults and are treated as such.

It was an amazing and truly envy-inducing experience to be there and see how lucky these children are to have this as part of their daily lives. Unstructured play is something that is rapidly be decreased in the United States. Time outdoors is limited as is, but unfortunately it’s often programmed and scheduled. To be allowed to roam free and invent your own fun, discover the world around you is a profoundly important part of childhood and one that the children of the US are loosing out on. In talking with Jannie it became clear that the key reason a playground like this can function is the fact that they live in a society with socialized medicine. If someone falls down or hurts themselves there is no fault placed on Skrammell. Liability is not an issue when everyone can go to the doctor for free. It would be incredibly difficult to imaging a place like Skrammell in the US with parents worrying and suing over every minor scrap or injury, and with the cost of medical care it really isn’t surprising. The irony is there are rarely any injuries, beyond the typical scraps and bruises, at Adventure Playgrounds. When you treat children with respect and teach them inherent responsibility injuries become less of a daily concern.

The idea of safety in the playground is something that comes up again when discussing Nature Playgrounds. Helle Nelbleoung is a big believer in the benefits of the natural world in children’s development. Synthetic Playgrounds do not challenge children, they become routine, children do not have to think for themselves if all the monkey bars are evenly spaced apart. Nature is not like that. It is irregular and unexpected. It is her mission to bring this quality back into children’s lives through Nature Playgrounds. The largest of these is in ValbyParken.

It was amazing to get to tour the project with Helle herself. She actually came and picked me up and drove me to the site herself. We then spent 2 hours together walking around the site and hearing her stories about the process and design intention. In a similar vein to what happened at Skrammell we ended up visiting Valby during a transition time of day when almost NO children were at the playground. It is heavily used by locals on the weekends and kindergartens during the week. Thinking we’d plan to be there while the kindergarteners were running wild, that day the class had cancelled their trip! It provided an excellent opportunity to get an uninterrupted experience of the grounds, but would have been wonderful to see it in action.

The project started with Helle wanting to engage student designers. Interestingly the architecture school said no but the school of design said yes. And she entered into a semester long project with the students to design a series of 6 towers to be implemented around a circular boardwalk forming a natural perimeter around the playground rather than having to fence it in. The boardwalk itself was made directly from felled elm trees on site and was designed to include handicap accessible ramps and turn arounds every 10 meters. Inclusion is another of Helle design missions. The boardwalk was also intentionally constructed just 60cm off the ground so a true safety railing would not be necessary. Though the boardwalk was utilized as a central organizing feature of the playground it was designed to be as unobtrusive as possible, leaving it up to the children’s imaginations to make it a moat, bridge, etc.

For the tower portion the students working with Helle set to research the history of towers and interviewed children in the playground. They developed 6 nature themes to design around; change, birds, green, wind, light and water. Though the Tower of Water was never built due to budgetary constraints the other 5 towers were situated around the circular path. Click through tower images. At the center of the circle are various other play areas, including a climbing structure, tunnels and canoes (dugout in a rough style). The ground also shifts from grass to sand in some areas. Hills were another important design imperative, providing climbing areas as well as hiding areas for the children. The main hill situated as a satellite to the boardwalk is accessible through a long wheelchair width ramp. Helle used stumps instead of railings to carve the path for the wheelchairs as well as typical children. At the top of the ramp is a beautiful view of the rest of the park as well as a view back to the entire children’s playground, including the wind and light towers.

The nature playground is aptly named, never really feeling much different from the surrounding woods. Each element was carefully considered and created as not only a fun place for children to play but a challenging place for children’s imaginations. The next best thing to being set free in the woods, the nature playground is a beautiful step in the right direction for playground design. It was refreshing to see that bright colors and synthetic materials are not necessary components for a successful playground experience.

Lindsay Chandler-Alexander

lindsay.chandleralexander@gmail.com

References:

Adventureplay: www.adventureplay.org.uk

Bengtsson, Arvid. 1972. Adventure Playgrounds.

Carl Theodor Sørensen. 1951. Junk Playgrounds. Danish Outlook.

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Childhoods: History, Space, and the Material Culture of Children: An International Reader.

Lady Allen of Hurtwood. 1968. Planning for Play.

Nebelong, Helle. May 2004. Nature’s Playground. Green Places.

Ogden, Cynthia and Margaret Carroll. Prevalence of Obesity Among Children and Adolescents: United States, Trends 1963-1965 Through 2007-2008. National Center for Health Statistics. http://www.cdc.gov/nchs/data/hestat/obesity_child_07_08/obesity_child_07_08.htm.

Palmer, James F. and Amanda Rae O’Connor. 2002. Skrammellegepladsen: Denmark’s First Adventure Play Area, Proceedings of the 2002 Northeastern Recreation Research Symposium.

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Wilkinson, Paul F. 1980. Innovations in Play Environments.