Welcome to the third conversation in the Beyond the Car Seat interview series. LTD loves to go to the playground and one of his favorites is Bruce Park in Greenwich, CT. Unlike my days on the playground the little guy has access to cool designs and futuristic playthings, but he is still lukewarm on the swings. I spoke with Michael Laris, Concept and Design Creation Manager, KOMPAN A/S about what makes their playground equipment so awesome.
Is it as much fun to work at a playground company as I think it is?
That of course depends. There are times when it is like any business, full of politics and focus on earnings and such. But the root of what we do is sincerely meaningful and all of us working with product innovation do it because we feel we can make a positive difference. And, yes, that is fun. We are free to think about children and how they experience the world, to observe what they do, how they grow and communicate, and this is very joyful. We also work with many students, design interns, and this can be very fun — joking, creating crazy things, trying out new play — very fun.
But I would say it’s ‘serious fun’ because play is extremely important and not expendable in any way. So this is the fine line of our job, balancing the lightness of ‘fun’ with the seriousness of ‘life learning’.
How much has playground design changed over the years?
The first designated play areas came around the 1900s as safe places for children to be, as the streets had become so chaotic. They were filled with rows of metal swings, slides, and very ‘engineered’ climbers. Really just functional hardware.
Then there was a period in the ‘50-‘60s where artists, architects, and landscape architects got involved and designed play equipment that incorporated both aesthetic and child development values.
In the mid-‘70s a new wave came in called Post & Platform, where play systems were made from a series of decks, posts, barrier walls, roofs, and where many different activities such as slides and climbers could be attached. This type of system still dominates in much of the USA.
But in 1998, a new type of system, FreeForm Play, was developed (KOMPAN’s GALAXY products), which was a play sculpture made of many activities linked directly together – no floors or walls. It allowed free movement and choice for the user. There were many entry points rather than just a few and the play came right down to the ground so that both disabled and able-bodied children could play side by side. The FreeForm category of play equipment has now been copied and expanded upon by all major play equipment companies in the world.
The latest major development has been the integration of interactive gaming in the outdoor environment — I can say more about this later — but yes, there has been much change, but at the same time, many adults are nostalgic and still request a slide for the 8-year-olds. But these children want more and they have moved forward, as has the world around them, and we believe that if we want to provide meaningful experiences, we must also relate to the time in which we live.
Are there certain ‘must have’ things on a playground that people won’t let you leave out, slides for instance?
As just mentioned, many still do request slides and they are important, especially for the 2-4 year olds. The experience of letting go, the rush of sliding, the joy of being met at the bottom is a great achievement for a child. Sliding (and swinging and somersaulting and spinning) are sought out by children as these motions help to develop a strong sense of balance — so again, play is not just for fun, it is life and body learning.
There are other trends that go through the industry. At the moment many adults are requesting ‘nature’ in the play area even if it is fake nature — components that imitate natural elements but are made out of concrete or plastic. I believe this has to do with both a nostalgia for the past and a realization that adults have allowed children to stay inside, making it easier for the adults to keep children safe and supervise them. Thus, we have placed them in front of whichever screen works best to keep them occupied and out of trouble.
Then, there are the adults who seek something new, as they believe we must continue to inspire children if we want them to continue to move and play in the outdoor environment. This group is supportive of using technology to inspire and to respect the children as they are today.
Is it hard balancing the fun aspect of design with safety concerns?
Firstly, there is nothing more important than safety. Not that a child should never get hurt — they will, but we must do all we can to reduce major injuries. The strategy is to eliminate foreseeable hazards while still allowing a child to try and learn about how to manage risk without coming into danger. We don’t want to overprotect them — the play area is the best place to learn about what a child can manage and what they can’t and maybe they can next year — but at the same time, the play area is the one place where children are encouraged to try new challenges and the equipment and the site must be safe. Again, fun and life learning need to be balanced.
In the product development process, this is always a challenge, but a challenge is good. It pushes us to be even more creative. One of the reasons that KOMPAN GALAXY (mentioned above) was developed the way it was, was because the safety standards had become so limiting. Many of these safety rules were based on products with platforms. For example, if you have a platform you must have a barrier of a certain height and so on. We decided to eliminate the platforms and thus the barriers as well, and we created an entirely new category of play equipment — FreeForm Play.
Another layer to it is that there are several different safety standards around the world and we aim to fulfill them all as well as live up to some of our own standards which might not be described — many times when we innovate there are no clear guidelines that apply, so at these times we must use an assortment of guidelines, as well as our own 40 years of experience.
What do you think the future of playground design holds?
Well, this is sort of a trick question : ) We in the playground industry need to make things that are significant. There is an epidemic of obesity, an increase in isolationism, a decrease in body strength and speed, and a rise in ailments like Type 2 Diabetes and sense deprivation. We have let our children down. We have deprived them of good health, motion, social activity, and free play. Now and in the future, play is not just for fun. It is part of a cure to re-strengthen the next generation. So the future of playgrounds is to be more appealing than TV, more engaging than video games, and give more meaning than being alone with a computer.
This means we need to use relevant design, form, technology, materials, color, activities, and all this must be placed in an appropriate environment. Outdoor play needs to be available outside the boundaries of a single playground. Play must be available where we are. It must speak to us, engage us, and inspire us to move, to explore our abilities, to learn about ourselves and to meet others, to relate, to cooperate, to negotiate, and to have fun, and laugh, and smile. More of this in the future, please.