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Playgrounds and 儿童游乐

Spaces for play are not just limited to playgrounds and playgrounds are not just physical designs, but also places where we can perform and pretend. Even so, this is mostly about playground designs and its relationship to playful, creative learning in China. Seeing empty playgrounds and parks this month has left me nostlagic so let’s hope we can all go out mask-free and play soon…

Play Gone Wild

Classic film that portrays children being thrown into adult life and adults unable to enjoy the pleasures it can bring
In the film the children recklessly perform unskilled parkour 跑酷; as if the buildings are treated as an apparatus whose purpose cannot be mastered, only attacked, as one does when jumping on a new mattress.

When left to their own devices, most film makers and writers would have you believe that those pre-pubescent青春期前 little humans we call children are never far from descending into chaos and self-destruction自我毁灭. A narrative where only adult supervision can save them and provide the right authority. From books like Lord Of The Flies, with its obvious political allegories, to more tribalistic 部落的 scenes in the classic movie Killer Of Sheep. This absence of parental guidance usually aims to signify some kind of social and economic poverty ( See for example, the 波兰纪录片 Polish post-war ‘Black Series’ documentaries, in which war-torn streets provide the scene among debris-laden props for children to engage dangerously with).

But risky play and danger is just too much of a temptation for us. It’s carnal.肉欲的. And the best depictions of children running into their own danger are the ones that acknowledge that children are without prior function; using play as a tool to test or raise their potentials. For some young-uns, pure violence serves as an instant effective answer where opportunity and understanding boundaries lack (wars have often exploited 利用 this truism). This is irrespective of adult presence and sometimes even because of it. It’s not so much that adults are required to make them better, but that adults need to be better at helping them play.

Playing With Friendly Fire 玩火/友善之火

Object Substitution: Found (in) Art

The monkeys called the place their city, and pretended to despise the Jungle-People because they lived in the forest. And yet they never knew what the buildings were made for nor how to use them

The Jungle Book 丛林书 – Rudyard Kipling
above and below: children playing with left-over building material
Hunan Children playing with styrofoam and stick ‘weapons’ in an empty University

The psychologist Lev Vygotsky argued that imagination preceeds play and that a child’s social and cognitive development occurs along the point when they alter the everyday meaning or function of objects to make new functions or imaginary identities 对象 for example; “when a stick—i.e., an object—becomes …… a real horse”. This can be called object substitution. To me, this challenging of meaning and our ‘relationship to reality’ through objects and performance sounds a lot like the canonical history of modern art. A prime example being Fluxus art; which I can best define as by artists who used everyday objects for the purpose of new cultural experiences. Instead of making collage with ready-made pictures, they collaged together different cultures associated by their ready-made objects or performances. See documented examples below:

Allen Kaprow
Paik Nam June 백남준 and Charlotte Moorman

The degrees of separation 分离度 between high art, culture, audience, artist and everyday life are playfully challenged. If we jump ahead a bit and agree that play acts out different realities 现实 (through its rules and contexts) with their own different degrees of truth to how ‘real’ they are, then we might also agree that life is a system of performances and rules where different degrees of our other realities filter in.

Public Playgrounds

Playgrounds, on the other hand do as they are told, and my subtitle above is not meant to be smart or clever. This is what public playgrounds are, spaces or place makers where people can be physical and have fun (typically for children). It is no suprise then that designers and artists have been interested in making playgrounds, since this acts as an extension of exhibiting and performing the imagination for shared use. A kind of interactive public sculpture that promotes itself as democratically functioning. The playground is also an archive 档案 of play as they reflect different histories and concepts. The examples below show the overlapping contexts of public playgrounds in different settings; art gallery, parks and a school. Each shows varying considerations for material, form, theme, colours and ethical decisions. Whilst playgrounds may tell you to play, it is up to its creators and users to tell the playground what it can be.

原型Proto-type Playgrounds: Designing your own Public Playground

In my previous art training school in China I once planned a ‘Fluxus Art’ and Play month. This included making our own playground proto-types using paper and mixed media (a popular project for young students learning colour, form and craft). Taking inspiration 灵感from the kids and having never actually made one just for myself I decided to try it this week (see below)…

As a future skills project, perhaps students could make 3D printing and/or laser cut their illustrations and paper designs. Although my own effort here is quite weak I think; my paper craft/origami 折纸 skills have always been minimal (I do not enjoy folding with precision) and I gave too much focus on single perspective. I didn’t want it to be too literal and tried to show a use of organic or existing landscape, as if the playground just grew over the rocks and tree. But it was just for good naive fun and this is really the purpose of doing it. Because whilst freely playing with these abstract shapes I was unrestricted in thinking up other playground apparatus ideas. (Like the ones I sketched below: ‘Brexit Climb’, ‘The Economy See-Saw’ and ‘Corona Slide’)…

… or… Another idea, perhaps alternative education spaces 替代教育 (so not quite a place for play but work-in-disguise! But a good disguise) How about an English language adventure playground in China? Let’s say, vocabulary words are graffitied or engraved or which utilise robust Smart technology智能技术 into their apparatus. To describe the surroundings or to include word games. Perhaps the higher you climb the more difficult the grammar or riddles that coincide with age groups. Or maybe a hidden story that requires team work to decipher using apps. I began thinking more about new technologies for playgrounds and its great potentials (but also the slightly dystopian反乌托邦. Inevitably, I already found some existing examples of both)….

Playful Education The Good The Bad And The Not So Smart

The Teacher Tries To Solve Their Souls But Only Finds Control : How not to lay out a place of stimulation

AR topography sandbox

At the start of every game, the parent is prompted to keep ahold of the phone for the entirety of the play session while the child runs around the playground completing mini-games and tasks,” *

The dystopian Biba Smart Tech Playground

For classrooms to still be having Lecture style rooms with rows of benches bolted to the floor facing the blackboard or PPT, they must have a valid reason. They can no longer serve as the norm. For a creative learning or group based work classroom, the second picture offers a good use of accesible and modern technology which is engaging and utilises play. It was originally developed by Oliver Kreylos at the University of California and is a great open ended learning activity. Unlike the Biba Smart Tech*, which gives kids tasks and monitors their pulse and productivity levels… (No I am not a parent, but I think whoever takes their child to a playground in order to track their heart rate data needs locking up for abuse!). Leave the kids alone. It may well be enjoyable for some – and there is potential for such a device in activity training methods – but that is just it. An apparatus of capture, it appears to be a very corporate-like adult response to play and improvement, being targeted and statistical-based 统计. Gym culture has a lot to answer for. I hope learning environments avoid the latter, but it is sadly not unlikely.

Risky Play and A Return To The Wild: Or Learning The Hard Way

At The Land children climb trees, light fires and use hammers and nails in a play–space rooted in the belief that kids are empowered when they learn to manage risks on their own” –The Land Wales.

As though returning full circle like a roundabout full of screaming kids, we come back to the idea of children playing freely, relatively unsupervised and permitted to make and play in potential danger, just like their grandparents did! Only there is a difference. This feral野性的 from of learning to make and play allows for children who need less restrictions 限制条件 to really own their space. Rather than awkwardly trying to occupy left-over adult environments, they are invited to use second-hand materials and tools at their disposal. Essentially, it is a glorious, slightly safer dump yard. But importantly, it doesn’t require an obsession with dirt and technology and expensive designers or artists. There are various examples for different ages in the UK, Denmark, America… everywhere.

Collaboratively Creating

However, it’s often important to have a go-to for some direction. Some projects and organisations like play:groundNYC in New York run play-worker environments for building and destroying playgrounds with children. They create their own playgrounds as they play in them and work as they create. There is no prescriptive adult attack. Well, I remember when I took a playworker job in the summer once for the local Council in north england. We were to travel around these deprived areas and bring the play to the kids. Cheer em up on a low budget, keep them off the streets etc. However, on more than one occassion the kids rebelled as their older teenage siblings attacked the bouncy castle and the plastic cones; this resulting in local police intervention. Well who can blame them, in retrospect? It doesn’t excuse their behaviour, but sometimes we should learn that the illness can be the prescription.

Play As Both Pre-Rational And Rational: Adventure Play

So I would like to propose a future playground, where people of various ages, professions and abilities can build and create together, gain/share skills and can do so using a variety of tools and imagination. Where there is a pure form of play for play’s sake interspersed with planned project work and risky ideas. This is an open art studio and evolving exhibition that I wish to have in the future. A free to use makerspace comes close to this idea. But I would prefer more craft and self expression, in the framework of alternative art history and political intent. Reality and the ego.

Legendary cognitive psychologist Jean Piaget is translated for claiming; ‘play makes for the satisfaction of the ego rather than for its subordination to reality’. Play emphasises the boredoms of living and yet it can take on an altogether different characteristic according to how you live. One could go even further (and so I will) and claim that this gives an emblematic study of ideology思想; in which fantasy struggles to maintain its reality under pragmatic maturity (the broom can become the horse, or belong to the scary witch, or change you into Taylor Swift, or a knight… but eventually someone older and cranky will want you to use it to clean up the mess.

park in Hunan
Shanghai: ‘Go Fight In’

All The world’s A Play

Life is peppered with this constant flow of dualities, between resistance and submission, like two oceans interlocking. But didn’t Piaget realise that reality has its own ego and that play is actually closer to understanding the mechanisms of reality? And to break away from any story or function is to realise our own precarious identity. All the world is a stage that allows us to be many and one. Surely he read Shakespeare;
“History adds that before or after his death he found himself facing God and said:
I who have been so many men in vain, want to be one man, myself alone. From
out of a whirlwind the voice of God replied: I am not either. I dreamed the world
the way you dreamed your work, my Shakespeare, one of the forms of my dreams
was you, who, like me, are many and one.”

– Jorge Luis Borges. A Personal Anthology