The Fine Art of Play
The UN has enshrined the importance of play for children in its Declaration of Human Rights, and science shows how vital it is to their physical and mental development. But as cash for playgrounds in the UK is cut, privately commissioned projects, often created by artists, are coming to the fore. But can the worlds of art and play come together with integrity?
Words Rebecca Swirsky
Amid the glitz of London’s Frieze Art Fair, a four-year-old studies an oversized dice scored with black holes, from which children are intermittently appearing. ‘Normally you’d roll a dice,’ he tells his mother. ‘How am I going to roll this?’ Nearby, a toddler is tugging on a toy octopus’s tentacles, the creature’s hazel glass eyes uncannily human, while two six-year-olds are rocking a giant mushroom with realistic funghi veins and patination. I’m in Gartenkinder (2014), a children’s playspace designed by Carsten Höller, the Belgian conceptual artist whose major show – Decision – has just opened at the Hayward in London. Gartenkinder’s title is translated literally as ‘garden for children’ and this installation for the Gagosian Gallery’s stand attracts a steady stream of well-dressed children and accompanying adults, some of whom are clearly hoping to play themselves.
Fast forward five months and I’m lying down, staring through a square of Plexiglass built into an Escheresque soft-play space named The Idol (2015), in London’s economically deprived borough of Barking. Straddling contemporary art sculpture and functional space, The Idol is the jewel in the crown of the £14m Abbey Sport Centre and is predicted, in its first 10 years, to engage more than 700,000 local young children and families.
Designed by Turner Prize-nominated artist Marvin Gaye Chetwynd, acclaimed for her anarchic, playful group performances, the soft-play space has departed from generic primary colours, instead reworked with black-and-white, sci-fi overtones, taking its title from the mythology of an effigy discovered in Dagenham believed to date from around 2250 BC. Raisa, a 10-year-old girl, tells me: ‘The see-through bit makes you feel like you’re going to fall. But the slide is the best, it gives you an adrenalin rush.’ I ask her about the design. ‘Some of the pictures up the wall are cool, but a bit scary and odd,’ she replies.
Franky, seven, agrees. ‘I like the slide when it goes bumpy because it makes me feel weird.’ He adds: ‘I like feeling weird.’ Chetwynd was commissioned by the charity Create, whose interest lies in infiltrating artists and designers into social projects in different ways. ‘It had to be functional, stimulating and interesting to adults, but also cut the mustard as a critically acclaimed artwork and contemporary sculpture,’ Chetwynd tells me. I ask what would she like the children to feel as they use it. ‘I’d like them to feel pride that it’s in their area, like civic pride.’
‘The presence of play in art emerges periodically,’ says Ralph Rugoff, director at London’s Hayward Gallery, where Höller has a survey show this summer. ‘It goes in cycles, and this definitely seems like a moment.’ In 2009, the art commissioner Artangel hosted the one-day conference called There’s an Artist in the Playground that examined play’s connection to adult concerns, which included, in the words of the marketing material: ‘responsibility, risk, fun, recovery, politics, inclusion, conflict, environment, belonging, being’.
Notable British artists concerned with play include Gary Webb, whose Squeaky Clean (2012) is a permanent playground and interactive public sculpture in Greenwich’s Charlton Park, and Turner Prize-winning artist Jeremy Deller, who presented Sacrilege in 2012, a life-size, inflatable, bouncy-castle replica of Stonehenge. Artist Katarzyna Zimna published Time to Play: Action and Interaction in Contemporary Art in 2014, a book that links 20th- and 21st-century art with studies of play, games and leisure, and the theories of Kant, Gadamer and Derrida. Last year’s Glasgow International Festival saw Play Summit, a threeday event curated by artist Nils Norman and Assemble, an 18-strong collective working across the fields of art, architecture and design. The remit was to explore the state of play in Scotland and beyond, and the event was attended by Chetwynd, who cited it as inspiration for tendering for the Dagenham soft-play commission.
Enshrined under Article 31 in the UN’s Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the importance of play is deadly serious, although not always valued. In Britain, as funding has dropped for play provision, the science has surged ahead, showing that quality play stimulates essential brain ‘plasticity’ and is an essential pathway to cognitive, developmental and physical growth. Where play doesn’t occur, brain cells rigidify, in a process referred to as ‘synapse elimination’, with chronically play-deprived children experiencing mental problems, restrictions in brain growth and depression. The leading theorist on children’s play, Bob Hughes, goes one step further, connecting it with the survival skills of our hunter-gatherer ancestors.
One of the main reasons for play deprivation, and a clear casualty of modernity, is the drastic reduction of ‘roaming’ – the extent to which children’s play and travel is negotiated autonomously of adults. It has been reduced by fears of traffic, children engaging in risky activity and ‘stranger danger’. Into this vacuum, adventure playgrounds, more than any other play spaces, are the unsung heroes, compensating for children’s restriction. Completely free to access, they provide a range of activities, including opportunities for physical risk, and offer an authentic space to experiment and self-learn.
The first was created in Copenhagen in 1943 by landscape architect Carl Theodor Sørensen, and was known as a skrammellegepladsen, meaning ‘junk playground’. In England at the time, children were playing on bombsites, building dens and re-playing war, and inadvertently dying because of collapsing walls and unexploded devices. When the English landscape architect and philanthropist Lady Allen of Hurtwood saw the skrammellegepladsen in 1946 during a lecture tour, she realised Britain needed dedicated play spaces. The first UK junk playground (later called adventure playgrounds) opened in 1948 in Camberwell, south London, on the site of a bombed church.
Today, with British councils decreasing funding both for playgrounds and art initiatives, ‘utilitarian’ arts projects such as Chetwynd’s The Idol might offer a new hybrid way forward.
But can the art world and the play world integrate with integrity? ‘The problem is that artists can possibly do damage if they don’t understand about the science of play,’ says Jess Milne, who for 11 years managed Hackney Play Association’s Play Training Unit, and who is also a qualified art teacher. ‘And I mean that in the sense of creating things for art and for themselves, rather than for children to look at, and work with and see through and generally participate in.’
Fergus P. Hughes defined play in 1982 as ‘freely chosen, personally directed, and intrinsically motivated’. Yet despite all the scientific advancements made in understanding what play does and how it affects the brain, many adults still find it hard not to take control. ‘It’s very difficult to remove the adult and the adult’s ego,’ says Milne. ‘It’s the same for everyone – parents, playworkers, artists.’
Yet art and play share the same goals, according to Gemma Mudu, co-director of social design enterprise Made From Scratch, which builds play spaces to children’s designs.
‘Artists and children are each absorbed in a line of enquiry, questioning the role of existence,’ says Mudu. ‘Both are getting to grips with the nature of being and expressing it through different ways. We see great potential for cross-fertilisation with artists aware of play sensibilities.’ Lizzy Longtale, her co-director, agrees: ‘In many ways adventure playgrounds should be seen as ongoing art installations.’
Set up in 2011, Made From Scratch has already built eight different playgrounds and one adventure playground, with seven further builds in the pipeline. Their budgets are small – the average cost for a playground is between £30,000 and £70,000, with smaller playgrounds costing £15,000. ‘We invite kids to take inspiration from landscapes, art galleries, paintings, sculptures and immersive spaces so that they’re not just thinking about the conventional format of play structures,’ says Longtale. ‘A special project is Made from Scratch’s work on Iraq’s first adventure playground in the Kurdish town of Halabja.
‘Initially we had to deal with the community representative who dreamed of a neat, sterile, Disney fairground,’ explains Longtale. ‘Explaining loose parts theory – the need for an infinite variety of materials for children to play with, such as sand, timber, pipes, tubes and fabrics – was challenging. He kept saying, “When are you going to take all this rubbish away?”‘ The playground is in its final stages of completion before handover to the community, when it will support play for up to 80 children. Ironically, Made From Scratch had to travel to Iraq to work on an adventure playground. Longtale says: ‘There is no funding here anymore for new community adventure playgrounds, so we work on playgrounds in schools. But we always try and link the children up with local adventure playgrounds that already exist.’
Assemble, the co-curator of Glasgow International’s Play Summit, has created the Baltic Street Adventure Playground in Dalmarnock, an impoverished area of Glasgow. Delivered in collaboration with Create, the project has helped bag the collective a nomination for this year’s Turner Prize. Hadrian Garrard, director of Create, remains on the playground’s board of directors. ‘This wasn’t about making a pretty artwork,’ he tells me. ‘Assemble was interested in getting the right set of conditions for a community space. The Turner Prize nomination picks up on the opportunities for artists and designers to move into territory managed in the past by government authorities.’
Architect and Assemble member Amica Dall explains what attracted the group to this territory. ‘We’ve always been very aware of the limits of what you can do with design, and of how much design is asked to do that isn’t necessarily in the realm of design with a capital ‘D’. I would argue for a more expanded notion of design. For example, systems have to be designed, organisations have to be designed, arguments have to be designed. These things add up to make situations and environments that are not just physical. In many design situations, all the critical decisions have already been made by the time the architect gets involved. Doing self-initiated work is a way to be part of more stages of the process.
‘The adventure playground is the epitome of that approach because while we are creating an environment where physical things need to happen, there has also been the human aspect, the organisational aspect, the financial aspect, the legal aspect, the political aspect. All of those ducks have to be put in line to create this environment. I think that’s common to a lot of our work: creating the conditions of possibility and being responsible.’
Assemble’s interest in play has also led it to collaborate with artist Simon Terrill on The Brutalist Playground, at London’s RIBA this summer which recreates in foam the concrete playgrounds designed for post-war housing blocks.
Ralph Rugoff has commissioned many artists to create site-specific environments at the Hayward Gallery. I ask him whether it would be good for such artists to create municipal spaces in the public realm. ‘People in the design world can be a bit abstract, while artists are very attuned to the way we experience things. So there is a role,’ he concludes. ‘Although,’ he adds wryly, ‘it might work best with those who play well in teams.’
Mudu is also optimistic about the potential of artists, as long as they prioritise play. ‘It’s such a balance. If it’s about art coming into the community, the priority is the art. But if the primary focus is to have a quality play space, then the priority is the play.’ With health and safety fears rising and funding being cut, play deprivation is likely to become more endemic in the UK. Perhaps, if play was rebranded to seem to be the serious issue it is – ‘self-learning’ – those who hold the purse strings might give it greater importance. ‘Most people think play is a leisure activity,’ Mudu continues. ‘For adults it’s about extreme sensation and about getting some form of pleasure. For kids it’s a necessity.’
This article was published in Blueprint