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Designs on Play

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Helle Nebelong

Helle Nebelong is a Danish landscape architect. Since 1994, she has worked for the city of Copenhagen covering project development, policy making and public consultation in relation to roads and parks, urban design and planning. Since 1990, she has run a private practice that specialises in the design of green spaces for young disabled people.

Further information is available at http://www.sansehaver.dk/. PLAYLINK would like to thank Helle for allowing us to use her inspirational key note speech and photographs.

Excerpts from Helle's Keynote Speech to Designs on Play

Thank you very much for inviting me here today to speak at this important conference. I am very delighted to be here.

I could speak for several hours about all the exiting spaces for children in Copenhagen and the philosophy and policies behind it.

Unfortunately the time available won't permit that, but I will show you lots of pictures of four public play areas, which are very different. I hope in this way to inspire you in your work with children, in whatever capacity.

The first one is Murergaarden which is a small playground in an integrated institution: nursery school, kindergarten and after school club in one. This little space is located in a rough residential area. In this case we had an excellent interaction between the leaders of the kindergartens in Copenhagen.

The second one called The Nature Playground in Valbyparken is a so-called "manned playground", that is supervised during the day by a qualified adult. This 20.000 m2 playground is located in Valbyparken which is the largest public park in Copenhagen.

At last I will mention two other spaces for children called The Garden of Senses and The Children's Millennium Garden. The Millennium Garden was designed by a school class. I have chosen these four very different spaces to show you that there are many different ways to design spaces for children.

I'm very enthusiastic about designing play areas for children. As I've grown up I've realised that children's world of imagination is far from the adults. They sometimes speak languages, we don't understand. We approach children with our grownup ideas, and even though one hopes to incorporate the desires of the children, one is sometimes left to wonder if it isn't subsequently the adults own presumptions on what the children want, that is used in building play areas.

The public playground is an important framework for children's experiences. It is the stage, where they rehearse different roles and find their own identities through meeting others. The playground's scenery and properties can therefore have a big influence on the quality of the playtime.

Today there are in total 129 public playgrounds in the City of Copenhagen. In addition there are all the school and institution play areas.

During the last few years many playgrounds have been renovated. There has been a change in style in the formation of these playgrounds. There is more emphasis on nature and less pre-fabrication.

When we renovate public playgrounds and ask the local residents what they want for their play area the answer today is equipment from nature. I think this is a reaction to decades of use of standardised and unimaginative playground equipment. When using materials from nature, themes are introduced, but it is the children, with their own imagination, who give colour to their play and bring things to life.

It is not just a trend. Studies shows us again and again, what we have thought for a long time, that children are healthier when they go outside and play in natural surroundings. It sharpens their concentration, it is a necessary development in the maturing process in preparation for school, where they must be able to sit still and listen and learn. Their muscular development is strengthened and the children are ill less often and more socially developed.

The public playgrounds are used a lot and the need is enormous. This is shown by the wear and tear, which is so massive that any one playground can only function for between 5 and 10 years, before it needs to be renovated. On the positive side, this gives the possibility to try out new ideas and ensure that the playgrounds do not become static and uniform. But the quality of the playgrounds can only be assured with political backing.

The pre-fabricated playground tries to live 100% up to safety standards. These standards developed, based on horror stories of real, tragic accidents. Although these are guidelines and as such are useful, when combined with common sense, they have, in my opinion, been allowed to go too far. The child's real need for play and development is set aside with good intentions.

I am convinced that standardised playgrounds are dangerous, just in another way: When the distance between all the rungs in a climbing net or a ladder is exactly the same, the child has no need to concentrate on where he puts his feet. Standardisation is dangerous because play becomes simplified and the child does not have to worry about his movements.

This lesson cannot be carried over to all the knobbly and asymmetrical forms, with which one is confronted throughout life. The ability to concentrate on f. ex. estimating distance, height and risk, requires a lot of practice and is necessary for a person to be able to cope successfully with life. The focus on safety is essential but must not lead one to forget to care about design and atmosphere and make one buy the boring play equipment because it is easy and secure.

Genius loci

When designing play spaces for children there are one thing apart from economics, which is essential and that is genius loci, the spirit of the place, in other words the qualities and the atmosphere already present. This can be a part of a building, a tree with character, something that happened at the place, an old sculpture or something else. Genius loci is an important starting point and can be the approach to decide the design of a new space.

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Helle Nebelong

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